A while back we talked about the Cubs upper level pitching prospects. The theme there was that there were a lot of arms but few projected as more than back end starters, or maybe mid-rotation guys at best. The lower levels aren't a whole lot different, but there are some very intriguing pitchers with good stuff -- though they all have some work to do, as you might expect. It's going to be 3-4 years before we see these guys at Wrigley, so a lot can change from now until then. They could take a great leap forward or perhaps fall off prospect lists altogether. Here are a half dozen arms I'll be keeping an eye on this year along with their age and the level at which they're expected to play...
1. Dillon Maples, 19, RHP, low class A (Peoria)
Maples was projected as a first rounder by the Cubs and many others but slipped to the 14th round because of what was thought to be an almost unbreakable commitment to play both baseball and football at the University of North Carolina. Well, the Cubs broke it, but it took them $2.5M to do it. Time will tell if it's money worth spent but what scouts see right now is a pitcher with the potential to have two well-above average pitches: a fastball that can touch 96 mph and a sharp breaking curveball. There are some questions about his mechanics and his delivery, but Maples is a good athlete and the Cubs think he can smooth that out quickly. He projects as a #2 starter in the big leagues and is considered by many to be the Cubs top pitching prospect after Trey McNutt. The Cubs will likely start Maples in full-season ball and he has the repertoire and makeup to handle that jump.
2. Ben Wells, 19, RHP, low class A (Peoria)
I'm higher on Wells than a lot of other prospect writers. He's a big, strong kid at 6'3", 220 lbs. and is actually younger than the just drafted Maples. Wells really has just one plus pitch right now, but it's a dominant two seamer that produced a 63% GB rate last season. There's nothing dazzling about a good, heavy sinking fastball but it can be extremely effective. It's a pitch he was able to throw over and over again and, when it was right, hitters couldn't do much with it even though they knew it was coming. Wells' slider also shows plus potential, although it's not consistent enough yet. He also needs to develop a change-up or a splitter to make him more effective against lefty hitters. His control is already very good and if he can develop a change of pace and improve his slider, his most likely outcome is that he becomes a classic sinker/slider type innings eater that can fit nicely in the #3 spot. The fact that he's still so young and has a lot of room to improve, however, makes me hesitate before limiting him to any ceiling right now.
3. Zach Cates, 22, RHP, high class A (Daytona)
The arm that came to the Cubs along with Anthony Rizzo, Cates is a converted catcher who is still a bit raw despite being quite a bit older than the pitchers ahead of him on his list. He held his own last year at low class A Fort Wayne but didn't exactly dominate. He has the stuff to do so, however. Cates can throw 92-94 mph with the potential to throw a bit harder if he can smooth out his delivery. He also shows a pretty good change-up. The key for him is to improve his curveball. If he can do that, he'll remain a starter with the potential to be a mid-rotation guy. If not, he may end up as a reliever. He's new to pitching and doesn't have as much time on his side as the first two prospects on this list.
4. Jose Rosario, 21, RHP, low class A (Peoria)
Rosario is my favorite sleeper SP prospect at the lower levels. He's not that big at 6'1, 170 lbs., but he has good arm action and generates great velocity, peaking at about 97 mph while sitting at 93-94 mph. He greatly improved his control last year putting up a respectable 2.54 BB rate. He also had an excellent FIP of 2.78 last year and good results overall at 6-3, 3.53 ERA. If he develops a curveball as his second pitch, he could improve on his 7.1 strikeout rate and start to move quickly -- perhaps jumping to Daytona by midseason and AA to start 2013.
5. Austin Kirk, 21, LHP, high class A (Daytona)
Kirk is the lone lefty on this list and his raw stuff is a cut below the others. He works with a high 80s fastball that tops out at about 92 mph, a curveball, and a change. He has good control and is able to hit his spots well and when he was on, especially in the first half, he completely dominated hitters -- even throwing a no-hitter at one point. It seemed hitters caught up with Kirk by the end of the year and he really struggled in the second half. There's a lot of mixed opinion, some see him as a middle reliever while others, such as Fangraphs, see him as a potential #3 starter.
6. Yao-Lin Wang, 20, RHP, low class A (Peoria)
Another pitcher who draws a lot of mixed reviews. The scouts who like him talk about a mid 90s fastball and a plus curveball, two pitches which helped him rack up a 10.34 strikeout rate at short-season Boise. He also showed good control with just a 2.69 walk rate. The scouts that don't like him aren't enamored with his body-type (6'0, 180 lbs) who clocks a few ticks lower than that with with no movement. That would profile as a back of the rotation guy at best. One scout mentioned that while while Wang is closer to a low 90s fastball (peaks at 93-94 mph), he has improved his change-up quite a bit since signing, and that has helped him put up some of those good numbers in Boise. That would give him three solid pitches and make him more viable as a long term starter. Whatever the case, we'll find out a lot more about Wang in 2012 as he starts his first year of full-season baseball.