Cubs mid-season top SP prospects: A list with more questions than answers

Cubs mid-season top SP prospects: A list with more questions than answers
Dillon Maples

This list is much more speculative than the position player prospect list.  The guys that I expected to be the top 4 prospects have all been hard to read...and all for different reasons.  Trey McNutt has been relatively healthy but terribly inconsistent with his command again.  Robert Whitenack is on the mend from surgery, but he's still a wildcard.  He did pitch 5 shutout innings in his last start, however.  Dillon Maples hasn't pitched any organized ball all season because of a vague injury.  And then there's Ben Wells, who I felt was on the verge of the biggest breakthrough because of an uptick in his velocity this spring.  Wells had to have TJ surgery and is out for the year.

You also have talented pitchers with disappointing season thus far such as Dallas Beeler and Dae-Eun Rhee

Then you have the recent draft class. Pierce Johnson nor Paul Blackburn are under contract but have yet to pitch.  Duane Underwood has not signed and Josh Conway is still recovering from TJ surgery.

The Cubs also have a number of pitchers without the front line starter pedigree that have performed well this season

This is an unconventional top 10 list (Actually 20 when we include the candidates in the "other" list), and I found it futile to rank them right now.   We'll wait until we see more and then perhaps I'll set a 1-10 order.  As always I'll take my own observations plus professional scouting info and statistics into consideration, though the caveat with lower level prospects (especially draft picks) is that numbers are far less predictive than at the upper levels.

Healthy Pitchers I Like

Guys who have actually pitched all year.  Unfortunately, there are no sure things on this list.  On the bright side, there is time for any of the pitchers listed here to emerge.  I'm intrigued by a lot of pitchers, but I haven't seen all of them personally, so I chose to write a report on these 3 because each stood out to me during my own observations.

1. Trey McNutt, 22, RHP, AA

Almost a default pick because McNutt's raw stuff is just better than anyone else's who has pitched all year.  The numbers, though, leave a lot to be desired.  McNutt has a 4.11 ERA but his 5.48 FIP suggests that might be overstating how he's pitched this year.  His strikeouts are down for the 4th straight year (5.37/9IP) while his walks are at it's highest rate since rookie ball (3.95). He can hit the mid to upper 90s but overthrows and is inconsistent with his delivery and command when he does so.  I think McNutt pitches better in the low 90s because he shows better movement on his fastball and better command.  His power curve could be a second plus offering and his change is a work in progress.  Command is the key and unless he improves that I no longer see McNutt as a potential #2.  I think he's a #3 with the potential to be a power closer.  I'm giving him a mulligan.  But this is the last one.  He has to show more.

2. Jose Rosario, 21, RHP, low A

A well-respected talent evaluator once gave me a piece of advice when scouting pitchers.  He told me to not just look at their stuff, but also look at how hitters are reacting to their stuff.  I went to see Rosario pitch for the Chiefs when they played in Kane County and I didn't sit in my usual seats behind home plate (though I did spend some time there).  But sitting by the dugout down the 3rd base line, I got an excellent view of the swings the Cougars were taking on Jose Rosario's breaking pitch, which I presumed to be his slider -- and they looked awful.  Imagine Alfonso Soriano in one of his worst slumps, then imagine that an entire lineup looked like that for an entire game.  Rosario throws anywhere from 90-94 but has touched 97 mph on more than one occasion, so he's not just fooling guys with his breaking stuff.  He also shows solid control for a young pitcher, having walked less than 3 batters per 9 innings in each of the last two seasons.  This year he has increased his strikeout total to a  tick over 8 per 9 IP.  And there's still room for development, though he's smallish and will have to develop at least one more solid pitch to remain a starter, preferably a consistent change-up to keep lefties honest. Rosario is 6-6 with a 4.25 ERA (3.42 FIP) on the season. though he has pitched particularly well of late, going 3-1 with a 2.36 in June.

3. Brooks Raley, 24, LHP, AAA

Raley would have been a 2nd round pick or so had teams considered him signable in the 2009 draft, receiving the 2nd highest bonus ($750,000) that year after Brett Jackson.  I'm giving him the edge over a guy like Rusin because of his athleticism and also because to me he repeats his delivery better. Additionally, I think his slider has a chance to be a solid out pitch and his slight uptick in strikeouts (7.4 at the AAA level, though it's a small sample size) is encouraging in that regard.  His stuff, particularly his breaking pitch, is a bit better than that of either Rusin or Jokisch, in my opinion, though none of these guys will overwhelm MLB hitters.  They're all, to some degree, mix and match, hit your spots type pitchers.   Raley  pitches at about 88-91 with some sinking action, though he can reach 93 with his 4 seamer if he needs to.  He throws a good slider and has a solid change.  He  has always had good control (2.2 walks/9 IP).  In some ways, he resembles current Cubs lefty Travis Wood because he has the tremendous athleticism to develop the good command that will help his average stuff play up more.  His upside is that of a #4 starter.  Raley is 4-2 with a 4.14 ERA at AAA (3.68 FIP).

The Cubs have a lot of pitchers with MLB potential and the competition is close enough to where any one of them could step up and set themselves apart.  You could make a case for any of the pitchers below being in the top 3 above.  It's a mix right now of disappointing seasons or just a case of being at the lower levels with more still left to prove.

  • Dae-Eun Rhee, RHP, 23, AA: plus change with, solid curve but has lost velocity on FB this year
  • Dallas Beeler, RHP,23, AA: low 90s 2-seam FB, great change up- both w/sink, hard CB.
  • Chris Rusin, LHP, 25, AAA: good change, excellent pitchability
  • Austin Kirk, LHP, 22, A+: very good curve, solid command, average FB, change, 3.05 FIP
  • Eric Jokisch, LHP, 23, AA: similar to Rusin, throws good circle change, good pitchability, command
  • PJ Francescon, RHP, 23, A+: good sinking low 90s FB, peaks mid 90s, change has helped him become SP. 3.38 FIP
  • Michael Jensen, RHP 21, A: 90-94 mph with good curve, solid command, 3.39 FIP
  • Jose Arias, RHP, 21, short-season: low 90s fastball, can reach 95, secondary stuff needs work.
  • Frank Del Valle, LHP, 21, A+: Cut in the same mold as other lefties, average stuff, needs to hit spots
  • Kyler Burke, LHP, 24, A+: 88-92 FB, curve, change, excellent delivery/athlete, chance for plus command

Guys with injury concerns

1. Dillon Maples, 20, RHP, Rookie-level A ball

Like everybody else on this list, he's a big unknown.  He's similar to McNutt in that he throws in the low to mid 90s (touches 96 mph) and a hard curve.   Also similarly he struggles with his command.  Like many high school arms, his change-up is underdeveloped simply because he never needed to use it.  Maples could move up or down depending on how he performs...or whether or not he even pitches this season.  He's still on the DL, though he has been assigned to the AZ Rookie League Cubs roster.

2.  Robert Whitenack, 23, RHP, high A

There have been reports that Whitenack has thrown well in Arizona but then struggled when he first joined Daytona.  In his last outing for the D-Cubs, however, Whitenack seemed to find his command, pitching 5 shutout innings, giving up just 3 hits and walking none while striking out 3.  I expect a year of working his way back where we'll see some outings with great command, others with his old velocity and stuff, but probably not a whole lot of clicking on all cylinders.  When healthy, Whitenack pitches in the low to  mid 90s  that plays up well because he throws it with a sharp, downward plane with his 6'5" frame.  He also works with a slider and a change.  Command was a big strength last year and he'll have to regain that.  Whitenack is more of a #3 starter.

3. Ben Wells, 20, RHP, low A

Wells was a raw pitcher and a sleeper who was a fast riser in the 2010 draft.  On talent alone, he would have been selected in the first 2-3 rounds.  He throws a heavy low 90s two-seamer that reached 94 by the end of the season, a slider that shows plus potential, and a solid change.  He has very good command for a pitcher of his age and experience, keeping the ball low in the zone and producing a nearly 4-1 ratio of ground balls to fly balls.  This spring he was tinkering with a 4 seamer that gave him even more velocity, up to 97 mph from some reports I had.  I think he has the highest upside of any pitcher on this list.  He was flashing some of that potential early this year as a 19 year old in low A with 2.20 FIP, lowest among Cubs starting prospects.  Unfortunately, an elbow injury and subsequent TJ surgery ended his season prematurely.

4. Josh Conway, 21, RHP, has not pitched

Conway would have been a top 50 pick had he been healthy.  Like Wells, his season ended early with an elbow injury and TJ surgery.  Before he went down, Conway was throwing mid 90s with a filthy slider.  Both are plus MLB pitches.  The downside is the injury, of course, and a small build that could see him wind up in the pen, especially if he doesn't develop some sort of change-up.  He also has a slight, Greg Maddux-like build at 6', 175 lbs., but he's a very different kind of pitcher, obviously.

Healthy guys who have yet to pitch this year

1. Pierce Johnson, 21, RHP: Has not pitched

A college product with #2 starter potential may be at the top of the Cubs overall pitching prospect list right now even though he has yet to throw a pitch.  Johnson works with a 91-93 mph fastball that can reach the mid 90s.  He throws a hard curve which is his best offering and one he uses as an out pitch.  He also has a change up that looks like it can become an average offering fairly quickly.  He has the potential for 3, maybe 4 average or better pitches  if he develops his slider/cutter.  He also projects to have above average control and command.

2. Duane Underwood, 17 RHP: unsigned

Underwood may have the best pure arm on this list.  His mid 90s fastball comes with a more efficient delivery than Maples and with less effort than McNutt.  The trouble with Underwood is that he is not able to sustain it throughout a game or from start to start.  Underwood also has an inconsistent curve, though it has the potential to be a plus pitch.  He has a better feel right now for his change-up, which he throws in the low 80s, giving him big differential from his fastball.  Underwood needs a lot of coaching up, he's boom or bust, but the upside is a power pitcher with 3 above average pitches.

3. Paul Blackburn, 18, RHP: Has not pitched

Blackburn is more polished than Underwood or even Maples, but his stuff is a tick below.  He's 89-91 mph on his fastball but he's lean and the Cubs think he can throw harder once he fills out.  That's not to say he'll be a classic power pitcher.  He has a slower, but effective curve and a good feel for a change, which should become an average pitch.  Blackburn has the potential to be more of a #3 guy on the strength of his curve, command, control, and overall feel for pitching.  He won't be overpowering but his fastball should eventually be in the 92-93 range, which is plenty good enough considering his other qualities.

 

Filed under: Pitching, prospects

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  • Ugh, that's a pretty bleak picture. I guess it's a good thing we don't need to put together a great starting rotation any time soon.

    My hunch is that McNutt is still coming back from injuries. We know about his blister problems; didn't he also have an arm issue a year or two ago?

    Lots of guys on this list who have talent but also have the "if he's healthy" caveat attached. But if it's a numbers game, then at least we've got a large number of talented guys. Chances are that most of them will wash out but we just need a few on this list to make it. We'll be able to add pitching talent through trades and with draft picks. And if we still haven't found a future ace by the end of 2014, then we can afford to buy one on the free agent market. The starting rotation looks destined to be the last puzzle piece for this rebuilding project.

  • In reply to Taft:

    That sums it up really well and it's a reason the Cubs are targeting pitching in any possible trade returns. You hope Samardzija and Wood are mainstays, perhaps Garza if he isn't traded. They just need a guy or two to break through.

  • In reply to Taft:

    "Ugh, that's a pretty bleak picture."

    Don't worry. We have Rodrigo Lopez ready to become Savior, Part 2.

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    What's a normal relationship between ERA and FIP? If everything's going as it should, how close should they be to each other?

  • In reply to Kevin Heckman:

    A lower FIP than the ERA means your pitcher is pitching better than his standard numbers (wins, ERA) would indicate. It means he's doing well with the numbers he can control to some degree (walks, Ks, HR rate) so FIP measures what his ERA would be with an average defense behind him. If all is going according to plan with an average defense and the pitcher isn't getting lucky, they should be the same.

    A pitcher with a higher FIP than ERA is probably putting a lot of people on (via walks) and a lot of balls in play, so he's dependent on his defense. If you're a great GB pitcher, this is less of an issue.

  • Pretty good rational for keeping Graza unless high end pitching is received in return.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    True...

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    John, what about Hayden Simpson? Do you think there's any hope left for him?

  • In reply to João Lucas:

    There's always hope, but a mid 80s fastball is discouraging and makes him an extreme longshot. You try not to focus too much on velocity, but when it's that low everything else, command, breaking stuff, etc. has to be almost perfect. No margin for error.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    john is it possible that they might give him a year/half year off to just hit the weight room and work on his body. i mean mid 80s is bad for an undrafted guy, let alone a first round pick. i think he needs to get his body right and then his arm strength has a chance to return giving him more confidence, because without confidence your nothing.

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    Hmmm. I guess this might be where the Cubs invest money into FA's in the next few years, until they start to develop some guys. If some of the offensive guys reach their potential, there will be plenty of money to throw at pitchers.

  • In reply to brober34:

    Could be. Trading for young SPs such as Travis Wood and some prospects is another option. You hope Maples and a couple of guys from this draft pan out.

  • This is the reason I don't see them having much improvement next year. This is also why they need to trade Garza for pitching prospects. Trading him could speed up the time table but I know everyone love Garza. The truth of the matter is Garza isnt a true #1 and that is the only way I would not trade him is if he was a #1. On a contending team he is most likely a #3 but a very good #3. He could fetch 3 to 4 good prospects or just 2 to 3 really good ones. I would be looking for quality over quanity. My point is the Cubs are still about 3 years away from truely contending.

  • In reply to WickitCub:

    The caveat is that the deal has to be there for Garza. That wasn't the case this offseason and is not necessarily the case right now.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Here is the thing I think they would have traded Garza to the Tigers if they would have give up their 3B Prospect and Turner. quality over quanity. My point is that the Cubs are losing with or without Garza and if they have anothet losing season next Garza may say I am not signing and opt for Free Agency. I also think if he was willing to do a Club friendly contract it would have been done already. If they wait for the offseason pitchers like Greinke and Hamels will be on the market which will hurt his trade value and may make him up his resign value. These are all things need to be taken into account with Garza.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Thing is... if we re-signed Garza and Wood keeps it up you have three guys right there with Shark.

    If one measly current prospect pans out to be a #5 (c'mon Volstad... you can do it) and you pick up one big name FA (so Garza can be a #2, not a #1), all of a sudden you got a rotation.

  • Thanks for the info John. Not real encouraging, but very enlighting.

    Random Thoughts:
    1) I am encouraged by the pitching from Travis Wood as of late.
    2) Still have reservations on Shark being a starter or closer. He needs to stay focused more from start to start and inning to inning along with maintaining stamina if he is gonna be a starter.
    3) Would love to see a rotation in the next few years with two lefties in it.

  • In reply to Moonlight:

    Agree on all points, but would much rather see Shark stay a starter. Had busy offseason and as season goes on, it's beginning to wear on him a bit, maybe a dead arm phase but hopefully he bounces back.

    Will do RP prospects where the Cubs have a few closing candidates, so I'm less concerned with finding a closer than I am a potential frontline starter.

  • In reply to Moonlight:

    I'm not too worried about Samardzijas stamina this year. Very few pitchers can go from bullpen to 200 innings of starting in one season. Hes a great athlete and his stamina will build with time. Next year I doubt we'll see the wearing down were seeing now, the kid just works too hard for that to happen.

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    Good analysis John, even if it is depressing. Hopefully a few of these guys are going to turn into mid rotation starters at the very least. All you really need is one or two of them to do so.

  • In reply to Michael Caldwell:

    Thanks. The thing to remember is that they'll go in all different directions. Most won't make it, a few will go to the bullpen, maybe one or two sticks long term, and you hope you get a starter or two as well. Baseball is a tough business. In the grand scheme of things, there isn't much difference between some of the pitchers, it's the guys who adjust and develop better command that will set them apart.

  • Oh, Wells. How the mighty have fallen. Randy DFAd.

  • Mighty? Maybe his ability to pound Jack and Coke's, certainly not his fastball.

    I doubt Wells passes through waivers. He is owed a decent chunk of change and we are all familiar with his struggles, but with enough teams looking for SP help, someone's bound to take a shot. Could he be the preverbial "throw in" in a larger deal in the next 10 days?

  • In reply to Ratmoss:

    Some people liked Wells a lot, especially numbers guys who are more enthralled with WAR then stuff and mental makeup...both categories in which Wells seems to come up short. The WAR was encouraging, but should we be surprised that his pedestrian stuff and alleged lack of work ethic came back to bite him in the end? That just isn't a good combo. It's why the best talent evaluators take all factors into account. It's all a piece of the puzzle.

    That said, maybe somebody will take a chance on him based on those old numbers and hopes he can recapture that. Maybe he's learned to keep himself in better shape. And maybe it's not too late for him.

  • I see that Jeff Baker is starting in right field and hitting 5th today. I am utterly convinced at this point that Baker has incriminating nude photos of at least one and probably several top executives in the Cubs heirarchy.

  • I think he has Neifi's old locker. Might have found something hidden behind some false panneling...

  • A showcase, perhaps?

  • I think the Cubs would like to trade Baker. He's gone anyway after the season.

  • Haha :) At least Rizzo and Valbuena are still in there, I guess.

  • I predict that Baker will get the game winning hit today. Karma!

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    John, why no love for Matt Loosen?

  • In reply to Michael Caldwell:

    Loosen and Struck were guys I had on the periphery. Also considered Starling Peralta because he can hit 95 and has excellent size. I think if Loosen was LH or doing it in AA, I might give him the benefit of the doubt, but mix and match righties in A ball are long shots in the big leagues. He's ahead of A ball hitters right now in terms of knowing how to pitch and set hitters up. I'm not convinced it will last. I'd like to see him make it, but I need to see more.

  • I am not trying to be negative, but Is it safe to say the Cubs have the worse pitching in the minors? Seems pretty bad to me.. Maybe we beat the White Sox terrible system? I hope to god we get some decent arms in the trades we will make this summer. At least we have good position player prospects!

  • In reply to JR Cubbies:

    I don't know if it's the worst. The Sox have no pitching (or hitting for that matter) for one, but I'd say the Cubs are definitely near the bottom when it comes to pitching prospects barring some great second half performances.

    I guess it evens out with the position players and the Cubs are somewhere near the middle when it comes to prospects overall.

  • Sabathia just hit the DL. Dempster and Garza keep becoming more valuable.

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    True, but the Brewers are shopping Grienke.

  • In reply to Michael Caldwell:

    I'm surprised the Brewers are thinking about becoming sellers so early. I still expect them to reach the postseason.

  • Pettitte's now out for at least 6 weeks. Too bad the Cubs put Dempster on the DL with that phony injury.

  • I have to agree with my fellow bloggers that with a few exceptions, our minor league pitchers seem to be lacking in quality major league talent. I hope that Theo tells Boras that he has set aside the maximum amount slotted for Almora as per the new rules and out of necessity, the rest will be going to all those still unsigned draft choices, especially the pitchers. If Boras will not accept the money assigned at the end of the signing period in July, let's use as much as we can to sign the pitchers on the last day and recapture a 1st round pick for Almora next year. Pitchers, like positional players, are like a box of chocolates, ya just never know what ya gonna get. Tim Lincecum, as so many other good pitchers drafted by the Cubs over the years, was drafted at the end of the draft one year (around 45th round?), but went unsigned. I think that Andy Cashner was drafted twice by the Cubs before signing as a first rounder. I think Albert Puhols was drafted around the 15th round by the Cardinals.

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    Whoa, I didn't know Ben Wells had TJ surgery? When did this occur??

  • In reply to Chris Trengove:

    Came out a couple of weeks ago early in the start.

  • John

    Thanks for the summary! As an avid reader of your minor league recaps, I was expecting the bleak report about the state of our minor league SPs.

    That said, I'm more inclined than ever to NOT trade Dempster or Garza. Instead, sign them to extensions (3 yrs for Dempster; 4 for Garza). Why?

    1) The odds of trading for prospects who grow to be valuable are very poor. I recall you wrote an article last spring about the results of trading established pitchers (Halladay, Lee, Garza, Sabathia, Lilly, ...) for prospects and concluded that those deals rarely work out (Actually, it's worse now that Drabek went down with his second TJ - the Halladay deal looks to be a complete bust!)

    2) Your analysis of our minor league SPs paints a very bleak picture. One could easily conclude that NO ONE is capable of replacing Dempster or Garza for the foreseeable future.

    3) I can't imaging any useful FA SP signing with the Cubs when we rack up a 120 loss season.

    Thus, given that we're unlikely to replace Dempster and Garza with anyone even close to their ability, I believe we should hold onto them.

    Thanks and have a good one...

  • It sucks that the farm system doesn't have a lot of Grade A pitching prospects at the moment, but remember you can always trade your surplus hitting prospects for young pitchers/pitching prospects. That's how TB got M. Garza from Minn. They traded an overrated D. Young + prospects for M. Garza + prospects. I think the Cubs system is stocked with good young hitting prospects so I don't think we're in such dire straits.

  • Paul blackburn is very over rated he will be the let down of the year.Theres lots of kids that should have been picked ahead of him especialy college kids thats the draft for you big realy big upset.

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