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.