Now comes the last installment of the position-by-position top prospects lists and it is perhaps the most important..or at least the position that is on the mind of most Cubs fans. It's time to look at the starting pitchers. We've seen what a good rotation can do as the San Francisco Giants rode a mostly home spun rotation to their 2nd World Series title in 3 years. The Cubs are a long way from building that, but they do have some interesting arms, particularly at the lower levels.
The top 5 players, plus conversion candidate Alberto Cabrera can all reach at least 96 mph with a solid secondary pitch. They all have concerns, however, whether it's durability, delivery, command, the need for a 3rd pitch, or some combination of all that. The raw arm strength and athleticism however, is exciting and something we haven't seen here on the north side in quite some time.
New Minor League Pitching Coordinator Derek Johnson has been brought in to get some of these lower level arms to develop command, much as he did with pitchers David Price and Sonny Gray at Vanderbilt, but he also is here to help pitchers like Arodys Vizcaino, Pierce Johnson, and Dillon Maples stay healthy. He certainly has some challenging, but potentially rewarding projects to work on.
Here's the final installment in the position by position series and I apologize in advance for it's obnoxious length...
1. Arodys Vizcaino, 21, 6'0", 190 lbs., RHP
- Likely 2013 club: Iowa (AAA)
- ETA: Late 2013
Before his TJ surgery, Vizcaino showed the stuff and command you want from a front line starter. He has a 94-96 mph fastball that can hit the high 90s, a plus curve, and a solid change. He commands all of them well for a young starter and has shown solid control in the minors, posting a rate of 2.3 walks/9 IP for his career. He can also miss bats, striking out 9.3 batters per 9 innings. Vizcaino has struggled to stay healthy and that, combined with his slight build have some thinking that he's destined for the bullpen, where he'd be closer material. The Cubs would rather he stay a starter, of course, where he has the stuff of a front line guy, but may slide in at #3 because he may not be the kind of workhorse you like at the top of your rotation.
2. Juan Paniagua, 22, 6'1, 175 lbs., RHP
- Likely 2013 club: Daytona (Adv. A)
- ETA: 2014
Paniagua will turn 23 in April, so he needs to move quickly. He only pitched 10.1 innings in his debut with the Cubs but he showed plenty of arm strength, including a fastball that touched 97 and a nasty slider which will give him a 2nd out pitch. The change-up is a work in progress but he reportedly had a good one back in the Dominican Republic. His delivery is clean and effortless, generating what scouts like to call "easy heat". It should also help him repeat his delivery easily, which bodes well for his command. Like Vizcaino, he's not the biggest guy out there on the mound and his late start could mean he starts out in the bullpen, but Paniagua has the arm, repertoire, and command to be a top of the rotation starter.
3. Pierce Johnson, 21, 6'3", 175 lbs, RHP
- Likely 2013 club: Daytona (A)
- ETA: 2015
Johnson is another of the Cubs new strong young arms and he should be advanced enough to start in Daytona. He pitched well in his debut, showing the abilty to miss bats. Another pitcher coming off an injury, Johnson has some delivery concerns but can throw the ball up to 96 mph,though he sits more at 92-94. He also has a plus breaking ball and a change up that is still developing. Many thought Johnson could have been a first round pick had it not been for the injury concerns -- and even then there were some who thought he should have gone in the first round anyway. The Cubs were obviously thrilled to get him with their supplemental pick. He projects as high as a #2 starter, though most think he's more likely to be a #3.
4. Dillon Maples, 20, 6'2", 220 lbs., RHP
- Likely 2013 team: Kane County (A)
- ETA: 2016
This is where the arms start to get a bit more raw, but the upside/ceiling is still right up there. Maples proved to be very tough to hit with his 93-97 mph FB and a sharp curveball, but he also had a hard time finding the strike zone, walking 10, hitting 3, and throwing 6 wild pitches in 10.1 innings of work. Maples also struck out 12 and gave up just 6 hits. Maples has a bit of an odd delivery and it's possible that it leads to some of his command issues and some think it could contribute to arm troubles long term. As it was, Maples got off to a late start because of an arm injury. The old regime didn't express concern, but the feeling here is that the new one will tweak his delivery a bit.
5. Duane Underwood, 18, 6'2", 205 lbs., RHP
- Likely 2013 club: Boise (Short Season A)
- ETA: 2017
Underwood may have the most raw ability on this list but also has the furthest to go. If you like high ceiling/high risk guys, Underwood is your man. He throws with a fastball that has reportedly touched 98, though he more often throws 92-94 right now. He also has a curveball which sometimes looks like a plus pitch but at other times it flattens out. He'll need to find consistency there as well as is with his velocity. Underwood is a hard-working kid who is very coachable, so if the Cubs are right about his raw ability, he could develop into something special.
Conversion Candidate: Alberto Cabrera, 24, 6'4", 210 lbs, RHP
- Likely 2013 club: Iowa (AAA)
- ETA: 2013
Cabrera's stuff is as good as any of the top 5 pitchers on this list, starting with a mid 90s fastball that peaks at 97, a good slider, and a better change up than you would expect from a relief pitcher. His command was excellent at the AA level, though he struggled with it in the majors. He'll return to Iowa to get stretched out.
4 more to watch to make it an even 10 (including Cabrera)
Paul Blackburn, 18, 6'2", 185 lbs., RHP
- Likely 2013 club: Boise (Short Season A) or Kane County (A)
- ETA: 2016
Blackburn was the second of two supplemental picks and is polished for his age. His raw stuff isn't as good as the pitchers above him on this list, but he is very projectable with the potential to have at least 3 solid average pitches with good command. That would profile him as a #3 starter if he reaches his ceiling. I'm interested to see where Blackburn starts. My first inclination was to say Boise, but he may be advanced enough to start at Kane County.
Ben Wells, 20, 6'3", 220., RHP
- Likely 2013 club: Kane County (A)
- ETA: 2015
Wells probably would have made the top 5 had he not gotten hurt. He was up into the mid to high 90s last spring, a big jump from the prior season. He also throws a good slider and a decent change with surprising command for a pitcher who was as raw when he was drafted. He throw a "heavy ball" meaning that it has good velocity and late sink, making it difficult to hit the ball in the air with authority. Early in the season, Wells walked off the mound with pain in his elbow. He didn't require surgery but he missed a big portion of the season. I saw him late last year at Peoria and his velocity was 88-91, so the key for him is rebuilding arm strength. He's a big kid with a potential to be a workhorse.
Starling Peralta, 22, 6'4", 180 lbs.
- Likely 2013 club: Daytona (Adv. A)
- ETA: 2015
Peralta was one of those DSL pitchers I kept filed in the back of my mind. He had the size, velocity and lots of projection left. He still has room to fill out but he started flashing his potential this past season. He made some waves when he struck out 14 batters in a game and I saw him 3 times and he was better with each outing. In his last appearance, he reached 96 and maintained it for 5,6 innings before tiring. He also has a good, but inconsistent slider. His control/command wavered but he did improve as the year went on. Developing a 3rd pitch and better command of the strike zone will be the keys for Peralta's hopes to remain a starter.
Nick Struck, 23, 5'11, 185 lbs.
- Likely 2013 club: Iowa (AAA)
- ETA: 2013
Struck deserves a mention because he was the Cubs top minor league pitcher last year and he is as likely to make it to the bigs as a starter as anyone on this list. He's only slightly older than A ball pitchers Paniagua and Peralta and he will be at AAA. He's polished, has a full assortment of pitches, has good command (though he hasn't shown it this fall), and an aggressive approach on the mound that serves him well. He is not afraid of contact. His ceiling isn't as high as any of the pitchers ahead of him, but he has enough to make him a candidate for the rotation as early as mid-season. He's a Rule 5 candidate if the Cubs don't put him on the 40 man roster. I think, given the dearth of pitching depth at the upper levels, they'll protect him.
Others (in no particular order):
RHP Dae-Eun Rhee was once one of the Cubs top SP prospects and the team is holding out hope that he can still reach his potential. His velocity has been down a bit this past season and in the fall league, as he throws more 88-91 these days. He has good secondary stuff, especially his change. RHP Tayler Scott is an athletic pitcher who played a lot of soccer early on in his native South Africa. He has a fresh arm with a projectable body that can generate low 90s heat right now as well as the makings of a plus curveball. Right now Scott doesn't miss a lot of bats and he's more of a back of the rotation type, but could be more as he matures and learns the nuances of pitching, though he shows an advanced feel for someone at his level of experience. RHP Carlos Martinez-Pumarino has good size and a solid fastball but is inconsistent with his secondaries. He blew away the competition in AZ but at 21, that should be expected from a pitcher of his physical maturity. The real test comes this year when he likely starts at Kane County. LHP Gerardo Concepcion was the first big splash international signing by the new front office but disappointed with his velocity and command, then missed the rest of the season with mono. When I went to see the last week of instructs, Concepcion still wasn't pitching in live games. He'll try to regain his strength and be ready for the spring. One pitcher who impressed in my time in AZ was RHP Jose Arias. He's an intimidating presence on the mound and was overpowering the competition at instructs with a mid 90s fastball and an improved curve and change. He looks the part, but Arias needs to be consistent with those secondaries. If he doesn't, then his destination is the bullpen. RHP Jose Rosario doesn't have the physical presence that Arias does but his stuff may be nastier. He fanned 11 batters in one game that I attended, much of it with a slider that had hitters lunging helplessly. He showed good control all season. He's slightly built and there is some concern whether he'll have the durability needed for the rotation and those concerns resurfaced when he missed the second half of the season with an arm injury. Given that and his lack of a 3rd pitch, I see him more as a reliever right now, but there's time. RHP Kyle Hendricks was the secondary piece in the Ryan Dempster deal and he's more about exceptional command and pitchability then pure raw stuff. Profiles more as a back of the rotation type. RHP Marcelo Carreno, the payment for Jeff Baker, is another pitcher who controls the strike zone (starting to see a pattern in the new front office acquisitions?). He throws in the low 90s and has a curveball that gets mixed reviews. If you think it's a plus pitch, then maybe his ceiling is as a 3rd starter. If you think it's average at best, you're looking at a 5th starter/bullpen type. One name that often gets lost out there is RHP Michael Jensen. He's not a big pitcher but he can generate low 90s heat and one of the best 12-6 curveballs in the organization. He has solid command and enough swing and miss potential to make him interesting. RHP PJ Francescon converted from the bullpen and was an immediate success at Peoria. He keeps the ball down and generates ground ball outs with a two-seamer that sits in the low 90s, though he can hit higher than that if needed. The Cubs held back his innings after his promotion to Daytona, but they could be ready to see if he can handle a heavier burden, possibly at AA Tennessee. RHP Dallas Beeler came into the season as a possible breakout prospect but didn't miss a whole lot of bats in his first full season in AA. Beeler works with a heavy 2 seamer and a hard curve, though his biggest strength may be his ability to throw strikes low in the zone. He was the only AA pitcher at instructs last year, presumably to work on something new, though he was already gone by the time I got there. LHP Brooks Raley is my favorite of the Cubs assortment of finesse lefties. He has excellent athleticism which gives him a chance to repeat his delivery well and throw strikes with 4 pitches, a must considering his stuff is just average. LHP Chris Rusin is similar stuff-wise to Raley and is a bit more polished right now. He'll battle Raley for a spot on the big league staff this spring. A third LHP, Eric Jokisch continues to surprise by playing up an 87-88 mph fastball with an excellent circle change, perhaps the best in the organization, and good control. RHP Robert Whitenack was on the brink of becoming a top Cubs pitching prospect before blowing out his elbow last year. His return from TJ surgery was slow as he lacked the command and velo he had before the injury. When right, he can touch the mid 90s and has solid secondaries (slider, change) with excellent command. RHP Zach Cates is an athletic pitcher who really regressed last season. Injuries played a role and Cates didn't show the velocity expected when he was acquired as the secondary piece in the Anthony Rizzo deal. Converted OF'er LHP Kyler Burke is a big bodied pitcher with a fresh arm and good control. He works with an 89-92 mph fastball out of an easy delivery. He also throws a big breaking curve and a change. His best bet is as a reliever. LHP Austin Kirk throws in the low 90s with a good curve and when he commands them, he can be tough to hit as he has shown in spurts throughout his young career. That command deserted him upon his promotion to AA, where Kirk's 3.09 ERA is deceptive in terms of his actual performance. Of all the Cubs finesse lefties, he has the potential for the best breaking pitch, and that gives him a chance, but he has to throw with better. more consistent command and miss more bats to succeed as he moves up. RHP Matt Loosen has average stuff across the board (low 90s FB, slider, curve, change) and showed flashes of brilliance mixing that up in Daytona. He needs to locate well to succeed but he has the ability to be a back end starter if he does. RHP Ryan McNeil is a raw, big-bodied pitcher who showed some swing and miss stuff in a brief but impressive debut at rookie level AZ. He can throw in the low 90s now but that may improve as he matures physically. RHP Hayden Simpson showed some improvement with his FB (up to 90-91 at times) and had some encouraging outings, but he was very inconsistent with both his stuff and command. This season is very likely a make or break one for him. As for DSL pitchers, they're hard to evaluate because of lack of information. You can get statistics but that and a couple of dollars might buy you a cup of coffee. Still, there were some intriguing numbers, led by Carlos Rodriguez who put up a 2.01 ERA, struck out over a batter per inning, and showed good control -- all as a 17 year old who doesn't turn 18 until July. He is smallish for now (5'11", 178 lbs.), but there is obviously plenty of time to grow and fill out. RHP Daury Torrez, 19, has good size and walked just 4 batters in 74.2 innings while posting a 1.21 ERA. Chris Pieters, 18, is a highly projectable LHP whom the Cubs signed for a $350K bonus out of Curacao. He had all kinds of control problems in his debut, but the raw ability is there.
Filed under: prospects