Cubs Prospects: The Relief Pitchers

Cubs Prospects: The Relief Pitchers
Tony Zych

As with first baseman, you don't often draft relief pitchers high in the draft. Traditionally, MLB relievers have been starters early in their careers and then had to switch the bullpen later, whether it be because of durability issues, not enough command, and/or the inability to develop a consistent 3rd pitch.  That is still the case, particularly with the 2nd pitcher on this list.  The game, however, has become more specialized and we are seeing more and more pitchers start their bullpen careers earlier and that is certainly the case with a few prospects on this list.  Still, you aren't going to see a lot of top relief prospects at the lower levels of the minors.

The Cubs graduated one top prospect in Rafael Dolis, while another, Alberto Cabrera, will return to AAA Iowa as a starter.

Additionally, the Cubs have hired a new minor league pitching coordinator in Derek Johnson, who was a respected assistant coach/pitching coach at Vanderbilt University.  So it appears that the Cubs pitching prospects, including the ones on this list, will get some new instruction this spring.  Said his manager Tim Corbin,

"He's had as much impact on our program as anyone. I think what D.J. has done with these kids is far-reaching. He's kept them healthy, he's made each one of them better. You look at the kids, the pitchers specifically, that have come out of our program, being able to pitch at the next level—it goes without saying . . . We would not have our success without having him on our staff."

Keeping them healthy.  That is the key phrase.  Theo Epstein has said that perhaps the next market inefficiency will be the ability to keep your pitchers healthy and you have to think that's the quality that really stood out with Johnson.

1. Tony Zych, 22, 6'3", 190 lbs., RHP

  • Likely 2013 club: Iowa (AAA)
  • ETA: 2013

Zych has moved up to the top of this list on the strength of a 94-97 mph fastball that has peaked at 99 as well as unusually good command for a power pitcher.  Zych walked just 1.7 batters per 9 IP last season at Class A Daytona, leading to an outstanding 1.97 FIP that was significantly lower than his solid 3.19 ERA.  The walk rate did increase to 4.4/9 IP at AA Tennessee but Zych was still solid overall, increasing his strikeout rate to 10.2/9 IP and posting a 3.28 FIP.  His command appears to have returned in the Arizona Fall League, where he has not walked a batter in 7 innings while giving up just one earned run.

Zych not only fits the part of late inning reliever as far as his power arm and command go, but he also has a bit of a nasty streak, attacking the strike zone and challenging hitters.  As his FIP suggests, Zych doesn't often beat himself out on the mound, which will be a welcome site for Cubs fans who have had to sweat through the likes of Kevin Gregg and Carlos Marmol.  He has also allayed concerns about his delivery, which some thought would put strain on his shoulder, but it hasn't been a problem so far.  The Cubs, in fact, felt it was something of a strength as it added deception to an already overpowering fastball.  If Zych has a weakness, it's the consistency with his slider, though he has used it to get outs more often in the fall league.  If he can continue to improve that pitch, Zych has everything you want in a closer.

2. Trey McNutt, 23, 6'4", 220 lbs., RHP

  • Likely 2013 club: Iowa (AAA)
  • ETA: 2013

While Zych has been a reliever since college, McNutt had been a starter until the 2nd half last season and fits the criteria of starting pitchers who convert to the bullpen.  McNutt has two plus power pitchers in a fastball that ranges from 93-98 and a power curve that can resemble a slider because of it's quick, hard break.  The problem with McNutt has been the inability to stay healthy, developing consistent command and a change-up which is still fringy by MLB standards.  As far as the command goes, the athleticism is there, so it's a bit of a surprise that McNutt doesn't repeat his delivery better than he does. He's just 23, however, and it's too early to give up on a guy with this kind of stuff, build, and athleticism.  If things can finally click for McNutt, he'll move quickly and if he can command his pitches better, his stuff is closer quality.  It'll be interesting to see how he does with one full season as a reliever.  I also wouldn't rule out him returning to the starting rotation, similar to Alberto Cabrera, down the road when and if he figures things out.

3. Josh Conway, 21,  6'1", 175 lbs., RHP

  • Likely 2013 club:  Boise (short-season A)
  • ETA:  2015 (as a reliever)

Conway was a candidate to go in the first 50 picks in last year's draft before blowing out his elbow and undergoing TJ surgery.  Before the injury, Conway consistently pitched in the mid 90s with a plus slider that qualified as a second plus pitch.  It's still possible the Cubs will try Conway as a starter but given his build and injury history, many think he's best suited for the bullpen.  After sitting out this  season, the expectation is that Conway will begin the year in extended spring training and try to work his way onto Boise or perhaps Kane County by the end of the season.  If he stays healthy, he should move quickly if he is developed as a reliever.

4. Jeff Beliveau, 25, 6'1", 195, LHP

  • Likely 2013 club: Chicago
  • ETA: 2012/2013

Beliveau spent some time with the Cubs but didn't spend 45 days on the team while it was on it's 25 man roster limit, so he technically qualifies for this list.  Beliveau uses a deceptive delivery to play up a fastball that ranges from 89-93 mph.  When he's right, he can blow that average fastball right by hitters.  In addition to the heater, he throws a slider and occasionally cuts his fastball.  He'll also mix in a change-up to RH hitters.  The stuff isn't overpowering but it has been good enough to strike out 11.6 batters per 9 innings in the minors and nearly a strikeout per inning in his brief stint in the majors.  The key for the lefty is command and that's what he struggled with in Chicago (6.11 walks/9 IP) and, to a lesser extent, Iowa (3.68 walks/9 IP).  Beliveau isn't likely to be a closer but could be a 7th inning guy or perhaps the lefty portion of a set up tandem.

 5. Carlos Gutierrez, 26, 6'3", 225 lbs., RHP

  • Likely 2013 club: Iowa (AAA)
  • ETA: 2013

The Cubs picked Gutierrez off of waivers when the Twins gave up on him following 3 mediocre seasons in AAA and an injury for which he is currently rehabbing.  If you look strictly at ERA, then it's not hard to see why the Twins gave up on him.  Gutierrez has put up a 4.62 and 5.06 ERA in the last two seasons but a deeper look reveals an unusually low strand rate (less than 60% the last two years).  An optimist can also point to a 3.12 FIP over his AAA career with 9.1 strikeouts over 9 IP.  As for the stuff, it's there too.  Gutierrez can throw 93-96 mph with an occasionally good slider, though he struggled with that pitch in his last full season (2011).  The hope is that a healthier season and some fresh eyes working with him in Chris Bosio and perhaps Derek Johnson, that Gutierrez can fulfill the potential the Twins thought he had when they made him a first round pick in 2008.

Potential Conversion Candidate:  While nobody wants to see it, Arodys Vizcaino is a possibility.  He has the requisite good command and 3 pitch assortment to start, but a slight build and a history of elbow injuries may eventually give the Cubs no choice.  For right now, as with any top pitching prospect, you hope he stays a starter.


RHP Kevin Rhoderick is trying to erase a horrific 2nd half at AA Tennessee with a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League.  So far he's made a good impression despite a 4.70 ERA.   Rhoderick has struck out 12 batters while walking just 2 in 7.2 IP.  Batters have hit .222.  Rhoderick isn't very big and doesn't throw as hard as he once did (90-91 mph these days) but his slider is a plus-plus out pitch.  If he can pitch with good control, he has a shot.  Frank Batista got excellent results this season at AA Tennessee (24 SVs, 2.22 ERA) but average stuff along with a pedestrian 6.66/3.59 strikeout to walk ratio and a 4.40 FIP leave a lot of room for doubt as to whether those results can translate at the the big league level. RHP Marcus Hatley is on the other end of the spectrum.  He has the build (6'5", 190), athleticism (former OF), and stuff (mid 90s fastball, hammer curve) you want from a late inning reliever.  While he was solid at AA with a 3.40 ERA and 9.20 Ks/9 IP, his results were frightening at Iowa (8.20 ERA).  The good news, though is that Hatley put up a 2.81 FIP there while striking out 10.57 batters per 9 innings.  Similarly, LHP Zac Rosscup struggled with his control and put up a 4.84 ERA at AA Tennessee, but his FIP was a more respectable 3.87 and he struck out 12.9 batters/9 IP across 3 levels.  Rosscup was to pitch in the fall league but was scratched when he had a recurrence of the arm troubles that have plagued him throughout his career. RHP  Jaye Chapman impressed the Cubs during his September stint, flashing an excellent change up and striking out a batter per inning en route to a 3.75 ERA, though even that was inflated by one terrible outing. RHP  Jake Brigham, acquired in the Geovany Soto, pitched poorly then got hurt at the end of the season.  The Cubs are trying him as a starter for now, but his power stuff may fit best in the bullpen.  LHP Hunter Cervenka was an inspired pick-up from the Boston Red Sox, showing a 94 mph fastball with sink and tail.  Cervenka was nearly unhittable in Peoria but ran into some old control problems after his promotion to Daytona.  RHP Larry Suarez is enormous (6'4", 250 lbs) and throws a 96 mph fastball.  He seemed to find a niche as a closer after his demotion to Peoria, but continues to struggle against advanced hitters. RHP  Austin Reed has solid stuff, including a 94 mph fastball and a solid breaking ball and change, but the results aren't where he wants them to be yet (3.65 ERA, 49 Ks in 61.2 IP). RHP  Yao-Lin Wang spent most of the year as a reliever, where he got off to a great start, but finished the year as a starter.  Wang plays up a low 90s fastball with a very good change up.  His strikeout ratios throughout his minor league career have been very good (9.6 Ks/9 IP)/. The Cubs picked several good arms in the draft, including RHP Trey Lang, who is 91-96 with his fastball with a nasty slider and RHP Mike Hamman, whom BA's Jim Callis picked out as a sleeper in an interview we had with him earlier in the year.

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  • John,

    Great article as usual! Is it Derek Johnson or Dave Johnson? This is a big pickup considering what it could mean for the overall health longevity, improvement, and consistent philosophy throughout the Cubs organization. I'm pumped!

  • In reply to Scrapiron:

    Thanks. And yes I did mean Derek :) FIxed now.

  • Zych looks like he has the stuff for the job, I'm just worried about his makeup. I really want Beliveu to come thru, I'm more intrigued by guys with good fastballs and deceptive deliveries

  • In reply to Steve Flores:

    Zych has great makeup. I'm worried about his slider.

  • i think zych is a great talent and i hope the cubs bring him along the right way. he should stay in AAA for at least the first two months of the season and then be called up when hes proven ready. i hope they start him out in the 7th when he gets called up. the next year he can be the righty half of the 8th innning and then in '15 he should be elevated to closer if everything goes well.

  • In reply to jshmoran:

    I think Zych will get the call by September and perhaps by the all-star break. Totally agree it should be gradual.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    There is certainly no rush on anybody. And Zych does not need to be added to the 40-man before spring training (he isn't Rule-5 eligible), so chances are he'll start at Iowa and we'll use that slot on someone else.

    For that Rule-5 reason, we may see McNutt in Wrigley before Zych, because McNutt will need to be added to 40-man before December, as he is Rule-5 eligible. Promoting McNutt won't require a 40-man move.

  • In reply to Zonk:

    If he's pitching well, he'll force their hand. The Cub drafted Zych to move him quickly and I don't think there will be much difference with the new front office. If they think he can help and the team is playing well, then I don't think they'll keep him in AAA until he's due to be added to the roster. That doesn't happen for 3 more years.

  • Some relief pitching questions:

    1) Do you think this year's crop of relief pitching prospects has more to offer than last year's crop? It seems to me that was one of the bigger disappointments from last season, not graduating much in the way of long term answers in the bullpen.

    2) I know he's technically not a prospect, but I still think of him as one, so where would Lendy Castillo rank of the list? Is it safe to assume he goes back to the minor this year? Do you think he stays in the bullpen, or gets stretched out as a starter?

    3) The Cubs signed a Cuban relief prospect last year by the name of Yoanner Negrin, is he a prospect? His statistics are a little weird since he doesn’t appear to have pitched much for any of the Cubs affiliates.

  • In reply to CubsML:

    With regard to the first question, the answer is that we don't really know yet. The Cubs are still high on Dolis and Beliveau. That class may still help this season and long term. I don't think this class is a whole lot better, so you would have to hope so.

    Castillo is interesting but I think I'd slot him just outside the top 5. I think they may stretch him out as a starter. They really have nothing to lose in that regard.

    Negrin is a fringe prospect, more of a middle relief type. He's already in his late 20s, so he is what he is and he's already on his way out of his peak athletic years.

  • I bet Alfonso Soriano wants to get traded now to the Giants.

    Alfonso should have bought himself a winter jacket last July and he would had himself a WS ring now.

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    In reply to CubsTalk:

    I was wondering myself how Fonzi felt about nixing that deal. Hindsight is 20-20 and all, but I have to think the chance to play on that team would have been great for him.

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    In reply to Mike Moody:

    With Soriano in LF in the NL games -- they wouldn't have had Gregor Blanco's glove to save all those plays....I think the Giants made the right move on their part. haha

    Would've been nice to get more farmhands though.

  • In reply to CubsTalk:

    You wonder now if he had a chance to do it all over again. He wanted that ring.

  • I read a pretty good article on Zych in the Tribune on Saturday. Turns out his family's half Cubs fans, half White Sox fans, as he's from Monee, IL. So, should he make it, half his family is going to be utterly ecstatic.

  • In reply to Jim Weihofen:

    Haha! I hope they're all utterly ecstatic :) i'd be ecstatic if one of my nephews became a Chicago White Sox player.

  • Ryu Hyun-Jin is coming to the MLB, I know John Manuel years ago thought he would have been a top 10 prospect in all of baseball. I assume he wouldn't be subject to the IFA spending pool, but does anyone know for sure?

  • In reply to CubsML:

    For those interested, John Manuel just tweeted me "Earned some David Wells comps during our World Baseball Classic reporting 3+ years ago, that would be his ceiling."

    He'll be 26 at the start of next season. Seems like a much better gamble than some of the Malholm type starters.

  • In reply to CubsML:

    Nice. And to answer your question, he won't be subject to the IFA pool because he is over 23. I agree if he's still got good stuff that he'd be worth a gamble because of his age.

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    My take on the bullpen in general, and not everyone agrees, is that the bullpen is the absolute last place you spend resources on as an organization. You need a good bullpen, but bullpen arms are the quickest to assemble...and the quickest to fail. It's better to build a base of starting pitching and position player talent, and THEN address bullpen needs.

    So, until we are close to contention, we should not spend money and muddle through with home-grown talent. That will be painful to watch in the short-term, but better in the long-run.

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    In reply to Zonk:

    I think this is exactly why good teams have homegrown bullpens (often anyway). Saves them money to spend elsewhere.

  • In reply to Zonk:

    I agree and I think that's usually the case, but you can get some bargains these days because most teams are beginning to think the same way. With teams trying to save money on their bullpens, you can get a guy who slips through the cracks, as Kerry Wood did a couple of years ago. You can't rule out signing a bullpen FA arm or two. I think you have to play it case by case.

  • Nice work once again John, thanks! I'm intrigued by Zych and Cerenka.

    I think we have a nice assortment of relievers in the system but we need starters. I would like to see if Derek Johnson or someone can help coach up McNutt. Is there such a thing as a pitching whisperer?

    Don't forget to kick the tires!

  • In reply to SFToby:

    Thanks. Scout I talked to was really intrigued by Cerenka's fastball in terms of velocity and movement.

    I hope Johnson is the answer. I think there are certain guys who just get it done year after year...Duncan, Cooper, etc. Maybe the Cubs found themselves a gem.

    I'm not much of businessman, so I'm going to need all the advice I can get :)

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    That trade with the Red Sox is looking excellent for us: Marlon Byrd for Michael Bowden and Hunter Cervenka. Even paying his salary, Byrd had almost no value, and received two OK guys in return (not all-stars, but every bit helps).

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    Was the photographer lying on the ground looking up at Zych?

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    And who's the guy in the Astros jacket? A not-very-subtle spy?

    Good writeup as always,John. It will be fun to see who steps up this year and in years to come. I think we'll see that Zych can pych !

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    In reply to StillMissKennyHubbs:

    That's a Solar Sox hat he's wearing, so it was probably taken in the AFL.

    You need to trademark "Zych can pych" immediately!

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    Haha! I l never thought of the rhyme with "pitch" until you just mentioned it.

    Yes it's an AFL picture. I thought I put the name on there of the photographer. It's a Trib guy.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    That was my "Aunt" who took that photo.......ha ha ha

  • In reply to CubsTalk:

    Ba dum bum (rim shot)!

  • Here is my list of who Theo should go after.....fill ins before the "yutes" come up from the farm system.

    Miguel Olivo .......nice backup catcher
    Eric Chavez........fill in until Baez arrives.
    Grady Sizemore.....1 year contract only...injury prone
    Dan Haren...........might re-sign with the Angels
    Brandon McCarthy....A's might keep him
    Carlos Villanueva .....would be my #1 target pitcher
    Mike Gonzalez.........extra lefty wouldn't hurt
    Scott Feldman .......have a feeling about this one.
    Luke Hochevar.......if K.C. lets him go, take a chance on him.

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    In reply to CubsTalk:

    That's actually a pretty good list....I advocate getting a decent C, and dumping Clevenger. Who has had a higher OPS during their Cubs career, Koyie Hill or Clevenger? Look it up....and we thought HIll sucked, he at least was a good receiver.

    I like McCarthy, Villanueva, reclaimation projects

    Sizemore, not sure what happened to him. He made $5 mil last year, so this year's contract figures to be less.

  • Small sample size but Gutierrez's WHIP went down considerably this year: 1.0 in 16 innings from 1.46 in 62 innings last year (both at the Twins AAA club). Maybe he was figuring things out before his injury. Look forward to seeing him, Zych, and McNutt this year.

  • In reply to Carne Harris:

    He was off to a great start. It's too bad he got hurt.

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    I see the A's took a pass on Stephen Drew. Do we take a shot with a 2 year contract? What ever happen to this kid? He was all-everything when drafted and seems to have turned into a Josh Vitters.... Can he possible be or stop gap at 3rd until some of our lower level guys catch up?

  • In reply to bocabobby:

    I think he's worth a look. With Drew, my main concern is would he play 3B? He's a good defensive SS and if it were me, I'd rather play where I can play SS, even if it means a bit less money.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    I hate to move a good SS to 3B to fill that hole, particularly one that will cost some $. A's obviously don't think that he's worth $10mil, but I bet a shortstop-hungry team takes a flyer on him for more than we would be willing to pay. Cards, perhaps, or even the Tigers.

    Chavez is an OK option; apparently he can still field.

  • john what ever happened to jay jackson? i used to hear so much about him but now nothing

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    In reply to kingpro98:

    You asked John, but that's a good question; he went from a 9th round draft pick to top prospect fast, and then fell back to earth. He lost command of his secondary pitches, and then pretty much all his pitches.

    I bet the Cubs give him one more year in Iowa's bullpen, as we don't have a ton of arms coming up looking for spots....but absent big improvement, he's probably done.

    It's too bad, if he was even halfway good, he would have recieved a shot.

  • In reply to Zonk:

    That works. Thanks for fielding that for me.

  • In reply to Zonk:

    One intriguing side point on Jay Jackson for me was that, statistically, his walk rate improved tremendously in 2010 in AAA (and 2011 it was solid as well, before the issues this year). I still wonder to what extent and over-emphasis on command led to a deterioration/loss of stuff (the same thing happened to a young MLB starter whose name is slipping me at the moment).

    It should be noted that his slider actually showed ... well ... out of the pen, and the command issues shouldn't be a concern out of the pen. The Cubs have a lot of interesting, but not great, righty pen arms (I mean, the difference from Marcus Hatley to Trey McNutt or Tony Zych, who top John's list, isn't all that much, if at all). Jay's on the back end of that group for now, but assuming he's in the org (he's eligible for Rule 5 ... I doubt he gets protect, and wouldn't bet on him being taken ... but I wouldn't be surprised, particularly if a team saw him with a few good outings out of the pen), I wouldn't count him out from filling a pen role just yet.

    At the end of the day, Jay Jackson, like Alberto Cabrera, just weren't starting caliber arms, but there's still some pen hope.

  • I'm not yet convinced that any of these options are top closers down the line. Maybe McNutt, but I would like to see a measure of consistency/command that wasn't always there in his pen run with the Smokies this year. I guess I want to see a season of Zych's slider being consistently good before buying him.

    * If Alberto Cabrera could tighten up his command just enough, I think he would be my favorite for closer of the future.

    Jay Jackson's slider was just never good enough as it got to the upper levels, as a starter, and his changeup never came along. He had a decent run in the Iowa pen last year, and assuming he is in the organization, I think he will be in the pen there to start 2013.

    Actually, one names you didn't put on here, for obvious reasons, intrigue me - Dae-Eun Rhee. I'm still not sure what happened to Rhee this year, in regards to his velocity, which was ever so slightly down, but if he can ramp up the fastball a tiny bit out of the pen, he has an outpitch (still ... I look at what Miguel Gonzalez did this year with his nasty split-change and average fastball, and wish Rhee could find that level of consistency to be a passable starter).

  • In reply to toonsterwu:

    Rhee is an interesting conversion candidate. Perhaps if he does pare down his repertoire and works in short bursts his stuff will improve. The pessimist in me sees that so far his FB hasn't shown much more life in the short AZ Fall League stints, The change up can be an out pitch if he can get enough separation from his FB.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I hate it when a pitcher stops working an one or more of his pitches. He can stop using it in games but keep working on it on his side sessions. We need to coach up those pitches and even teach them a variation on a pitch they already use, like teaching a cutter to a pitcher with a good 4 seamer. Sometimes you hear of a pitcher who picks up a splitter or something that revitalizes his career.

    Having a pitcher drop a pitch robs a club of starters. We can't afford that.

  • In reply to SFToby:

    Sometimes it helps to focus on 2 or 3 pitches because they become better with more use. I always want to keep guys starting, but I don't know if Rhee is anything more than a bottom of the rotation guy at this point, so moving him to the bullpen wouldn't be all that devastating if that's what it comes down to.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    What's odd is that I saw him hit 92, 93 as a starter in A+, and it seemed like he barely got to 90/91 this year.

  • In reply to toonsterwu:

    There were even some reports of him hitting 94-95. Velo hasn't been the same since his arm issues.

  • John,

    Are you feeling a trade for Haren or Ervin Santana? The Cubs need starters and apparently those two can be had on one year deals for nothing but marginal prospects and their 2013 salaries. The Cubs have plenty of cash and low level minor leaguers. Could be a couple of lottery tickets a la Paul Maholm.

  • In reply to Eddie:

    Yes, if that's the cost then I'd do it. Those guys aren't coming here as FAs, but as far as trades, why not. It'd have to be low because they'd only be rentals by the trade deadline, so it'd be hard to flip them for a big gain unless they have outstanding seasons.

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