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.
Filed under: prospects