The Cubs drafted and signed a lot of pitchers in the past year or so and we should see some at Kane County this year. There is one noticeable absence from this list and that is Pierce Johnson. I think he's advanced enough to move right on to Daytona and we'll cover him in that preview.
Rather than divide them into starters and relievers, we'll just divide them up in to the top prospects, a few guys who I think may be sleeper/breakout candidates, and then some more names to keep your eye on. We'll talk about their likely role in their individual profiles.
- Dillon Maples (SP): Despite having pitched just 10.1 professional innings, Maples will very likely skip Boise and make the jump to Kane County this season. He'll be 21 in May and so the Cubs may want to get him to full season ball. Maples may have the best 1-2 combo (mid 90s FB, hammer CB) of any Cubs pitcher other than Arodys Vizcaino. The concern for Maples has been command and staying healthy. Some think part of the problem was his delivery, which is not as fluid as you would expect from someone with his athletic ability. The Cubs have made some minor tweaks but they don't want to mess with that live arm and the velo/movement it creates.
- Juan Carlos Paniagua (SP): There's still some mystery with Paniagua. He hasn't pitched a lot of organized ball but unlike Maples, he hasn't been around the team that long in extended spring training/instructs either. He may stay back in AZ so the Cubs can evaluate him and stretch him out as a starter. Whenever the Cubs decide to run him out there, Paniagua should have an immediate impact with a fastball that has reportedly touched triple digits. He generates that velocity out of an effortless delivery, so the ball just explodes out of his hand and creates some deception. He also showed a hard slider and the makings of a plus change-up. Some have concerns that his slight build (6'1', 175) and arm action are best suited for relief. If so, he has a chance to be a closer. Paniagua's age (23 when season starts) and stuff may mean he could even skip a level and go to Daytona -- if he shows enough progress in AZ.
- Paul Blackburn (SP): Of all the high school pitchers the Cubs drafted last year, Blackburn has the best shot of starting in Kane County. He has an athletic delivery that is easy to repeat, which could lead to plus command down the road. He hits the low 90s now but he's still lean and projectable so that could go up a tick or two as he matures physically. The Cubs also believe he'll eventually have plus secondary pieces. What separates him from the other live high school arms is an advanced feel for pitching.
- Ben Wells (SP): Last year around this time, Wells was considered to be a breakout candidate. Already able to command a heavy low 90s fastball the season before, he saw his velocity jump into the mid to high 90s. Add that to his good slider, advanced command, and a big body suited for eating up innings, Wells looked like he was on the verge of taking things to the next level. And then he felt that twinge. Wells wound up missing the bulk of the season, returning late in the season to Peoria but never showing the same kind of velocity he had shown in the spring. If he can regain that velo he can be a mid-rotation starter or better. If not, we're probably look at a bottom of the rotation guy or middle relief. Wells also has a shot of reaching Daytona this season if he proves to be healthy and productive.
- Jose Arias (SP): could be this year's Starlin Peralta in that he's a talented, hard-throwing RHP who has developed a bit more slowly than hoped -- but just might click this season. He's a tall, big-bodied pitcher who can reach the mid 90s. More importantly he has seen some improvement this offseason in his curve and change. Like Peralta was last year, Arias will be Rule 5 eligible and if he breaks out this season, the Cubs could find themselves with a similar 40 man roster predicament.
- Tayler Scott (SP): Scott performed very well at Boise last season, going 5-1 with a 2.53 ERA. He showed decent control with 29 walks in 71 innings, but didn't miss a lot of bats (44 Ks). Scott is an athletic, projectable pitcher who could still add some velocity to his current low 90s offering. He also featured a big-breaking curve. Scott is still relatively new to pitching, having been a soccer player in South Africa for most of his young life. So there's room for improvement here both in terms of physical development and improving on what is a surprisingly advanced feel for someone of such limited experience.
- Nathan Dorris (SP-RP): Dorris is the biggest sleeper on this list. He's a LHP who can throw in the low 90s and has the makings of an above average curveball. He also put up some nice numbers at Boise (1.93 ERA, 13Ks in 14 IP), all in relief. He has good size at 6'3", 185 lbs. with some room to fill out and add strength. With the Cubs lacking LHP in the organization, I'd like to see him get a shot at starting.
Late Season Possibilities
- Duane Underwood (SP) will start the season in extended spring training where the Cubs hope to help him develop consistency with his upper 90s fastball, big breaking curve, and smooth, athletic delivery. If that happens, the next step is a mid-season promotion to Boise. If he shows he can harness that tremendous ability and translate it to results on the mound at Boise, then a few late season starts at Kane County becomes a legit possibility.
- Ryan McNeil (SP): McNeil just turned 19 and is still growing into his 6'3" frame. The Cubs see a lot of projection here as he he gains strength. Right now he pitches in the low 90s and shows promise with both his slider and change. He pitched extremely well at the rookie complex in Arizona, compiling 18 strikeouts and a 1.35 ERA in 20 IP. Some development time and a stint at Boise are on the docket for O'Neill you can't rule out a late season call if he performs as well at Boise as he did in AZ last year.
- Trey Lang (SP-RP): The Cubs would like to see if they can stretch out Lang and make him a starting pitcher. He comes with a pretty good tool kit for that role: a big build (6'3", 225), good athleticism, a fastball that can reach the mid 90s, and a sharp breaking slider which may be his best pitch. He has the size to be a big, durable workhorse or an intimidating late inning reliever. For now, he'll stay in AZ to get stretched out and will look to follow the same path as Underwood and McNeil.
Others to watch:
RHP Justin Amlung (SP) is a polished type who has a chance to have average stuff with solid command. He's showed some ability to get swings and misses at Louisville but that was not the case in Boise. Amlung was hit pretty hard and struck out just 6 batters in 12 innings. He's not a big pitcher at 6'1", 180 lbs, so it's possible he just wore down after a long season. LHP Gerardo Concepcion (SP) signed a $6M bonus but did not live up to expectations. His command was spotty and he got hit pretty hard in Peoria. He then contracted a case of mono and was still not suited up to play when I saw him at instructs in AZ. The Cubs hope he's closer to the low 90s, good curve, solid command guy they saw prior to signing then the guy we saw in Peoria. Josh Conway (RP) We probably won't hear much from Conway until mid-season and even then we're more likely to see him at Boise, but he may sneak into Kane County by the end of the year. I think he's a breakout candidate for 2014 and, with two plus pitches (96 mph, nasty slider), could move very quickly in relief once he's healthy. LHP Michael Heesch (RP) had an outstanding debut, finishing with a 2.46 ERA, walking just one batter in 25.2 innings while striking out 22. He's a big kid at 6'5", 245 and he should get a tougher test in full season ball. Stuff-wise he can hit the low 90s and is developing his secondary pitches. Michael Hamman (SP-RP) has had inconsistent stuff and mediocre numbers but he's the textbook definition of "projectable". He can touch 95 at times but can drop as low as 87. At 6'3", 165 lbs, Hamman is a bit of a beanpole right now with plenty of room to add strength and fill out, which would help him maintain velocity better. There is a long way to go in terms of development, both physically and in terms of skills on the mound. If he gets there, the Cubs will have themselves a 16th round steal. LHP Anthony Prieto (SP) was a 5th round pick who was once clocked at 95 mph. After an injury early in the season, he has thrown more in the 88-90 range. He has the makings of 3 average pitches and could come back stronger after some time off, so perhaps he regains some of that velo he flashed early last year. If not, he'll have to get in at the back of the line behind the Cubs more advanced finesse lefties. LHP Brian Smith (RP) is a rare Cubs power lefty but command and lack of a 3rd pitch puts his immediate future in the bullpen. Eddie Orozco (RP) was the most dependable reliever on the Boise team last season (1.95 ERA, 6 saves). He was the closer there and may assume the same role at Kane County. He's not considered a top prospect despite his performance last season. It was more of a case of polished pitcher overmatching inexperienced hitters than overwhelming stuff. In fact, it's possible Orozco may be advanced enough to start in Daytona. Steve Perakslis was getting his FB up to 95 when I saw him for his one appearance for Peoria. Secondaries need refinement so right now his future is likely in the bullpen.