The Cubs need pitching for the future and most of their highest upside arms are in the lower minor leagues. However, there are some interesting arms at the AA level who have MLB potential.
We did the AA position players earlier this week and you can find those here.
Let's take a look at some of the pitchers we'll see at Tennessee this year...
Tony Zych 22,is arguably the Cubs best relief prospect, pitching at 93-96 and able to reach 99 with a deceptive delivery that makes it hard to pick him up. His slider is much improved and gives him a second solid offering. His command has been very good for a power pitcher. He walked just 1.97 batters per 9 innings last year at Class A Daytona, though that number jumped up a bit to 3.28 in his stint at AA last year. Zych has the physical skills and aggressive approach on the mound to be a late inning reliever.
Robert Whitenack, 24, could start the year in Class A Daytona since he struggled at that level last season, but he was a combined 6-1 with a 1.72 ERA (11 walks, 53 strikeouts in 62.2 IP) between 2010 and 2011. If he spends any time there, it's to prove he's back at 100%, because when he's been healthy he's dominated that league. Whitenack struggled to get over 90 mph last year and has had trouble of late commanding his slider, which is a good pitch when he gets on top of it. When he's right he can reach 96 -- but is best when using his 92-93 mph two seamer, plus command, and height (6'5") to pitch downhill and keep the ball low in the zone. He has the upside of a #3 starter.
Matt Loosen, 24, is a 4 pitch pitcher who saw his velocity rise from the low the 89-92 mph range to 92-93 mph and occasionally hitting a tick or two higher last season. When he locates his fastball and commands his breaking pitches, he can dominate lower level hitters. Loosen allowed just 83 hits in 112.2 innings and struck out batters at a rate of almost one per inning (8.8 Ks/9 IP). In the majors, Loosen has the stuff and ideal, big, sturdy 6'2", 205 lbs frame to project a ceiling as a mid-rotation innings eater. This will be a big year for him.
Tennessee could be home to as many as 5 lefty finesse pitchers this season. These pitchers don't stand out for their stuff, but they know how to pitch. They're all in that 88-92 mph range and depend on changing speeds and location -- which is a tough way to make it as a young pitcher in the big leagues, as fellow lefties Chris Rusin and Brooks Raley just found out last season. It's possible, however, one of these lefties will breakthrough and become a classic finesse starter, or perhaps, a lefty relief specialist.
- Similar in style and build to Rusin and Raley, 23 year old lean, athletic Eric Jokisch throws a circle change that is one of the best in the organization. Jokisch's immediate future may well depend on where Rusin and Raley wind up this year. If one makes the team out of the spring, then he may get a shot to start the year in AAA. If he doesn't, he's still a good bet to wind up there by mid-season. Jokisch has won nearly 65% of his decisions as a pro and didn't skip a beat at Tennessee last year, going 7-2 with a 2.91 ERA. His strikeouts went down a bit from 9.1 Ks/9IP to 7.4 as he faced more advanced hitters but Jokisch showed the ability to adapt, a trait that bodes well for his future.
- Austin Kirk, 22, has a stockier build (6'1", 205 lbs) than the previous pitchers mentioned and depends on an a good curveball as his out pitch. Kirk, 22, has moved up through the system rather quickly but ran into control problems upon reaching Tennessee last year (4.6 walks /9 IP). That may be due in part to more advanced hitters laying off his big breaking curve and because of that he'll have to refine his command if he is going to continue to succeed. He's younger than most pitchers on this team, so he may have a bit more time on his side.
- Frank Del Valle, 23, is a small (5'11", 190 lbs) but athletic pitcher who works in the 88-92 range with good control (2.7 walks/9 IP) and some ability to miss bats (7.6 Ks/ 9 IP). When Del Valle is commanding his pitches, hitters have a tough time squaring him up and he can be tough to hit. Batters hit just .194 against him last year but he's also prone to leaving the ball up (14 HRs in 99 innings in a hitters league).
- Kyler Burke, 24, is a big, strong lefty (6'3", 205 lbs) who was a two-way star in high school. He started his pro career as a power-hitting RF prospect. Burke struggled to hit upon his promotion to Daytona and the Cubs promptly switched him to the mound. He has a smooth, athletic delivery and is able to generate a bit more giddy-up on his fastball than the others on this list, as he peaks at 94, but normally pitches in that same high 80s, low 90s range as most of the pitchers on this list. Burke was a minor league free agent but re-signed with the team. The bet here is that the Cubs move him back to the bullpen and see if he can make it as a relief specialist.
- Zac Rosscup, 24. If you look at Rosscup's strikeout numbers (almost 13 per 9 IP over 3 levels, including 11.7 at AA) and good size ( 6'2", 205 lbs), you might think that the Cubs finally have that overpowering lefty the organization has lacked. Not so. Rosscup does have solid stuff, however, throwing a 90-91 mph fastball, a curve, and a change-up. He normally throws them with good command but was a little wild as he returned from his injury. He seemed to start to find his customary control late in the season so he'll be one to watch next year -- if he can stay healthy.
Other Prospects to watch...
- Dallas Beeler, 23, was the Cubs #12 prospect going into the 2012 season but had a disappointing season. He was extremely hittable last year. He allowed batters to hit over .300 against him and struck out just 4.63 batters per 9 innings. Beeler works with a 90-92 mph two seam fastball that runs in on righties and away from lefties, a plus curveball, and a change up with good downward movement, so he's more of a groundball pitcher than a strikeout guy. He should have better BABIP luck than last year, when it was a ridiculous .330, but Beeler needs to miss more bats overall to succeed. He could be a sleeper this year if he maintains his good stuff and regains the command he showed in previous years.
- P.J. Francescon 24, is an underrated pitcher. He's a bulldog on the mound and can hit the mid 90s but works better in the low 90s range where he gets more downward movement on this 2-seamer. Francecon absolutely dominated in Peoria last year, going 5-1 with a 1.86 ERA and allowed batters to hit just .155 against him. He had a solid groundball to air ratio of 1.8 but that was cut in half when he was promoted to Daytona. His strikeout ratio also dropped from 7.1/9IP to 5.7/9IP. He may repeat that level this year but should make it to AA at some point this season. The Cubs converted him from a reliever to a starter but his ultimate role may be back in the bullpen.
- Marcelo Carreno, 21, was acquired for Jeff Baker. He is a control pitcher who walked just 1.8 batters per 9 innings while strikng out 7.7/9 IP. He put up a very respectable 2.63 FIP, though it was in Class A. Carreno throws about 88-89 and was once thought to have a chance to project for more but he's grown into more of a thick build. He projects more as a bottom of the rotation/middle relief type, but his ability to throw strikes gives him a chance to move quickly and he may reach Tennessee later this year.
- Kyle Hendricks, 23, looks very different than Carreno as far as body type but the 6'3", 190 lbs RHP is also more of a finesse guy who relies on excellent control. He is a an advanced 4-5 pitch guy with a low 90s fastball, though some recent reports have it it in the high 80s. He's also developed a good cutter and a solid change-up. His calling card, however, is his command of all of those pitches. He walked just 18 batters in 147.2 innings last year and struck out 123 -- that's nearly a 7 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio. With Hendricks it's going to be about whether his stuff will play against more advanced hitters.
- Dae-Eun Rhee: It's hard to believe that Rhee is now 24. I keep thinking of him as that 19 year old that dominated in Peoria before getting injured. He looked all the way back at the end of 2011 when he was back up in the 93-94 mph range but regressed last season and was more in the 88-91 range. His best pitch is his change-up. All of Rhee's numbers took a fall last year. His K rate dropped below 5 and his HR rate more than doubled. Like Beeler, Rhee will try to bounce back this season and will likely repeat AA.
- Yeiper Castillo,24, has bounced around a bit lately but this front office knows him from his days in the Red Sox organization. Castillo has a good arm, able to reach 94 but more often pitching in the low 90s. Also throws a curve that can be solid at times but is inconsistent. His best pitch is his change-up. Castillo pitched well in the winter leagues this year, going 3-3 with a 2.98 ERA. He struck out 40 and walked 16 in 45.1 innings. He projects more as a middle reliever in the bigs but needs to refine his command.
- Armando Rivero, 24, is a tall, lanky hard throwing RH relief prospect whom the Cubs just signed out of Cuba. He pitches in the 92-93 range but can get his fastball up to 96. He also throws a good splitter and his breaking stuff is average. He was the closer for this team in Cuba but most likely projects as a middle reliever. You can read more about Rivero here.
Others: Eduardo Figuerora, A.J. Morris, Scott Weisman, Jeffrey Lorick, Jeffry Antigua.