Cubs Minor League Preview: AA Tennessee pitchers

Cubs Minor League Preview:  AA Tennessee pitchers
Tony Zych

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...

Top Prospect

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.

Southpaw Central

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.


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  • Thanks for doing these in-depth pieces.

    Some thoughts:

    Beeler is probably better than he looked last year. He essentially skipped the advanced A level, and a lot of times guys who skip levels see their K rates go way down and their H rates go way up. Despite that, he throws reasonably hard and has a good GB/FB rate, and could yet turn out to be good.

    I have to wonder about Rhee though--he has to be on the bubble at this point, because there's going to be a big numbers crunch for rotation spots at AA and AAA.

    Carreno hasn't pitched at the Advanced A level yet and I would guess he would be ticketed for Daytona. Fransescon may start at Daytona, as well, and move up when there's an opening.

    Yeiper Castillo is listed on the Tennessee roster and he pitched well at the advanced A level last year--we might see him in Tennessee's rotation this year.

    Lendy may be pitching for Tennessee, too. Any idea whether they'll groom Lendy as a starter or reliever?

    Zach Rosscup is another guy I'm curious to watch this year, with the way he was missing bats in his comeback from surgery last year.

  • In reply to SVAZCUB:

    You're welcome and totally agree. I have more faith in Beeler to rebound than Rhee at this point. Found it interesting that the Cubs brought him down to instructs to work with him. I very nearly put him in the sleeper category.

    Somehow didn't write in Rosscup. That's what I get for writing these things so late. Have some notes on him so I'll update it. I don't have any personal stuff on Y.Castillo but I'll dig some stuff up. I think Carreno has a chance to move to AA by the end of the year if he continues to pitch with good command -- but he will start in Daytona.

    I'll cover Lendy Castillo in AAA. I think they'll keep him in the bullpen.

    In general these are loose boundaries, some guys will pitch at multiple levels and I try to address that in the analysis. I also may not write on every player because these pieces can get a little large. But happy to add them in if people ask.

  • Thanks for all your work, John. What is a circle change-up?

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to cubster:

    Cubster, a circle change is a pitch named for it's grip because the way you grip the ball forms a circle..(index finger, touching thumb on one side) it works like a screwball but doesn't put anywhere near as much pressure on the pitchers arm.

  • In reply to cubster:

    You're welcome cubster. It looks like Luigi just answered you question very well on the circle change.

  • In reply to cubster:

    Make the "OK" sign with your hand/fingers and then pick up a baseball.

    You adjust the grip with your middle finger through pinkie. A finesse or "feel" type of pitch that is difficult to perfect.

  • In reply to IrwinFletcher:

    That's a nice, concise way to describe it!

  • Thanks for supplying these previews, John. I live but 1.5 hrs. from the Smokies and hope to get to a few games this year. I'm really intrigued by Jokisch and Whitenack and hope to time a trip to see either one (if they are pitching there) start. Also, Alcantara is one I'm really looking forward to seeing, and if Baez gets promoted, well obviously.

  • In reply to cubs1969:

    Cubs1969 Where do you live? I'm also 1.5 hrs away in Asheville.

  • In reply to cubs1969:

    You're welcom cub1969. My wife's brother lives close by and we've decided that if Baez and/or Soler gets promoted, we may just have to pay him a visit!

  • I'm really hoping Whitenack can bounce back. I saw him a start or two before he was injured in '11 and the kid was a strike throwing machine...absolutely pounding the bottom of the strike zone. I saw him in Daytona last year and I didn't even recognize him from his stuff. Not only was the velocity and command off, seems like the kid lost his confidence too...or worried about hurting it again. I watched Zych pitch in that game and he is a max effort guy, but brings the heat.

  • In reply to RayA:

    Thanks for the report. He really was a strike throwing machine. I'm assuming you saw him in Daytona in 2011 where he walked just one batter in his time there. When he pounds the lower part of that zone from that steep downward plane with 92-95 mph heat, he can be a nightmare for hitters.

    Definitely agree on Zych with the max effor delivery, which is probably the one thing that gives me pause with him. But that delivery really works for him, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt for now.

  • Excellent work as always John!

    Whitenack is the one to watch for me. He just had TJ surgery in summer of 2011, so he obviously wasn't 100% last fall. We should see the velocity return soon and command and control are often the last things to come back after TJ surgery. So 2013 may still be a "re-hab year". But this kid was 1/2 step away from a call-up in the fall of 2011 before his elbow "popped". He could be a piece of the rotation in 2014....

  • In reply to HoosierDaddy:

    Thanks. I wish I had a reading on his velo this spring. Cubs obviously thought enough of him to protect him despite his struggles last year, so they must be optimistic he can return to form. He's still struggling to regain his command. In the game I saw he was unable to come close with his slider -- I'm hoping that the more he uses it the more he'll regain that feel for it. Could be big if he comes back, perfect type to pitch at Wrigley if he makes it.

  • I love driving through Tennessee......especially that nice mountain air smell you get in the morning.....seeing the mist in the mountains...visiting Civil War battlefields.......buying boxes loaded with firecrackers to sell to my neighbors.......talking with pretty young innocent Tennessee Waffle House girls about baseball and other things in life........yes, Tennessee is what true America is all about......

    I have a feeling that John's brother in law will hear about Soler & Baez getting promoted, will tell his sister and John that the plumbing is not working at his house and the septic tank in the front yard needs to be cleaned out........but take that trip anyway John.....Motel Six nearby the stadium with a pool.....

    History tells us that when a pitcher loses velocity on his pitches, he is not going to regain that speed back........... .

    So far this Spring, I like the bullpen of the people who will be with the team.

  • In reply to CubsTalk:

    You must go to different Waffle Houses than I do.

    The ones in Georgia have waitresses that worked in the USO during the Viet Namese War.

  • Is there something wrong with Zych this spring? I thought he was a darkhorse to make the team out of spring training but I see he has appeared in only 1 game so far.

    Is he healthy? Is he not thought of as highly by the FO as others?

    I really think he could be a guy like Jeff Russell who comes out of our system and is in our bullpen for many years to come.

  • In reply to IrwinFletcher:

    He's fine. He's just not in MLB camp. He's in the minor league camp. Personally I didn't consider him a darkhorse for that very reason. That doesn't mean, of course, that he can't have success and make his way up during the year.

  • Great piece John & I as well am going to be watching Loosen closely. With that improved velocity he looks like the type of pitcher that can absolutely miss bats when on.
    Just looking for those guys that can bridge the starting pitching talent gap between the big league club & A ball.

  • In reply to Cub Fan Dan:

    Thanks Dan,

    He was doing a great job of missing bats at Daytona. There were some games where he just dominated. He was probably a bit advanced for the league so he'll really get a test in AA. He's definitely a sleeper as an SP candidate down the road.

  • when will be the first cuts?

  • In reply to CubsTalk:

    I read earlier in the week that they would be today.

  • Szczur optioned to AA. More to come.

  • The control and pitch variety of Hendricks continues to intrigue me. Add in that he most likely got some work in with Greg Maddux in the Texas organization, and it's hard not to start dreaming.

  • In reply to Jim Weihofen:

    It's always nice to have that kind of control and repertoire. Like all non-power pitchers, he does have a smaller margin for error so I'm interested to see what he does against advanced hitters. He's definitely an intriguing guy because of that command.

  • fb_avatar

    John. Do you think it is fair to say this season will be the most important season for the Theo/Jed rebuild, speaking strictly of the minor league system?

  • In reply to Demarrer:

    I think between the development of players from the 2011 and 2012 draft, the 2013 draft, and this year's trade deadline, I'd say it's really big for them. They'll have a much better understanding of where they stand by the end of this season.

  • I totally agree, John.

    This may be the last time we have this high of a draft choice, plus once we trade off all the veterans of value (like a lot of Cub fans seem to want) then we will have to pretty much "go with" the talent we have, both on the big league club and in the minors.

    That's where our emphasis on player development will begin to make an impact (hopefully).

  • In reply to DetroitCubFan:

    Cubs just cut 3 players: Matt Szczur, RHP Dayan Diaz, and Michael Brenly. All going to minor league camp. No big surprises. Small cut, though.

  • Was looking at some of the outfielders that could become available around the league around the end of Spring Training.

    Think the Cubs could get involved for Casper Wells?

    Here is the piece:

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