Paul Blackburn has all the tools to be an impact starter in the majors

Paul Blackburn has all the tools to be an impact starter in the majors

I've been a fan of Paul Blackburn for awhile.  Since before the 2012 MLB Draft.  I wrote this about him in a draft preview in May of 2012,

Blackburn is a bit more polished than (Hunter) Virant, but he does have some projectablity left.  He stands 6'2", 180 lbs. and is athletic with a clean delivery.  He throws low 90s now but occasionally hits 94 mph.  It's possible he may add a tick or two to that fastball, but what you're looking at with Blackburn is a good all-around pitcher who has a good feel for pitching and the potential for above average stuff, command, and control.  Might be a bit safer than some of the others, but he does have upside too.

Well some of that projectability is turning into reality.  Blackburn has added 30 pounds of muscle without losing any of his flexibility, athleticism, or feel for pitching.  Along with the muscle, he has added those few ticks to his fastball, something we were hoping for back when he was just a skinny high school kid.

I've been hesitant to rank Blackburn because I've lacked a whole lot of first hand information since that day, but a conversation with Cubs minor league pitching coordinator Derek Johnson began to change my mind.

It wasn't so much anything Johnson said, but  it seemed to me that even with his laid back drawl, he couldn't disguise the excitement in his voice.  He described Blackburn as an exception to the general rule in that he was a kid with a great arm who could throw hard - but who already had naturally advanced pitching skills.  My personal interpretation?  He thinks the kid is special.

Had I waited until after that conversation to make my list, I would have ranked Blackburn much higher and, as of today because of his great performance so far, I'd slot him in behind Pierce Johnson as the Cubs 2nd best pitching prospect and 7th best prospect overall.

There were some reports of Blackburn hitting increased velocity in Arizona and then we heard he hit 94 in his first start.  Cubs Den reader Casey attended his last start and told me he regularly hit 95 mph.

Think about that and then go back and read that original pre-draft report.  It almost seems unfair to add a big fastball to that profile.

This is a kid whom the Cubs liked because of his feel for pitching -- his athleticism and potential for command and control.  He was advanced -- even "safe", as I described it.  The first thing you think of with that description is he's a finesse, back of the rotation guy, a #3 at best.

Not at 95, he isn't.

At 95 mph what you now have is a guy who has all the physical attributes to be an impact MLB pitcher -- the command, the secondaries (including an improving change and a curveball that has the potential to be a plus offering and a swing and miss pitch), the athleticism, and the projectability -- and now you can add plus fastball to that list.  Right now you'd describe him as a guy with 2 plus pitches with the potential for at least a 3rd average pitch, plus command, approach, pitchability -- and the mental makeup to give him the higher probability of making it all work for him.

In other words, you'd be describing a guy who could fit somewhere in the front of a rotation.

The approach and makeup was described well in an excellent piece by

"If a guy hits you hard, you just have to let it go, because that happens in baseball," Blackburn said. "I don't care if it's the fourth hitter or the ninth hitter, you have to approach everyone like they're the best hitter out there. Don't give into them, and make them show that they can beat you on your pitch."

MiLB also noted that Blackburn is not satisfied with just pitching well, that there is a constant drive for improvement.  No matter how well he does, he knows he can be better. In the harsh reality of prospect attrition, he has to be better if he's going to be a MLB pitcher.  It's that kind of makeup that separates the merely talented from the successful and productive.

I've said this many times but it bears repeating here:  Mental makeup isn't a tool that can make a bad player a good player.  It doesn't replace tools or skill level.  Rather, mental makeup makes it more probable that a player will one day learn to use those tools effectively.  It makes it is more likely that he will develop the necessary baseball skill to go with that talent.

"If I go out and throw seven innings, allow one hit and walk a guy, it's a great outing, but I'm not as happy as I would be if I went out there, didn't give up a hit and didn't walk anyone," Blackburn said. "One of the biggest things to me is just finding a way to keep the team in the ballgame to get a win."

And in the end, that's what excites you as much as that 95 mph fastball.  Blackburn has all the necessary tools to be an impact pitcher in the MLB, perhaps even a frontline type starter -- but only if he keeps improving.  But based on Blackburn's mentality, it's hard to imagine he won't continue to strive to get better.

What I'm really hoping for is that Blackburn makes it to Kane County by the end of the year.  Admittedly that is partially for selfish reasons but I'm also beginning to wonder if Blackburn, even at age 19, is too advanced for the NWL right now.  Perhaps a taste of more experienced hitters in the Midwest League will challenge Blackburn to take the next step -- not that he needs anything to motivate him.



Filed under: Profiles, prospects

Tags: Paul Blackburn


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  • fb_avatar

    Seems like we got something brewing on the pitching front with Pierce Johnson, Paul Blackburn and Rob Zastryzny. Starting to really get that warm and fuzzy feeling about the farm sysyem as a whole.

    Great job by the FO to get this far along in just a little over a year!!

  • In reply to bocabobby:

    Agreed. May not be too long before Cubs have some pretty good SP prospects to go with their hitters.

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    In reply to bocabobby:

    I would include Underwood in that list. Kid has a ton of upside. Coached a game against him his senior year in HS and boy did have a live arm with a TON of upside! As scouts have noted, command of the CB in particular, is his challange right now. He could easily be a front line guy in a few years.

    Btw - he also hit a bomb to lead off the game that day that still might not have landed yet.

  • Be interesting to see what they can bring in with trades and if they get higher arms if that will allow Blackburn to move up. Also wonder if a Rusin could get moved as a add piece in a bigger deal

  • In reply to nkniacc13:

    Not sure Rusin would add much to a deal. I think Rusin has greater value to the Cubs as a cheap starter for the rest of the season (after deadline) and a potential 5th starter candidate for next.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    At age 26, Rusin is probably pretty close to his terms of trade value, he doesn't have alot.

  • In reply to Zonk:

    I think what you can expect from Rusin is to continue refining his command, which gives him some room to improve, but yeah, he pretty much is what he is right now, which is a back end starter or reliever.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Yeah he was just the 1st SP that I thought of that's in iowa. Do you think that the cubs will release or PTBN trade anymore pitchers that are in Iowa and Tenn because of what they maybe getting back in trades?

  • In reply to nkniacc13:

    Maybe someone like Parker. Hopefully they won't need to do that.

  • Nice article about a very nice prospect!

  • In reply to SFToby:

    Thanks Toby!

  • fb_avatar

    Buster Olney tweets: Rival execs believe the Cubs should be able to get more than the value of a first-round draft pick for Matt Garza; trade expected soon.

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    I have a really good feeling about Blackburn and Johnson. Would really like to see these two headline our rotation someday and not end up as trade bait.

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    In reply to Marcel Jenkins:

    I'm having a hard time with the "trading" thing. I know it's coming -- Hannemann just screams trade bait -- but like you I want to watch guys like Blackburn, Johnson, Baez, and Soler develop into all stars and play their entire careers on the north side.

  • In reply to Marcel Jenkins:

    We need to start to encourage these young guys that they can be the Future of a Cubs Dynasty team.......nice core of players going through the system together.....they all know each other.................would be less ego type of players ........more like a family than a team.................

  • In reply to Marcel Jenkins:

    I don't think Cubs have any plans to trade them right now.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    I'm sure not now but even in the future. I'm a sucker for teams having a homegrown core. I'd consider Rizzo homegrown because our guys drafted and developed him.

  • I have always been a blackburn supporter,I think I remember mcnutt having an increase in velo so it could happen to young pitchers. I agree that you add 95 to his curve and makeup then you might have something.

  • I wonder if Theo will include any Top 20 Cubs minor league players in trades ?.....................players like..........Vitters....or.........BJax......or..........Lake......I sure like to see Lake play at Wrigley before then......

    Trade deadline list might look like this for certain players .......


    DeJesus.....maybe at the last minute of trading period.....

    Schierholtz......most likely

    Navarro.......most likely.......maybe with Garza

    Garza......yeah, but maybe Theo will give one more shot at a contract extension............but don't count on it......

    Feldman.......Orioles or the Giants......

    Villanueva........Nationals might take him......

    If Barney gets traded.....he will be added in a larger trade package with another Cub......

    By the end of August, we might see guys like Ransom...... or...... Valbuena .....or even Hariston get traded after clearing the waiver wire.......maybe by A.L. team might go after Soriano if Theo pays 80% of the remaining contract to get a prospect........

    Then this time next year................we can discuss serious Samardzija trade scenarios.....................maybe even Starlin Castro trade proposals!

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    What the Cubs system has really been lacking is an ace. Pierce Johnson looks like a very good #2, but a #2. Underwood was drafted with the chance to be an ace, but so far he's struggling. (Not panicking there yet: he's still young and has tools. He could put it together and fly up ranking boards seemingly overnight.) But Blackburn is giving us a realistic chance at a guy who can anchor the rotation for years. And for all that he's done so far, he turns 20 in December. A lot to like here.

    Now if we can add an impact stater at the trade deadline, and have Rusin, Cabrera, and Hendricks coming up as back of the rotation guys, you can start to see a long-term, cost-controlled pitching rotation into shape.

    And many of the college arms picked this year seem to have been taken with an eye towards turning them into a bullpen sooner rather than later, and the rest of the rotation is looking up.

    This may be a year or two longer than we were hoping (thank you, Tom Tunney), but the pieces are sliding into place. And I have faith in Theo and Jed to produce the Rays' minor league system with top prospects, not the Royals'.

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    In reply to Mike Moody:

    "And many of the college arms picked this year seem to have been taken with an eye towards turning them into a bullpen sooner rather than later, and the rest of the rotation is looking up."

    While I think that's partly true, I don't think they were taken with intention to making them bullpen guys right away. They were taken as guys who have the tools to start but in case that doesn't work out for whatever reason(durability issues, small builds, lack of command, etc) they all had 2 plus pitches to fall back on.

    Basically they aren't starting pitcher or bust type guys. They have the mold for relievers but all of them are capable of starting will be used as starters first. Also don't be surprised if a few actually make it as starters like Skulina, Zastryzny, and Masek. They were drafted with the intention of hitting the lotto on them as starters but with the toolkit necessary to be good relievers as a fallback.

    I particularly like the chances of Zastryzny and Skulina. And Clifton if he signs.

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    In reply to Marcel Jenkins:

    While I agree with most of what you've written, here's where I disagree. I think the Cubs know that most of those guys *aren't* going to stick as starters. Which ones? No clue. (Though Masek is an excellent bet.) But they should know by the draft next year which ones they think can stick as starters and which can't. The ones that, in their opinion, can't, will be moved to the bullpen and probably pushed fairly hard. Those guys could enter the bullpen by the beginning of 2015.

  • Jenkins......Reuschel.......Sutcliffe.......Maddux....... were all Cubs Aces.........

    Samardzija will never be an Ace.............

  • In reply to CubsTalk:

    Couldn't agree with you more about Samardija. Glad to see Reuchel's name included on your list. The guy devoured innings, a real horse.

  • With so many veterans to trade let's hope we can get a few
    sleeper pitching prospects.

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    Nice article John.....I agree the pitching is looking better, but the bar was pretty low before. We really need a bunch more, because chances are, some of these guys aren't going to work out.

    I hate to say it, but the Cardinals show how much pitching depth you need.....despite injuries and non-performance, they just keep coming up with more guys with big fastballs. I hate those guys!

  • In reply to Zonk:

    Thanks and definitely. You can never have enough depth when it comes to prospects, especially pitching prospects.

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    John, great article, and is it just me, or do you remember reading things similar to what you just wrote about a RHP the Cubs took in the second round of the 1984 draft? Because that is who he sounds like to me.

  • In reply to Michael Caldwell:

    Thanks. I think he has some of that it factor but Maddux had what may have been the best command and feel for pitching of any pitcher of all time. I don't think it's fair to expect that to be duplicated by anyone -- but Blackburn may have better raw stuff, so there is a chance to make up for not being able to reach that nearly impossible standard Maddux set.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    People forget that there was a time in Maddux's career when he could reach back and hit low to mid 90's when he had too. He just chose not to do it all the time.

  • In reply to Michael Caldwell:

    There was never a time in Maddux's career where he could reach mid 90s. I remember reading an article at the time that gave clocks on all Cubs starting pitchers. Maddux and Moyer topped out at 91.

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    Not to beat a dead horse, but one question about a theoretical trade of Shark. If theo brings in a legit AA - AAA pitching prospect for garza, does that make a Shark trade a) more likely, because they figure they have someone who could replace him, or b) less likely, because they figure the core is coming into focus and the contending horizon is closer?

  • fb_avatar

    John Heyman: #orioles are interested in garza now after being lukewarm earlier, but so far they believe price is 2 high. #cubs

    I have a suspicion that means Cubs are asking for Gausman.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    In the O's system they kinda have to there isn't much there

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    In reply to Mike Moody:

    Mike, they should ask for Gausman..unless they wanna trade Dylan Bundie like the Braves dealt us Vizcaino last year, they don't have much else in the system that may interest the Cubs...Nothings for free,we need to maximize this return

  • I'm outta here again guys. Will try to keep an eye on with phone but no preview today. You can use this as a thread.

    Last day of a busy stretch.

    And don't forget, those of you have MiLB.TV, Kane County is on tonight. I'm going to watch the replay of it.

  • I actually thought Blackburn should have started the year at KC and Johnson in Daytona. We've heard about his polish for quite some time so I didn't think it would be too difficult a jump for him. In any case, nice to see him add some velo, since we also heard he had a projectible body.

  • Hey John, love your work, but I would offer a counter to the assertion Blackburn has an excellent makeup. That may be the case, but I wouldn't reach that conclusion from a few positive quotes, and the one compliment from his coach in the MiLB article. A guy like Almora, who coaches rave about, and has a strong reputation make-up wise, is a different story.
    Will you tell the front office to make a trade already so we can over analyze it for the next week?!!

  • In reply to Abe Froman:

    Thanks. I didn't base base it on those quotes. I knew he had good makeup before I read that piece. Just used those quotes since they fit the article.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Great, it feels like there are a lot of bright spots in the minors this year, add Blackburn to the pile.

  • fb_avatar

    Don't worry, guys. I've got the game preview in John's absence.

    Matt Garza Watch
    The breaking news is that Matt Garza is still a Cub Cubs Den plans to have at least 3 contributors in the stands with binoculars to over-analyze any facial expressions he may make during the game tonight.. In order to avoid any issues like last year, Theo and Jed have forbidden him taking a nap between now and August 1st. When it was pointed out that Garza doesn't 10-5 rights, Theo responded: "I learned my lesson last year. Not taking any chances."

    The Rest of the Season
    Theo Epstein claims that there are still games to be played after July 31st. This comes as a shock to most Cub fans. We're trying to verify the claim at this time.

    Today's Lineup:
    1) No significant trade value, 3B
    2) The Ohfer Formerly Known as Starlin Castro, SS
    3) 15-20 Prospect from a good system, RF
    4) Turned down a trade to the Giants. No, really. DH
    5) Kris Bryant's Placeholder, 1B
    6) Building trade value for next year, CF
    7) See above, RF
    8) No significant trade value, 2B
    9) Not going to be traded for another couple years, C

    P) Two top 30 pitchers and a package of impact position prospects.

    What to watch:
    Tom: Two of baseball's best divisions on the field today. Okay, the doormats of said divisions, but still...
    John: The comments section. Moody and Caldwell seem determined to talk about 700 trades that will never happen by the third inning.
    Felzz: My back. Someone is obviously gunning for my position as Top Snark.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Mike Moody:

    I should have mocked Castro months ago.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    Excellent analysis!

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    Kris Bryant moving to first? This is the first I've heard of it. His body type obviously fits there, but is there something that you know that I don't?

  • In reply to rlh21:

    Some think Bryant will eventually have to move off 3rd.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to rlh21:

    It's kind of a deep backup. As Ray points out, there is talk he may not be able to stick at third. If he can't play the outfield, that leaves first as his way in. The kid really reminds me of Mark Teixeira, so it wouldn't surprise me if he comes up as a first baseman. Fortunately, if the bat develops as expected, he will hit more than enough to handle first base.

  • My first look at Reggie Golden tonight (MiLB TV). Somewhere, a football team is missing its fullback...

  • In reply to Eldrad:

    He made a couple of great catches last night against Beloit - one of them outstanding... he may be a big guy but he has great range.

  • Why was R. Sweeney removed from the game ???

  • In reply to SouthsideB:

    Apparent Rib injury

  • Garza back on the Dodgers radar......Josh Beckett out for remainder of the year......

    if Nolasco trade was going to happen. it would had happen by now............Nolasxo might be heading to the Red Sox.......

    I doubt if Theo would deal with the Dodgers after last summer.....unless the Dodgers offer Puig straight up for Garza.....which they won't......

    easy way to determine which team Garza would be heading to is which playoff team has the three best pitching prospects to offer....

  • Wow. Dillon Maples is not good right now.

  • Again...I want to ask this question......Does anyone believe this coaching staff will be here after 2015?

    What is Dale thinking?

  • Blown Save Club........

    and now...

    this team should be 45-33 if people knew how to do their job!

  • In reply to CubsTalk:

    Do you mean if the Cubs didn't have a single blown save? Because, if you do, that's just not realistic.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to CubsTalk:

    Soriano has the highest BA on the team with .254 (of qualified players)

    Castro, despite his slump, leads the team in hits with 77

    and Rizzo, our power guy, is on pace for less than 25 HRs.

    What is going on in your head that makes you think we should have 45 wins, or that relief pitching is our only issue?

  • In reply to CubsTalk:

    How are blown saves calculated?

    Suppose Russel comes into the game in the 7th inning leading 2 - 1 and gives up two runs.

    The Cubs score 2 runs in their half inning to go ahead 4 - 3.

    Rondon come in in the 8th and gives up 2 runs. Score 5 - 4.

    Cubs score two runs in last of 8th to go ahead 6 - 5.

    Gregg gives up two runs in the top of the 9th. Cubs losing 7 - 6.

    Cubs score two runs in last of 9th and win the game.

    How many blown saves are awarded. 1, 2, 3, or none?

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to DaveP:

    3. Gregg gets a blown save and a win.

    Easiest way to think of it: if a reliever comes into a game in a save situation and the tying run is charged to that reliever, he gets a blown save.

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    In reply to Mike Moody:

    Sorry, as I wrote that it's incorrect -- if he enters the game in a save situation and leaves with the score tied, it's a blown save. (That covers situations where a pitcher enters the game with a runner on base and that runner scores the tying run.)

  • In that case, it is not accurate to say that if there had not been 16 blown saves, there would have been 16 more wins.

    In fact, you can not determine WHAT the teams record would be by merely looking at the current record and the blown saves stats.

  • I was just wondering when all the fans from the Cubs den and the Cubs Den staff were going to purchase the Tennesee Smokies????? LOL

  • John,

    How aoften are Gubs farm teams on MiLB.TV? I don't have it yet, but I'm contemplating it.

    Great article on Blackburn! I hope he makes it. The name Blackburn leaves a sour taste in the mouth of baseball people up here in Minnesnowta. I hope I can tell them that we have the REAL Blackburn! I think things are looking up in the Cubs farm system when it comes to pitching. Blackburn, Johnson, Hendricks, etc.......

  • In reply to Tinker Evers Chance:

    Thanks. Agreed on Cubs pitching starting to look up. Really like Blackburn.

    MiLB TV is 9.99 a month but the only teams consistently on this year is Iowa and Tennessee. Kane is only on when they play certain teams that have a contract with MiLBTV, including Wisconsin.

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