We all know the Cubs are looking to acquire pitching prospects. After the first two rounds in the last two drafts, the Cubs focused heavily on pitchers. They've also sought pitching in return when they've traded some of their veterans at the deadline. Deals involving Matt Garza, Paul Maholm, Scott Feldman, Alfonso Soriano, and Ryan Dempster brought back young pitchers. If the Cubs do indeed deal Jeff Samardzija, as many suspect, the belief is that the Cubs will once again seek to stock up on young arms.
Pitching prospects generally involve more risk, so the key to success is to identify live arms, athletic pitchers, with good makeup and perhaps some pitchability -- and then attack with volume. The Cubs have certainly added a good supply of strong arms, but most haven't quite had that big breakout season to put them on the national prospect map. C.J. Edwards and Kyle Hendricks had breakout seasons last year.
Who will be the breakout pitchers in 2014?
I had my own answers to that question and I also asked around and got some scouting opinions. Here are some names that came up. (Note: I also added the pitching age and projected level for next season).
Pierce Johnson, RHP, 22, Tennessee (AA): Johnson got off to a rough start in Kane County last year and then proceeded to right the ship and turn in multiple dominant performances. He did not slow down upon a mid-season promotion to Daytona, though his walk rate increased a little bit. One scout told me Johnson made a minor tweak to his delivery and has added some more movement on the fastball, so he has a real chance to improve on what was already a good season. Johnson has the kind of makeup and athleticism the Cubs like and he made great strides learning how to pitch last year. The one thing, he still needs to work on, like most young pitchers, is more consistent command.
Arodys Vizcaino, RHP, 23, Iowa (AAA): Vizcaino has missed 2 full season but is still just 23. Theo Epstein created quite a stir when he talked about Vizcaino's return to health this offseason. He's back throwing hard, hitting 98 mph with "electric stuff" and his usual good command. Vizcaino's best pitch may be his sharp-breaking curve ball and it gives him a second out pitch. The change-up is solid so he does have a 3 pitch arsenal to be a starter, but the guess is that the Cubs will limit his innings next year and if he does make it to Chicago, it will almost certainly be as a reliever. Whether that changes in the future remains to be seen, but there are some who believe Vizcaino can be an impact reliever in high leverage situations, perhaps as a closer.
Paul Blackburn, RHP, 20, Kane County (A): The word "stud" seems to get evoked frequently when I ask about Blackburn. He just turned 20 and will likely head to Kane County next year. Blackburn is an athletic pitcher who knows how to pitch and already shows signs of having 3 average or better pitches with good command. He reportedly put on 30 lbs and was reaching the mid 90s early in the season before missing a few starts and then struggling a bit upon his return. He dialed it back up for the NWL playoffs, looking like the same dominant pitcher he was early in the season. For Blackburn it seems all the pieces are there and all he needs is time to hone his skills, build stamina, and develop consistency.
Ben Wells, RHP, 21, Tennessee (AA): It's hard to believe Wells is still just 21. He's been around forever it seems, but elbow injuries and Tommy John derailed his promising start. Wells showed up hitting the mid 90s consistently in the spring 2 years ago but was more in the 89-92 mph range last season. The fastball does feature heavy sink and Wells does throw with good plane, allowing him to generate weak contact, including a ton of ground balls while keeping the ball in the park. Last year was about getting through the season healthy, building back arm strength, and regaining his solid command. Wells is now reportedly throwing a tick or two faster this offseason which should help him play up his hard sinker. The key to Wells is to develop either his slider or his splitter as a second go-to pitch. He's never going to be a big swing and miss guy, but he profiles as an innings eater because of his big frame and how he works efficiently, throws strikes, and pitches to contact.
Dillon Maples, RHP, 21, Kane County (A): The Cubs tweaked his delivery and it looks a bit more fluid than it did as a prep. Maples really struggled when he was at Kane County, particularly with his command. The Cubs then sent him back to Boise and simplified his approach. The Cubs had him forget the change and attack the zone with his two plus pitches: a fastball that ranges anywhere from 91-96 and a hard, sweeping breaking ball that can be unhittable. The results were almost immediate. Maples learned how to pitch with the streamlined approach and went on to dominate at Boise. The plan is to eventually re-introduce him to the change-up and to continue working on being more fine with his command, but for now the Cubs want him to continue to learn and build confidence.
Duane Underwood, RHP, 19, Kane County (A): One of the more talented pitchers in the Cubs system, Underwood has tremendous arm speed, he's athletic, and he's projectable. It's an ideal starter kit but there's a lot of work to do.Back when I interviewed Derek Johnson, he talked about letting a pitcher develop athleticism and arm strength naturally and they can teach skills later. Underwood embodies that and will be a strong test of this organization's ability to develop power pitchers. He remains inconsistent with his command and his breaking pitch, but he did show flashes of brilliance in spots. I wonder if the Cubs should try a similar strategy with Duane Underwood as they did with Maples and simplify the approach.
Ryan McNeil, RHP, 19, Boise (A-): McNeil has an upside play in the 3rd round of the 2012 MLB Draft. He was a bit raw and was just growing into his body, but the Cubs saw the potential for a big bodied innings eater who could profile as a #3 starter. He throws a low 90s fastball with heavy sink and a slider that occasionally shows some tight rotation, throws a change-up with some sink. It will be interesting to see what he can do with good health and some physical maturity. He projects as a mid-rotation workhorse if all goes to plan.
Tayler Scott, RHP, 21, Daytona (A+): He's not going to light up radar guns or a stat sheet. He's not going to be an ace but there's a certain fondness for Scott in the organization because of his makeup and athleticism. He features a high 80s to low 90s fastball and a good curve. From South Africa, the Cubs have been impressed how quickly he's taken to pitching. There's a chance Scott may pick up a notch or two but there's some who feel that he may have maxed out physically. A guy to watch if you like pitchability and command types. Scott isn't there yet, but he has the makings of being that type of pitcher.
Daurys Torrez, RHP, 21, Kane County (A): Torrez also needs to get stronger and build stamina. He has excellent command for a young pitcher. He features a two-seam fastball in the 91-93 mph range with some arm side run to go with the sink. He also has good velo on his slider and a decent change. Last year he showed more ability to miss bats, striking out hitters at roughly a 25% rate (one per inning) while also showing tremendous command for a young pitcher. He threw a ton of strikes, putting up a 2.5% walk rate (less than one per game). He was promoted to Kane County for one start last season and could well start 2014 there.
Jen-Ho Tseng, RHP, 18, Boise (A-): It's tough to call a pitcher a breakout candidate when he has yet to log a professional inning but Tseng's combination of good stuff - a 90-94 mph FB with potential for a plus curve and a plus change -- and advanced feel for pitching makes him a candidate to advance quickly in first season. The Cubs have to resist the temptation to overwork him as he's just 18 and still needs to grow into his frame.
Other names mentioned:
- Scott Frazier, RHP, 22, Kane County (A): "He has the arsenal"
- Michael Jensen, RHP, 23, Daytona (A+): "Not a true prospect, but someone that could sneak his way into a role. Kid knows how to pitch."
- Juan Paniagua, RHP, 23, Kane County (A): "Needs to get innings. Stuff is there."
- Josh Conway, RHP, Boise (A-): Potential plus fastball and slider, just needs to stay healthy.
- Rob Zastryzny, LHP, Kane County (A): Showed a good change. Velo was down from what he showed in college, but could come back up again.
- Trevor Clifton, RHP, 18, AZL (R): Raw stuff, great arm. Much to work with but a lot of work needed.
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