When it comes to the Cubs farm system, the Cubs have spent their first round picks on the best, most polished hitter available. Two of those hitters, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber, are already key contributors. The other two, Albert Almora and Ian Happ, may not carry the same star quality, but they are still top 10 prospects who have a chance to have an impact on the Cubs future. The Cubs have also spent big IFA money on hitters with Gleyber Torres being the team's top prospect and Eloy Jimenez being the power hitter with the highest ceiling still in the Cubs system. The Cubs have also acquired hitters via trade, most notably Addison Russell, but also Billy McKinney, who some feel is the Cubs 2nd best prospect behind Torres.
But it hasn't just been the high profile guys. The development of catcher Willson Contreras has been big. Mark Zagunis is the system's most disciplined hitter and Chesny Young is their best contact guy. He may take a big step forward too if he adds some strength. Donnie Dewees, Charcer Burks, Frandy De La Rosa, Wladimir Galindo, DJ Wilson...we could go on and on as far as position players with the hit tool to make it to the bigs.
But while praise has been lavished on the Cubs ability to scout hitters, and deservedly so, pitching has always seemingly been an afterthought. The Cubs have waited until beyond the first round in the draft and beyond their primary targets in the IFA season to dig up pitching. Rather than put a lot of money into one single pitcher, the Cubs have chosen to attack that area with volume.
More so than good hitters, pitchers can be found just about anywhere. The pitchers that have high ceilings and high floors are few and far between in the amateur ranks, so by picking pitchers later in the draft, the Cubs had to take on guys with more projection than polish. And that takes time to develop. So while we haven't yet seen it at the MLB level, that may indeed be starting to happen with the Cubs. They'll have to fill in from outside the organization in the short term, but that need may abate somewhat in the next few years.
The Cubs do have some good pitchers with MLB ability who maybe close to contributing, most notably Pierce Johnson, but also breakout prospects Ryan Williams and Brad Markey. There are other pitchers who could breakout and join this category next year: Jake Stinnett,Jonathan Martinez, Paul Blackburn, Tyler Skulina, Erick Leal, and Daury Torrez to name a few.
They're names to watch, but you won't find scouts who see them as guys who will fill out the top 3 of an MLB rotation -- which has been the main criticism of the Cubs farm system.
In all honesty, the Cubs don't have that kind of prospect at all right now -- but they do have pitchers with the ability to become the kind off top 100 level prospects that can transform their farm system.
Here are some names to file away...
Top End Potential
To me, Underwood is a top 5 prospect in the Cubs system and I'd consider putting him as high as #2. His fastball is consistently 94-96 and he has learned to cut it to create more movement without losing much velocity. The curveball has become more consistent and has a chance to be a plus pitch. The change up is getting to the point where it may someday give him a 3rd plus pitch.
Above that, Underwood has learned the art of pitching. He is no longer afraid of contact and has used the movement on his fastball to generate quick, easy outs -- a skill that will serve him well as he moves up. The command has improved every season and now projects as at least average, but given his young age, athleticism, and coachability then I am not going to rule out that becoming a plus for him as well.
Cease isn't the biggest picture, but he is athletic and has a strong build to go with an easy, effortless delivery that generates high 90s heat -- and in fact, I saw him hit triple digits in one rookie league game.
It's really hard to evaluate Cease beyond that right now because he was just returning from Tommy John surgery but his amateur history suggests that he can spin a good curve as well. He didn't throw many of them this year but I expect that is something he will work on again this fall now that he has regained strength and stamina.
Cease is also a good kid with a strong work ethic. He's always at the game, always attentive, respectful, and I've seen signs that he can develop into a leader. On the mound, he's a bulldog and he'll go right after hitters. To me, he has the mental makeup to match his physical skills.
It took us a long time to see Hudson so you didn't see me talk about him much. As it is, I got to see him pitch once and so while we can't make any judgment based on statistical results, the athleticism was evident. I know that Hudson played basketball but he's so tall and thin that I half-expected to see arms and legs flying out of sync. That was not the case at all. Hudson had a smooth, athletic delivery and was able to generate 89-91 mph heat -- but I'd be surprised if that doesn't jump a few ticks as he physically matures and gets stronger. He also threw a couple of pretty good curves, which has a chance to be a plus pitch in time. He's all project now but he's someone I really look forward to seeing in instructs this fall.
Sands has a good feel for pitching, a good curve, and a fastball that sits in the 90-93 range. The change also shows signs of being an above average pitch as well. Sands has been up and down with his command but that has the makings of being above average as well. There isn't a single thing that stands about Sands that makes you stand up and say, "Wow!", he is more of a well-rounded pitcher who does a lot of things well. That profiles him more as a mid-rotation type than a top of the rotation pitcher, but he has a chance to be a steady reliable pitcher that will consistently keep his team in games. He has an ideal pitcher's frame at 6'3", 205 lbs that give him a chance to be a durable innings eater.
Stuff-wise, Steele is similar to Sands in terms of his velocity (90-93) and the good curve. They also differ in a few areas. His change-up is not yet as good as Sands' and he also has a smaller build (6'1", 180). What I do like about Steele is that he has a bit more deception. The arm action is relatively short and he has a high leg kick, so as I stood behind home, it was difficult for me to pick up the ball until it was close to the release point. Hitters seemed to react similarly and the stats bear it out as well. Steele missed more bats than Sands did with just less than one strikeout per inning.
Listed at 6'4", 200 lbs., De La Cruz has outgrown that and has picked up a few ticks on his fastball, routinely sitting in the 93-95 range with potential for more. He's the least advanced in this entire group in terms of his secondaries but the combination of velocity, surprisingly good command, movement and natural plane on his fastball was more than enough to dominate NWL hitters.
But if he is going to be a starter he'll have to continue to sharpen his secondaries, which is undoubtedly something he'll work on this fall. He may have the furthest to go in this group along with Cease, but the good fastball is a great foundation to build on.
Clifton is my pitching version of Willson Contreras. I liked the raw tools and the work ethic from the start, even before the production matched the talent. And like Contreras, it will take him a bit of time before he puts it together but when and if that happens, it's going to happen quickly.
What Clifton has right now is good athleticism, arm strength (up to 96 mph), a curve that flashes plus, and a change which has shown improvement this year. Clifton had his ups and downs this year as the Cubs are obviously grooming him as a starter. He could have gotten by pretty well with his FB-CB combo, but he was willing to take a step back to work on his change as well as learning how to set up hitters and learning the art of pitching in general. In simple terms, he took strides toward being a pitcher instead of just a thrower.
If Clifton can continue to improve his command and feel for pitching, he has a chance to become a starter that fits somewhere in that top three, but it may take some patience.
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