The Minor League Baseball season begins next Thursday. I know I am weird, but I get just as stoked for that kick off as I do for the Major League season (and in many a down year in Cubs history actually more so). So once again it is time to take a quick look back at where our young players left off at the conclusion of the 2016 season. As I did last week with the position players I have singled out a group of top prospects I will follow throughout 2017. The top two sections are dedicated to starting pitchers and the bottom portion for relievers. As we discuss often on Cubs Den many of the pitchers currently listed as starters may ultimately end up in the bullpen which is why there will be more time and space dedicated to them.
My preferences when projecting future MLB starters from a group of prospects leans toward two key elements. The most obvious is overpowering stuff. A guy like Kerry Wood never needed to refine his command to high levels because his pitches were just so special. But there are very few prospects of his caliber, although Dylan Cease is close, and it is one of the reasons why Cease's high BB rate is not as concerning as it would be for pitchers with lower quality stuff.
For pitcher's not gifted with lightning in their arm the second key element becomes an emphasis not just on control (BB%) but more importantly on command (not just throwing strikes, but throwing quality strikes), which is difficult to track statistically but I will make an effort beginning this season to discuss it more thoroughly and try to emphasize statistics that help paint a portion of the picture even with the limited advanced information publicly available for minor league games.
The workload for starting pitchers takes a toll and the attrition rate at the position is widely known. The ability to pitch efficiently (a strong indicator of not just command, but pitchability) is a trait I value highly. Can a pitcher induce weak contact early in the count? Can he get a strikeout without wasting excessive pitches? Is he constantly working deep counts or working behind in the count? These are the main reasons I have favored the odds of pitchers like Ryan Williams and Zach Hedges as viable MLB starter candidates over those of more heralded prospects with better pure stuff such as Pierce Johnson and Rob Zastryzny. It is also why I have been more excited than most about the potential of Oscar de la Cruz since he is a guy who attacks the zone and works the corners leading to many quick outs and innings. With that in mind, stats I may look to start including throughout the season is pitches per start or more importantly pitches per plate appearance, but it will depend on whether I can access reliable information on those metrics for all the players listed.
Unlike the position player prospects, who as a whole controlled the strike zone with remarkable efficiency, we can see below that many of the Cubs pitching prospects struggled to throw strikes and were often their own worst enemy. Control and command are usually the last element of a pitcher's game to come around, and very few were actually hit hard by the opposition as evidenced by low batting averages against and high K rates, so there is hope for continued improvement from this group, especially considering the number of them that are still young and in the lower levels of the system. The current starters that are unable to master their control are often those that find new life as relievers.
The current reliever I am most excited to track throughout the season is Jose Paulino. The lefty possesses an above average fastball and devastating slider has been moved to the pen full time this year. It was a move I advocated throughout the second half last season, not just because it fits his repertoire and build, but also as a player who was already eligible for the Rule 5 draft in the offseason he needs to make rapid progress this season and prove worthy of addition to the 40 man roster otherwise it is likely the Cubs will be forced to include him in a trade or lose him next offseason for no return. But he has the stuff and the Cubs have not found a young power lefty to build their pen around despite trying numerous candidates recently. Paulino has a chance to remedy that situation, potentially as soon as next season. He could prove to be the next fast mover through the system like we witnessed with fellow SP convert Jose Rosario last season.
The 2017 Minor League Baseball season kicks off April 6th.
|Great||< 3.20||< 1.10||< 5.5||> 24.0|
|Average||~ 3.80||~ 1.30||~ 7.7||~ 20.0|
|Poor||> 4.40||> 1.50||> 8.5||< 15.0|
NOTES: The numbers tend to skew a little different for relievers, especially K rates, which should be a few percentage points higher to be considered great, so I used < 18.0% and > 27.0% cutoff in their chart below.
|De La Cruz||A||27.2||3.25||2.14||.216||1.08||7.1%||31.0%||0.96|
|De La Cruz||A-||8.1||1.08||3.41||.167||0.84||5.9%||41.2%||0.38|