The John Arguello Awards – The Cubs’ Minor League Co-Pitchers of the Year

This is the final of a series of articles naming minor league players and pitchers of the year. For consideration for Minor League Pitcher of the Year , a pitcher would have to be assigned to one of the four full season minor league teams (Low-A South Bend, Advanced-A Myrtle Beach, Double-A Tennessee, and Triple-A Iowa) at the beginning of the season, and not assigned to any short season teams during the playing year. Our panel includes minor league writers Michael Ernst, Stephanie Lynn, and Tom U along with Cubs Den writers Myles Phelps, Dan Travis, and Jared Wyllys.

The Minor League Co-Pitchers of the Year – Jen-Ho Tseng, RHP and Dakota Mekkes, RHP

In 2014, the future of Cubs pitching looked very bright when the staff of Low-A Kane County led the Midwest League in every major category while sweeping their way to a league championship crown. But of a starting rotation that included Paul Blackburn, Daury Torrez, Duane Underwood, Tyler Skulina, and Jonathan Martinez, a then 19 year old Jen-Ho Tseng was named the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year. That season, Tseng went 6-1in 19 games (17 starts) and had a 2.40 ERA, 0.876 WHIP, and 85 strikeouts in 105 innings. Tseng also started and won the Cougars first playoff game, as well as the first game of the championship round. That 2014 from the right-hander from Taipei, Taiwan was also his professional debut, and made that season look even more promising.

But two rather lackluster seasons filled with trips to the disabled list snipped the bloom off Tseng’s rose, and relegated him to somewhat of an afterthought when discussing the system’s top pitching prospects. The 2015 season saw a noticeable lack of both velocity and control, as Tseng went only 7-7 with a jump to a 3.55 ERA, 1.218 WHIP, and a paltry 87 strikeouts 119 innings for Advanced-A Myrtle Beach. The downward spiral continued in 2016, as Tseng was promoted to Double-A Tennessee but went 6-8 as his ERA climbed to 4.29 and WHIP to 1.500. Tseng’s strikeouts also slipped to 69 in 113.1 innings.

So it was no surprise that the now 22 year old was given a return trip to Tennessee this season. However, Tseng made the most of the situation. In 15 starts for the Smokies, Tseng was 7-3 with a 2.99 ERA and a 1.127 WHIP. That earned Tseng a move up to Triple-A Iowa where he improved to 6-1 with a 1.80 ERA. For the year, Tseng is 13-4 with a 2.54 ERA, 1.135 WHIP and 122 strikeouts in 145.1 innings. With a low-90’s fastball, a curve he can throw for strikes, and what some have said to be the best change-up in the cubs’ system, Tseng has positioned himself well for a run at the major league rotation in 2018.

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Dakota Mekkes by John Arguello

As unlikely as Tseng’s rise to the top this season, the success of Dakota Mekkes has seemed to catch everyone by surprise. Selected in the tenth round of the 2106 draft, he 22 year old had one of the most impressive runs of any player selected by the current Cubs’ front office. The 6-foot-7, 252-pound right-hander gave observers a glimpse of what was to come after signing, going 1-1 with a 1.80 ERA, 0.800 WHIP, and 27 strikeouts in 20 innings between rookie ball and Short Season-A Eugene last year.

Assigned to Low-A South Bend to start the 2017 season, Mekkes was impressive right out of the gate. In 31 innings, Mekkes was 3-0 with a microscopic 0.58 ERA, 0.903 WHIP with 47 strikeouts and four saves. Insiders were also encourage to see Mekkes and fellow 2016 draftee Wyatt Short take on leadership roles for the South Bend pitching staff.

Promoted to Myrtle Beach in early June, Mekkes did not miss a beat as he improved to 5-1 with three saves, a 1.09 ERA, 0.992 WHIP, and 44 strikeouts in 41.1 innings. While his numbers remained somewhat constant, Mekkes acknowledged the challenge of being promoted to the next level.  “I think the biggest difference I've noticed is that hitters don't miss mistake pitches” explained Mekkes in a July interview. “In South Bend, I might have been able to get away with missing a spot or two. But in Myrtle Beach, missed spots are hits!”

Overall, Mekkes is 8-1 with seven saves, an ERA of 0.87, 0.954 WHIP, and 91 strikeouts in 72.1 innings as of last Saturday. What makes Mekkes’ low-90’s fastball, slider, and change effective is a throwing motion that has a long stride and crouch to go with his 6-foot-7 frame. “He doesn't throw hard”, noted Pelicans’ broadcaster Scott Kornberg. “But at the same time, he's so big and he has such a big stride that he's just really difficult to pick up. So at 90-92 MPH, Mekkes actually is perceived to be 94-96 MPH probably, minimum, to a hitter.”

Given the amount of pitching prospects posting good seasons, it was a spirited debate among the Cubs Den panel in whom to award. High profile prospect Adbert Adzolay was a combined 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA and 108 strikeouts in 114.1 between Tennessee and Myrtle Beach before ending the season on the disabled list. Once a lost 2011 draft choice, Dillon Maples finally put his immense talent to good use and went 6-3 with 13 saves and 2.27 ERA over three levels to earn a call-up to the major league roster for September. Also considered were starting pitchers Duncan Robinson (9-9, 2.21 ERA, 1.087 WHIP, 96 K’s in 126 IP for South Bend and Myrtle Beach) and Michael Rucker (5-5, 2.38 ERA, 1.038 WHIP, 92 K in 93.1 IP for South Bend and Myrtle Beach).

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    Those are great choices and I'm sure John is smiling right now. We have been reading about Tseng for years--another one of those who John has been following for years. I wonder how many other players have been Pitchers of the Year twice! We do have a number of pitching prospects in the minors and starting yesterday with Maples coming up it seems like this way of prospects is beginning to push their way to the major league club. We might not have to go outside and sign someone, maybe Tseng will be our #5 starter next year.
    Thanks to all of you for all your hard work. I and others certainly appreciate it.

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    Thank you! I am grateful to the rest of the Cubs Den staff for bringing in this feature, as well as their input in the selections. It is a fitting tribute that I hope lasts for a long time.

  • It seems you have to have volume of pitchers in your system to be able to develop pitchers. This year Tseng, Mekkes and Maples were not highly thought of at the beginning of the year but have been our top 3. Who will be the top next year, DeLaCruz, Stinnett, Underwood, Clifton, Hudson, Adzolay, Albertos, Abbott, Lang, Little? I guess we will have to wait and see.

  • In reply to John57:

    The question is that with current Cubs management not having a track record of using pitchers developed in their system, what the relevance is? There isn't any talk aboutt anyone in the system ready to step into the rotation if and when Arrietta and Lackey are gone. I also wonder if anyone at Myrtle Beach or South Bend will be ready during this window.

  • In reply to jack:

    Jack, you make a fair point, one that should be directed at the Cubs' front office and their lack of confidence in their own ability to identify, select, and develop major league pitching talent.

    The relevance is not only to recognize the players who have worked hard and succeeded during the season, but to inform the public that there are players and pitchers in the system that can go on to have productive major league careers.

  • In reply to jack:

    I think Tseng, Alzolay and Underwood could all be ready to contribute in the second half next year.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Michael.... Of all the free agent pitchers soon to be on the market i haven't heard anyone mention Lance Lynn's name. Do you think the cubs will kick the tires on Lynn during the upcoming offseason? I doubt the cardinals will resign him because they probably would of done so if they were going to do it,plus the cardinals have some really good young pitchers( Jack Flaherty,Alex Reyes,Luke Weaver) who are already ready to jump into their rotation.

  • In reply to Greg Simmons:

    StLGreg.......The Cubs will "kick the tires" on any right handed starting pitcher that can fill their need of a 4-5 starter. I believe Lynn will be in play as long as he wants to pitch for the Cubs. Will Lynn offer the Cubs the same "discount" he offered the Cards to sign him to an extension. For any RH starter, the Cubs will look at 1 year and 1 year plus option, 2 year and 2 year plus option and then 3 year contract candidates. Developing pitching for every club is fickle. It takes volumes of pitchers to get one to the show and then you are always concerned of an injury like your Cards have had with Wacha, Reyes, and Wainwright and every other club has each year.

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    In reply to TexasCubsFan:

    Thanks for the reply but i don't understand your sarcasm. Did i say something honest that offended you?

  • In reply to Greg Simmons:

    Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Montgomery figure to take 4 spots. Obviously a front line guy that would push everyone down would be preferable, but I'm not into the idea of signing a mid level guy on a 3-5 year deal. We already have enough of that moving forward. Get someone good, or get a stopgap. Then let the farm system start filling the gap.

    I think the only way that the Cubs offer a SP more than two years is if the guy is front line. To fill the 4-5 spot vacated by Lackey I don't see them giving out a contract longer than what Lackey got two years ago. Whether that is the type of contract Lynn would accept is up to him, I doubt it though. Think he likely gets more term than that from someone.

    As much as I know some would hate it, if Lackey is willing to return on a one year deal, I would consider it. If he struggles, you would have internal options in Butler, Mills, Tseng, Alzolay, Underwood.

  • In reply to jack:

    The first 5 draft the Cubs FO has prioritized positional players in the early rounds. This past draft in 2017 is the first draft where pitching was the priority and taken early in the draft. You seem to imply the FO can't develop pitching. I think they can but it is not easy when all your high picks are not pitchers. We are going to have to wait a while for more recent picks to develop.

  • WooHoo! We just got a mention by Len and JD on the Cubs' broadcast!

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