It may be hard to believe, as 2018 is his 7th season with the organization, but Duane Underwood, Jr. will not turn 24-years old until the end of next month. That makes him only a couple of years older than most of the players from the Cubs most recent draft class. While those players will be fill out the rosters of the Cubs lower levels teams for the near future, Underwood has spent the past two and a half years at AA and AAA, and is now set to make his MLB debut
Underwood represents a rarity among the selections made by this front office regime. One of three prep players the Cubs selected in the top two rounds of the 2012 draft (Albert Almora and Paul Blackburn were the others), Underwood was the youngest at just 17. Despite the success all three players achieved in the Minors, and then eventually the Majors for Almora and Blackburn, the Cubs did not spend another pick in on a prep player in the top two rounds until they selected outfielders Brennen Davis and Cole Roederer earlier this month.
Underwood was raw, and the Cubs expected him to take more time to develop than the far more polished Almora and Blackburn. While Almora did jump a level ahead of the two pitchers out of the gate, Underwood hung right with Blackburn their first four years in the system. Underwood even outperformed Blackburn at the A and A+ levels as his natural talent and greater ceiling began to show through. Injuries, and inconsistency would plague him the following two seasons, however, while Blackburn continued to ascend up the ranks, making his Major League debut with Oakland last June after being included in the Mike Montgomery trade.
— Tom U (@The_Tom_U) June 25, 2018
Underwood finally got healthy in 2017, but was unable to establish himself as a consistently effective starter with Tennessee as control and consistency continued to plague him. He used the season as a learning experience and eventually a springboard toward greater success this year. He moved to Arizona in the offseason and committed himself to getting in the best shape of his life. The organization took notice of the differences right away this spring. Joe Maddon named him as one of the young pitchers he was pleasantly surprised with in spring training after Underwood had failed to make an impression on him the previous year. Minor League pitching coordinator Brendan Sagara and Iowa manager Marty Pevey have been effusive with their praise since the the I-Cubs season began.
Additional work with Iowa pitching coach Rod Nichols to streamline his delivery has helped Underwood improve his command and control to the point where he has walked more than two batters during an outing in just three of his fourteen games this season. He has taken greater interest in game planning and I have no doubt working with veteran catcher Chris Gimenez helped during his early season breakout as well.
As far as a scouting report on Underwood, the first thing you will notice is his ability to mix in multiple pitches. To right handed batters he will work both sides of the plate and run mostly with a two-seam fastball in the low-90s along with an improving cutter in the upper-80s and a big, slow curve that he will attempt to steal strikes with early in the count. He will also use his above average changeup at times against righties.
Underwood's slider has probably passed his curveball at this point but both have flashed avg or above at times. pic.twitter.com/JEBnOmPb0i
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) March 24, 2018
His changeup has also shown to be average at various points in his career which gives him the chance for four usable pitches. pic.twitter.com/iUitRM0gm8
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) March 24, 2018
Against lefties he really works to establish the inner third of the plate. He will throw his cutter in on the hands of batters and replace his two-seamer with a four-seamer that gains a couple of ticks of velocity. His changeup becomes a more prominent secondary and he is able to induce whiffs and weak contact off of the pitch when he keeps it at the edges or just off the plate. Just as he does with righties, the slow curve will get mixed in and is used mostly in the strike zone.
Because his cutter and change lack elite movement, Underwood does not possess a dominant chase pitch to induce hitters to expand far outside the zone. This means he is around the plate a lot and there is likely to be plenty of contact against him, but when he is at his best he'll prevent most guys from barreling him up. If he manages to stay ahead of hitters and throw quality strikes he can get generate some whiffs off his ability to change speeds and the eye lines of batters.