What to expect from Duane Underwood, Jr. in his MLB debut

Duane Underwood 2It 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.


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.

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.

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  • Quite a baptism by fire. I've only attended 1 game in Dodgers Stadium, but it struck me as a foreboding place, late arrivals and early exits notwithstanding.

  • In reply to wthomson:

    LA also tends to be a pitcher's park, though. MLB teams do seem to prefer giving players their MLB debut on the road as the players are going to be hyped up on their own, and the home crowd tends to take that to an even higher level.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    True enough, and I agree with the reasoning. i just think that debuting against the Dodgers at home will be quite a challenge.

  • In reply to wthomson:

    I'll be at the game tonight cheering on Duane, and I think you and Michael are both right. Agree that Dodger Stadium is a very intimidating place to be making your MLB debut. But it is a pitcher's park, it's a night game so the ball won't carry as well, and the temperature at game time will be around 72-75. All of which should help Duane out a bit.

  • In reply to YouCannotBeSerious:

    Have fun!

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Here now. Typical gorgeous night. Cubs just finished up BP. Kyle with a couple bombs. Didn’t see anyone else go deep (TLS) got close. Very little wind. Wouldn’t think the ball is gonna carry much tonight but we’ll see.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Historically def a pitcher park, but the ball has been flying out of LA so far this year. The Dodgers hit more homers in June then they have in their history or damn close

    Hopefully Chavez Revine plays back to its usual pitchers paradise w heavy heavy evening air !

  • In reply to Jim Odirakallumkal:

    Good to know. I didn't realize it has played differently of late.
    Sort of like Wrigley in that way. Seems fewer games with the wind playing a role the past decade or so.

  • thanks for the detailed update. Much appreciated!

  • 4 2/3’s 5 hits, 3 runs 3 BB and 3 K’s with a no decision

  • In reply to rbrucato:

    Frankly, I'd take it, and would consider it a success. We need him to at least pitch into the 5th.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Me too. This is a tough assignment. If he can improve above those numbers the. That will be gravy.

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    This just further shows our unwillingness to use the draft for high end HS pitchers who fall for one reason or another, some on here like to use the excuse they take longer to develop, others like to think the college pitchers get here faster,still others say to trade for pitching with excess hitters.
    How's that strategy working, we had to trade our top prospects for a one year championship, do you honestly think this pitching staff is gonna get another one.
    Theo had a good strategy when he got here, but since 16 he has tried in vain to get pitching help and refuse to use the draft to supply his team with pitchers who have potential to be no. 1 starters, using it mostly on college players,albeit,pitchers or position players. He totally ignores HS pitchers at the top of the draft, using injuries and developmental time to get them ready
    as excuses to take them, and year after year we wait for the cubs get pitching help.

  • In reply to tater:

    It does take longer to develop HS pitchers, I don't see how that is even debatable. And the longer it takes to develop means that there are more opportunities for injuries or for things to go wrong.

    The hitters the Cubs have all developed incredibly quickly, while the pitchers from the Cubs first couple of draft classes did not. This meant that the hitters arrived in the majors far before any homegrown wave of pitching was ready, thus necessitating the need to look outside for solutions.

    In order to supplement their hitting core with as many pitchers as possible it required switching strategies to draft as many college pitchers as they could in 2016/17 so that hopefully some will be ready before the club control with of the Cubs hitters expires. They also were without a 1st and 2nd round pick (and the accompanying bonus pool money) in 2016 because of the Lester and Heyward signings, so they were not able to go overslot to sign HS players in that draft class anyway.

    This past draft was the first time they were able to get back to a "normal" draft where the needs of the MLB contention window did not dictate any particular strategy and the Cubs proved their willingness to draft higher upside prep players when the opportunity presented itself. Davis, Roederer, Franklin are all overslot preps taken in the top 6 rounds. Each is getting 3rd round or better money.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Agree with the cubs drafting these players last draft, but seriously these high upside players were not in the same ballpark as the high school pitchers taken after the cubs pick, we need upside pitchers taken with the top 4 picks, not the players we drafted, also your first high upside player was an 18 year old high school outfielder I believe in 2nd round, not where I would prioritize my money, also our 1st rounder signed at slot, not much to save paying a 55th prospect at our position in first round.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Davis is the only prep and he is HS outfielder, the rest are all college players, the cubs had their choice of these top HS pitchers; Hankins, Rodriquez, Rocker, Denaburg, Ginn, Kower,Torres, many were available with 2nd round pick and supplemental picks...

  • In reply to tater:

    Davis, Roederer and Franklin are all preps and they are all going to get good money. The Cubs are also trying to sign 28th rounder Mitchell Parker to a deal to keep him from going to school.

    Rodriguez was long gone by the time they picked in the 1st. Kowar was a college guy. Rocker obviously wanted too much money because no one picked him and he is heading to school. Denaburg and Hankins missed time with injury. There were certainly a couple of high upside prep arms available at 24, but passing on them doesn't define an entire draft.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Davis is the only HSer,others are college players,as for Parker is he a pitcher or not, otherwise I wouldn't go overslot, as for Hankins and Denaburg their injuries were behind them by draft time and they were still taken and thought of as steals, why not the cubs steal is beyond me, as for how good some of these pitchers will be will be answered in the future...

  • In reply to tater:

    roederer and franklin are preps. i also think they left some better players on the table however, as far as prep pitchersare concerned, i think you are forgetting cease, hudson, sands (who is no longer here) , the other lefthander signed with them, recovering from Tjs, estrada (currently injured). also prep age from the IFA market, albertos,serrano just released in the mexican issue, bralyn marzuez (yes i am mispelling some names) best lefthander in the Ifa market his year, rumored to be getting gallardo , best pitcher in this class and jonathan Machado, top 30 and a lefty pitcher. not the draft but high ceiling prep age pitchers.

  • In reply to tater:

    The strategy of trading for and signing free agent pitchers has been very successful in my book. Since 2015, the Cubs have had the best ERA in the league. Lester may be the best free agent signing in team history. The Arrieta/Strop trade was probably the best trade in Cubs history. The Hendricks trade was great. The Montgomery trade is looking very good as well. The Alzolay injury shows the risk of relying on pitching prospects. I would not be disappointed in Caratini and Alzolay are flipping midseason for more pitchers like Montgomery; guys hitting their peak years with upside.

  • In reply to tater:

    He ignores high school pitching at the top of the draft because it's just about as high a risk pick as you can make. Theo did draft one in the not so distant past though with Boston in 2011, Henry Owens he of the 5.19 career ERA. I think he learned his lesson. From 2011-2013 (the years where we should now be seeing results) of high school pitchers selected in the 1st round, compensatory or supplemental rounds 10 have made MLB rosters. Kyle Crick, Michael Fulmer, Joe Ross, Tyler Beede, Archie Bradley, Dylan Bundy, Max Fried, Lucas Giolito, Jose Berrios and Zach Eflin to various degrees of success. That's 10 in a 3 year period out of 33 drafted in those rounds. Not exactly the kind of success rate you want while building your team. I'll admit that early on in the rebuild the one area where I disagreed with Theo was the pitching strategy, I wanted to see more draft picks too but in hindsight it's very, very difficult to build a team through pitching, particularly high school pitching. Instead in that time Theo traded for Arrieta, Hendricks, Montgomery and Quintana while signing Lester, Hammell, Lackey, Darvish and Chatwood all of whom have been huge contributors over the last 3 1/2 years with the exceptions of the 2 new guys who still could be and should be.. From the list above of the draftees you'd probably only want Bundy, Fried, Berrios and Fulmer anywhere near your rotation (maybe Archie Bradley who still could be an effective starter IMO). In that time they've drafted Baez (2011 under the old regime), Almora, Bryant, Schwarber and Happ all of whom contribute in a big way to the team. I could not have been more wrong in regards to how you build a team. Theo likes to play the odds and the odds do not favor pitchers, high school arms in particular.

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    In reply to TC154:

    And it wasn't like 2011-2013 the Cubs were drafting Hayden Simpson, Earl Cunningham and Ty Griffin. They got guys out of those drafts that have made contributions, and big contributions, at the MLB level.

  • I hope he does well. But is he really ready for this????

  • In reply to WaitTilNextYear:

    He hasn't been as sharp his last few times out as he was earlier in the season, but ultimately that doesn't mean much. If he commands his pitches well, he should be fine, if not, oh well. It is only one start. Darvish is starting in South Bend tonight and predicted he would only need one tune up start. So whether Underwood pitches welll or not he is going to go back to Des Moines on Thursday to continue his development.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    So the bigger story and optimism is in South Bend.? If he gets lit up or has discomfort while/after pitching we are in serious trouble??

  • In reply to WaitTilNextYear:

    The injury part yes, getting lit up maybe not. They're going to be looking for health and arm slot primarily. The sim game was successful now we'll see.

  • In reply to TC154:

    This. Really doesn't matter how Darvish performs tonight as long as his mechanics are fine and he comes out healthy. He very well could be taking a game plan into it that plays right into the strengths of the opposing hitters. If he wants to make sure he throws 90% fastballs, or 40% sliders, or whatever, he will do that regardless of count/score/or game circumstance.

  • In reply to TC154:

    I am thinking about his mental state. If he gets hit hard how will he react mentally????

  • In reply to WaitTilNextYear:

    As for mental state, he's not going out there to compete and win. If he was so mentally fragile, he'd never had made it this far in his MLB career. Today he's going out there to give 100% effort in throwing the pitches he needs to throw and afterwards, gain the trust in knowing his arm/elbow/shoulder/lat/tricep (whatever it was? I forgot) is fine and he can put it behind him.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Michael, is there a rule that Underwood has to stay on the 25 man roster till Thursday or can the Cubs send him down on Tuesday?

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    No. I meant Tuesday but typed Thursday.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    OK, I was not sure, thanks.

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