Brad Wieck (1 option year remaining)
A former starter in the Detroit system, Kyle Ryan eventually settled in as a solid swingman and depth arm for the Tigers bullpen in the 2015-16 seasons, but as a guy who relied heavily on command and an ability to induce weak contact his success was always balanced on a knife's edge during his 86 MLB games with the org. With so little room for error, he eventually fell off when his control took a step back, and Ryan quickly lost his job the following season and even continued to struggle in his return to AAA as his walk totals mounted.
After the 2017 season he was left looking for answers, and a new organization. A Minor League free agent that offseason, the Cubs signed him up. The Cubs were in desperate need to fill out their left-handed bullpen depth at the time. Ryan was among a number of reclamation projects the organization signed or claimed, hoping to strike gold.
For Ryan, he failed to earn a job with Chicago (or even Iowa) on Opening Day in 2018 but as he stayed behind in Extended Spring Training the Cubs worked with him in their Mesa Pitch Lab to alter his release point. He'd change it so much in fact, that his release point became among the most exaggerated examples of throwing from the 1st base side in the game. It unlocked more movement on his pitches and also added deception to his delivery which set him on path to carve out a key role in the Iowa once he arrived from Arizona in May, and culminated in a MLB contract last offseason.
Further tweaks to his arsenal over the past calendar year enabled Ryan to take yet another step forward as he quickly established himself as one of the most trusted arms in the Cubs pen last year. While his K rates have jumped from his previous levels, Ryan still relies heavily on soft contact and generating ground balls, so he isn't an ideal match as a late-inning, shut down option. He is best suited for a complimentary role.
The good news is, the Cubs may have uncovered the power lefty they've missed at the back end of the bullpen since Aroldis Chapman departed in free agency after the 2016 World Series victory.
It would be unusual for the Cubs front office to bet on an unproven pitcher to play a key role heading into the year, but the late season performance by Brad Wieck should force them to take notice. Acquired in a deadline deal for Carl Edwards, Jr., the big lefty (all 6'9" of him) with a big fastball to match failed to carve out a regular role for the Padres the past two years despite gaudy strike out totals (although a testicular cancer diagnosis last spring certainly set back his progress as well). Upon arriving in Chicago, the Cubs sent him to Mesa with the expressed purpose of rebuilding his curve in their Pitch Lab, and while the results may be from a small sample size, they speak volumes:
Brad Wieck, Soul Stealing 74mph Curveball.
[H/T pretty much every cubs fan] pic.twitter.com/Sb0agGivOQ
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 2, 2019
It is the same spike curveball the team taught Rowan Wick and that Yu Darvish picked up from Craig Kimbrel. This second weapon helped Wieck punch out 18 batters in 10 innings with the club, while allowing just 2 hits. Control remained a bit on an issue (4 walks, 2 HBP) but the pure stuff Wieck offers, and the way it compliments that of Ryan, is hard to ignore.
The Cubs will be tempted to pursue a proven back end piece to fill out their pen, but it is possible the team already has the solution in house. Of course, adding a third lefty would hardly be a bad thing. Both Ryan and Wieck have utility against right-handed batters while Ryan has shown he is capable of working multiple innings at times, so the team does have flexibility.
The breakthroughs by Ryan and Wieck (as well as Wick) offer three examples of the Cubs ability to polish previously struggling or underachieving arms. Throw in the 2019 turnarounds of Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood and Brandon Kintzler and there is evidence the club is beginning to receive benefits from their new investment in the latest technology. They weren't the innovators in the field, and the team is still playing catch up, but the front office reshuffling points toward their desire to close that gap more quickly. Hopefully, we will see even more success stories in 2020.
40-Man Roster Depth
Justin Steele (2 option years remaining)
I could list Danny Hultzen under the incumbents, and probably should given he is out of Minor League options, but with his extensive injury history and the fact he has yet to show he can hold up when asked to pitch in back-to-back games or over multiple innings, it is difficult to project him earning a job out of Spring Training next year. There is just too much risk involved in asking a guy who has thrown a combined 26.1 pro innings over the past two years to shoulder the load over a full MLB season at this point.
His comeback was a great story in 2019, and his stuff has returned well enough that he could continue to contribute at the Major League level in some capacity, but given where he currently stands the best option for the Cubs would be to non-tender him, and then offer to re-sign him to a Minor League deal, which would allow the organization to keep him in EXST coming out of camp or at least control his workload early in the year. The other option would be to simply risk passing him through waivers next spring.
Given all of the uncertainty surrounding him, and the unlikeliness of him earning a job next spring his 40-man roster spot would seem of better use over the winter. If he comes out and pitches well in Iowa next summer Hultzen can earn his way back on to the 40 and 25-man rosters.
Justin Steele isn't about to lose his 40-man spot, but a third consecutive injury-marred season clouds his future projection as a starting pitcher. His 2018 comeback from TJS could not have gone better. He returned midseason, less than a year after undergoing the procedure, and throwing as well as he ever had. Steele earned a promotion to AA and then showed well in the AFL.
All signs were pointing up heading into 2019. But a nagging lat injury cost him large chunks of the season, and when he did get on the mound, he rarely found his rhythm. With one of three option years burned, and now six seasons into his professional career, Steele has never made more than 20 starts or broken 100 innings. Just as with Adbert Alzolay last spring, the clock is ticking on his opportunities as a starting pitcher. If he does not get off on the right foot next spring the organization should consider a moving the 24-year old to the pen.
It may prove the best fit for him anyway. Steele has kept his walk totals to reasonable levels when healthy, but has yet to refine his command. He often finds himself pitching from behind or catching too much of the plate during an at bat. When tasked with shorter stints during his rehab and AFL outings, Steele regularly sat in the mid-90s, and this extra velocity will give him more margin for error.
Wyatt Short, Jordan Minch
In many ways, the projected Iowa Cubs duo of Wyatt Short and Jordan Minch are mirrors of Ryan and Wieck. They may not be as purely talented as the two arms in Chicago, but they offer similar contrasting styles. Short is reminiscent of Ryan in that he generates ground balls and weak contact at a high rate, while managing to miss just enough bats to fill in as a late inning option when called upon. He falls a bit short of Wieck in stature and stuff but Minch brings a power arsenal of his own, including low-to-mid-90s gas, that has made him an intriguing arm in the system for a number of years. Minch has simply never mastered enough consistency to fulfill his potential.
Both are Rule 5 Draft eligible this offseason, but given they are a bit older and are as yet unproven in AAA, I doubt either gets selected. With good seasons, they could make runs at earning 40-man spots next offseason or perhaps down the stretch in 2020 if the need arises.
Jerry Vasto, Conor Lillis-White, Luke Hagerty, Luis Lugo, Ryan Lawlor
Short and Minch won't be the only southpaws competing for jobs in the I-Cubs pen. The organization boasts a ton of depth behind them, assuming health allows them to compete.
I mentioned the Cubs were aggressive at collecting arms throughout 2018 (including Ryan, Hultzen, Alberto Baldonado, Ryan Lawlor) to make up for their lack of depth from the left side in their system, well that work intensified last winter. Not only did they re-sign all four from their 2018 shopping, they added additional depth via the waiver wire (Jerry Vasto, Ian Clarkin), in free agency (Tim Collins, Luke Hagerty), the Minor League portion of the Rule 5 Draft (Luis Lugo), and picked up another via trade (Conor Lillis-White).
Collins provided some solid innings in Iowa and a handful in Chicago before getting outrighted off the 40-man and choosing free agency rather than returning to AAA. Clarkin and Baldonado were released at midseason. But the depth paid off because the organization wound up losing a trio of those lefties to injury for the entirety of the 2019 campaign: Vasto, Lillis-White, Hagerty.
Vasto is the only one of the trio with MLB experience, as he pitched a handful of games for both the Rockies and Royals in 2018 while surfing the waiver wire. If he can get back to throwing in the low-90s and backing it up with his solid changeup and slider he provides the club with the proven and experienced arm they currently lack in AAA.
After Tommy La Stella put together an All-Star first half in Anaheim (coupled with Daniel Descalso's epic failure as a bench replacement), the Cubs decision to deal the popular infielder last offseason took on an even worse look when it became clear the pitcher they received in exchange, Conor Lillis-White, would miss the entire season due to an elbow injury. The 6'4" lefty doesn't possess amazing stuff (curve is probably his best pitch), but he was knocking on the door to the Majors with the Angels at the end of the 2018 season, and his numbers against left-handed batters throughout his MiLB career have been outstanding: .188 BAA, 30.4 K%. He's susceptible to righties, but also manages to strike a decent amount of them out, having finished with double digit K/9 figures at every rung up the ladder (252 K in 190.2 IP).
There was no more intriguing signing (and ultimately disappointing outcome from a narrative standpoint) than when the Cubs came to terms with 37-year old Luke Hagerty last October. The first of three supplemental 1st round picks by the organization way back in 2002, Hagerty started his pro career with a bang (50 K in 48 IP with Boise in his draft year), but suffered an elbow injury the following spring which required TJS and cost him most of the next two years. Upon returning he developed a case of the yips which led to his retirement after the 2006 season with just 80.1 career IP to his name.
The excitement ended quickly when it was announced in March that Hagerty suffered another elbow injury. Although not Tommy John, he did require season-ending surgery and it seemed his comeback was over before it really began. But not so fast. Late last week we learned that Hagerty has re-signed with the Cubs for 2020 and that this wild ride may not be over yet. We are going on 13 years since his last pitch in a professional game (none above A+), so there should be no expectations, but I sure do hope to see the wicked movement on his mid-90s heat and Kluber-like breaking ball at some point this season, even if it is just in a Minor League game.
Who's to say though, that after witnessing the unlikely comeback of one former 1st round pick last season (Hultzen), we won't be treated to an even more bizarre and unlikely one this year.
Beyond the three rehabbing lefties the Cubs also have a pair of intriguing over-age arms from the lower levels that bear keeping an eye on as well. When the club selected Luis Lugo in the Minor League portion of the Rule 5 draft last winter, it appeared to be nothing more than a move for an experienced org arm to fill out the Myrtle Beach and Tennessee rotations should injuries arise. And that is exactly what happened. But once that door opened for Lugo, he took advantage.
He used his 6'5" frame to full extent by deploying an over-the-top delivery which helped his average four pitch mix play up. Lugo settled in as one of the Smokies best starters in the 2nd half of the year. The reason I list the former Cleveland top 20 prospect among the relievers and not as a starter is I am intrigued by the way he absolutely ate up left-handed batters in AA (.130 AVG, 22 K in 20.2 IP).
Finally, we get to an even more intriguing arm, and one of the most baffling developmental decisions the Cubs made during the 2019 season. The Cubs picked up former Braves prospect Ryan Lawlor during the 2018 campaign after he impressed one of their scouts while pitching in Indy ball. His previous run in the Atlanta system was marred by injury and despite some decent strikeout numbers as a starter, he failed to ascend beyond the High-A level. The Cubs ended up using him as a fill-in for South Bend in 2018, and though I was intrigued by his curveball, when he returned to South Bend as a 24-year old reliever to open 2019 I sort of wrote him off.
Then a funny thing happened. Lawlor began dominating. His curveball became a consistent plus pitch. His velocity improved. And his strikeout rate kept climbing, and climbing, and climbing. After posting 24 K and allowing just a .154 average against in 19.2 innings (30% K rate) with South Bend, the Cubs promoted him to Myrtle Beach where his K rate increased even further (41.8%). He'd finish with 61 K in 35.2 IP with the Pelicans and 85 K in 55.1 innings between the two levels. Opposing batters hit just .169, with lefties managing just .143 against him in High-A.
Lawlor was sitting low-90s, hitting as high as 95, and backing it up with the good curve and solid change. But the Cubs never moved him up again, despite Lawlor being old for the level and clearly in need of a greater challenge. In the end, it could prove useful, because if Lawlor had moved to Tennessee and continued pitching well, there would probably be more talk of him being a potential target for the rest of the league in the Rule 5 draft. As it is, if there is a dark horse candidate to get plucked from the organization next month, Lawlor would be my pick.