We’re getting near the cream of the crop and today’s segment will tie in with our pitching article yesterday. Specifically, I’m talking about compiling depth as the Cubs simultaneously look to dig up a potential top of the rotation arm.
Speaking of which, I had a feeling I might regret my rather conservative ranking of Jen-Ho Tseng after my conversations with a number of different scouts and the recent explosion of good reports do indeed have me wishing I’d gone with an earlier draft that would have had him in this 16-20 range. Ultimately I decided that it was too big a jump for someone who had yet to play. And since he didn’t even crack any top 20 IFA liststo put him in the Cubs top 20, much less the top 10, just seemed too much of a stretch. Suddenly that idea doesn’t seem all that crazy.
But that really does illustrate how rankings can be so fluid and why I always have reservations about it. In the end though, it is just for fun and Tseng’s sudden ascension into the national scene is a story in it of itself. Maybe next time we’ll go ahead and take that leap of faith.
With all that said, there are plenty of talented pitchers that are also worthy of this ranking, all of whom have a chance to take a real step forward with some additional development.
Here are the pitchers who did crack the top 20 and be sure to check out the video by Tim Sheridan of Boys of Spring at the bottom of the page. A last minute scheduling conflict means no podcast for this particular segment but we should be back for next week.
20. Duane Underwood
- Age: 19
- 6’2″, 205 lbs
- Expected 2014 level: Kane County (A)
- Key 2013 stats: 5.96 K/9 IP; 4.47 Ks/9IP, 4.65 FIP
Underwood is among the Cubs most intriguing pitchers when it comes to raw talent. He has athleticism and arm strength, sitting at 91-93 mph and reaching 96 mph last year. He also flashed a good curveball at times, showing good depth and break on the mid 70s offering. The change also showed improvement. One big change you may not with Underwood is that weight — and the bad news is that it wasn’t like Paul Blackburn putting on muscle weight, Underwood was a little soft. Inconsistency plagued Underwood in his prep days and caused him to slip into the 2nd round and to avoid the same pitfalls he needs to do better with his preparation. By all accounts Underwood is a good kid and very coachable, and he has all kinds of ability, but he’ll have to understand that the competition at this level is pretty cut-throat — you can’t ease up on the pedal too often or you’ll get left behind.
19. Dillon Maples
- Age: 21
- 6’2″, 220 lbs
- Expected 2014 level: Kane (A)
- Key 2013 stats: 8.8 Ks/9 IP; 4.1 BB/9 IP
Maples is another good athlete with excellent arm strength whom the Cubs bought out of a football scholarship at UNC for $2.5M. There are no concerns about Maples staying in shape, but it did appear to me that early on that he was pressing on the mound. The Cubs may have thrown too much at him early in the season with the jump to Kane County and trying to speed up his development after two injury plagued seasons. Maples struggled with his changeup and the process of setting up hitters, as well as throwing strikes, so the Cubs dialed it back, sending him back to Boise and having him focus on throwing his fastball, which reached as high as 97 (sat 92-94), and a hard curve that can be absolutely unhittable. Maples learned that he didn’t have to have pinpoint either of those pitches to be dominant and seemed to relax and throw more strikes. He cut his walk rate in half and actually walked 2 or less batters in 7 of his 10 appearances at Boise. That led to a 5-2 record and a 2.14 ERA.
At some point the Cubs will gradually re-introduce the change-up and the finer points of pitching, but even if Maples never fully grasps either of those things, he has the two plus pitches to be a power reliever at the back of the Cubs bullpen. If the Cubs decide to make him a reliever, he could move very quickly. He’ll start in Kane but the hope is that he can finish the season in Daytona.
18. Tyler Skulina
- Age: 22
- 6’5″, 235 lbs
- Expected 2014 level: Kane County
- Key 2013 stats: 8.38 K/9 IP, .394 BABIP, 5.59 BB/9 IP, 9.31 ERA but with an FIP of 4.54. Numbers much better at AZ, however.
So how does a pitcher who stands at a strong, athletic 6’5″ and 235 lbs. who can reach 96 mph and potential for a good slider, curve, and an average change last into the 4th round? Inconsistency, that’s how. But in my conversations with scouts, Skulina’s name came up often as a guy to watch for 2014. What he lacks right now is consistency with his command and mistakes in the zone really hurt Skulina both at Kent State and at the professional level. He fits the profile of the kind of pitcher the Cubs like. He’s athletic enough to learn to repeat his delivery well and has the height and velocity/movement (tail, sink) to throw a devastating two-seamer if he can pound the lower part of the zone with it. It’s a nice starter kit for any pitching coach to work with and some think his ceiling is about as high as any pitcher in the Cubs system, but stuff alone won’t get him there. Developing the right approach and the command to execute it will determine whether Skulina can make it as a starter or has to switch to the bullpen at some point.
17. Neil Ramirez, RHP
- Age: 24
- 6’4″, 190 lbs
- Expected 2014 level: Iowa (AAA)
- Key 2013 stats: 11.10 K/9IP, 3.67 BB/9 IP; 9-3, 3.84 ERA (3.11 FIP)
Ramirez has had an excellent spring and with one option left, has put himself on the cusp of a big league job. There is no rush on Ramirez, however, who has the size and repertoire to be a starter, but consistency with his command and delivery will be key. The Cubs still have some time to find out as he’ll open the year in Iowa. Ramirez has hit as high as 97 mph in the past but his tall frame also allows him to pitch effectively in the low to mid 90s because of his good downward plane. His main breaking pitch used to be a big breaking curve but because it is difficult to command, especially as you move up and hitters tend to lay off of it, he has instead taken to throwing a slider with smaller, sharper break. It has developed into a solid pitch in it’s own right. Ramirez also showed great improvement with his change-up and it’s a become a legitimate change of pace for him. There is no doubting his stuff, but if Ramirez is to become a starter, it will be because he can continue to generate groundballs and consistently pound the lower part of the zone. That should help him limit his pitch count and work deeper into games, but the command has to be there. If not, then Ramirez can go to the bullpen and simply rear back and throw mid 90s fastballs and mix in the slider/change when needed.
16. Rob Zastryzny, LHP
- Age: 22
- 6’3″, 205 lbs
- Expected 2014 level
- Key 2013 stats: 0.93 ERA at Kane, 10k vs. 2.5 BB ratio in AZ.
Our man at the scene in Arizona, Mauricio, had Zastryzny at 90-91 mph this spring with a high 70s curve and a low 80s change up. According to Mauricio, ” He was above the competition but Zastryzny sequenced very well as he moved the ball around. He showed a good feel for the changeup and utilized it well. The breaker only flashed but there’s room to grow there. The breaker had two breaks, one that was more over the top and one that was a two planer with better bite to it. He has starter potential if the breaking ball comes along. His delivery sits in between a true over-the-top and high three-quarters plane so I think the arm slot is right for him to develop that pitch even further.” The best pitch for Zastryzny last year was his change as his fastball never quite reached that mid 90s level he showed in regional play as an amateur. Even if he doesnt’ regain the fastball, the stuff is plenty good enough, especially for left-hander. He has the makeup, pitchabilty, stuff and potential for the kind of command to be a starter in the bigs and that’s why I have him higher than pitchers who have better velocity and/or better, more consistent breaking pitches. If that mid 90s velo returns, he can still move up this list quickly, but for now there are enough questions about his ultimate ceiling — which looks like a #4 right now — to put him much higher than this.
Here is the rest of the list to date and descriptions, click here…
Filed under: 2014 Top Cubs Prospects