Plenty has been written in recent days about how the Cubs should line up their impressive starting quintet and even whether they should consider making it a sextet. I won’t rehash any of those debates. We all have a pretty good handle on the situation by now. It should also make for an even more interesting discussion next spring when Drew Smyly is ready to compete for a job. How about a septet?
And that is without taking into consideration the potential for a prospect such as Adbert Alzolay pushing for a job. While I do not put much stock in the idea of trading Mike Montgomery any time soon, if the arms the Cubs currently have under contract remain healthy heading into next offseason the team will be in the enviable position of possessing excess starting pitching depth that they could use to fill another hole or help restock the depleted farm system.
With the Chicago rotation in such a solid state thanks to the current health of the starters and the multiple years of team control the Cubs have over each moving forward there is a good chance the Iowa rotation will get to establish some stability of its own. Barring a rash of injuries the only way a young arm is going to break into the Chicago rotation is to pitch lights out so the young starters preparing to take on that challenge will need plenty of time to polish their repertoires.
None from the group currently assembled is likely to make that type of breakthrough but that is not to say the Iowa rotation is without prospects. Alec Mills and Jen-Ho Tseng may not have knockout stuff but they know how to use, and most importantly command, what they throw. Duane Underwood, Jr. is the highest upside arm of the bunch. He has the best arm strength, and flashes four average or better pitches at times, but has never developed a consistent out pitch. Mills and Tseng have both received cups of coffee in the bigs and Rob Zastryzny and Luke Farrell have seen MLB time as well so it is an experienced group should the need arise to call upon any of them.
Adbert Alzolay will work his way into the rotation at some point, possibly as soon as the start of the season, which could bump one of the non-roster players out of the org, or the team could try to pass Luke Farrell through waivers as six starting pitchers in Iowa on the 40-man roster is a bit of overkill. If Eddie Butler fails to make the 25-man roster and then clears waivers he would carve out a regular rotation spot as well. Rob Zastryzny could always be dropped to the bullpen, which is where his MLB future likely lies anyway, to make room.
Fortunately for these pitchers, just like Zastryzny they may all be best suited for a bullpen gig in the future, and the Cubs situation in that area is far less settled.
Depth options: Daniel Camarena, Michael Roth, Ryan Williams, Williams Perez
Non-roster invitees Daniel Camarena and Michael Roth are a pair of lefties that can be deployed to help balance the rotation and provide depth. The 26-year old Camarena progressed slowly through the Yankees system despite plenty of success. He has under 50 innings of experience at AAA which is unusual for a Minor League free agent. Meanwhile, Roth has plenty of AAA experience with three different organizations the past three seasons, as well as three short stints in the Majors with Angels and Rangers.
Iowa’s 2016 opening day starter, Ryan Williams, has seen his career sidetracked by shoulder injuries the past two years. If he can regain his former stuff and stay healthy he would put himself back on the prospect map and could challenge for a Major League job down the road.
The future of Williams Perez is in doubt following the recent shooting death of his Venezuelan pitching coach. All reports I have seen indicate that Perez pulled the trigger but some also point out that it could have been an accidental shooting. Regardless, Perez was indicted on illegal possession of a firearm and “guilty homicide” charges earlier this week so at the very least his 2018 season, and potentially his career are over. Even if he is cleared of the homicide charge it seems likely Perez will have difficulty regaining entry to the United States.
This is where things get interesting. Tennessee could begin the year with three of the best prospects in the system at the top their rotation. Or it may end up with only one. The one most assured to be a part of the rotation is Thomas Hatch. He spent all of 2017 in Myrtle Beach and then received a non-roster invite to big league camp this spring. Hatch is likely to see Iowa by the end of the year, but his place to start 2018 will be with the Smokies. Alzolay could join him but with a strong spring could just as easily start the season in Des Moines.
The wild card is Oscar De La Cruz. When healthy his stuff will certainly play at this level. But that is the sticking point: his health. He has struggled to stay on the mound and build up innings counts in recent seasons so the club may choose to hold him back in extended spring training as a precaution or as a way to control his innings count this season.
The questions do not end there however. Trevor Clifton is a big mystery after his second half collapse. He has to prove he is healthy and his stuff is back to 2016 form to get his development back on track. Justin Steele will miss at least the first half of the season after requiring Tommy John surgery in the second half of 2017. If he is able to make a quick recovery he might get a look down the stretch, but it’s more likely we do not see him outside of Mesa this season. To round out the rotation the Smokies could turn to Michael Rucker or Duncan Robinson. Both moved quickly through A ball last year before finishing strong in Myrtle Beach.
Depth options: Zach Hedges, Erick Leal, Preston Morrison
A power sinker and average slider led Zach Hedges to a strong 2016 campaign when he closed out the year with eight very good starts for the Smokies. He pitched effectively in a return to their rotation in 2017, but his slider took a step back, and when he received a look in Iowa during midseason he was absolutely bombed in four starts. His sinker still generates ground balls but until he discovers a consistent second offering he will have difficulty progressing.
Erick Leal was 10-4 with a 3.23 ERA for Myrtle Beach in 2016 before missing last season. His fastball/curve/change combo is fringy but he commanded it well pre-injury and changed speeds effectively.
Soft tossing Preston Morrison dominated both A-ball levels in 2016 (12-4, 2.11 ERA) but was unable to get his stuff to translate in his first go-round in Tennessee last year (1-10, 5.51 ERA).
Myrtle Beach Pelicans
If Tennessee is where things get interesting, Myrtle Beach is where things start to get conjested. The entire five man rotation from South Bend last season deserves the opportunity to move up to Myrtle Beach. Bryan Hudson made big strides in terms of control and should be ready to lead the Pelicans rotation in 2018. Fellow lefty Jose Paulino put together a strong second half and as a member of the 2011 IFA class he needs to begin accelerating his timetable. They may not be the highest upside arms in the system but Tyson Miller and Manny Rondon proved effective in South Bend and need to be tested against higher levels of competition to determine whether further priority as starters is necessary moving forward or if they will get squeezed into bullpen roles. Erling Moreno suffered through some injuries and inconsistencies in 2017 but if he is right this spring he should push his way into consideration as well.
But those five will likely have to compete for time with potential returnees Duncan Robinson, Michael Rucker and Oscar De La Cruz as well the more advanced collegiate arms from the Cubs 2017 draft class. I’ve slotted Cory Abbott in this group as he struck me as the most advanced from the group that debuted in Eugene last summer but we could just as easily see Alex Lange or Keegan Thompson make the jump too.
Depth options: Matt Swarmer, Ryan Kellogg
Matt Swarmer proved to be a valuable org arm in 2017 by making starts across four levels, all the way from short season Eugene to a pair of emergency starts in AA and another in AAA. I look for him to fill a similar role this season.
A 5th rounder out of Arizona State in 2015, lanky lefty Ryan Kellogg found success with South Bend in 2016, but then struggled in his first crack at A+. He does not possess a plus pitch, does not miss bats, does not generate ground balls or neutralize left handed hitters so it is difficult to project any type of future role for him unless he finds a way to add movement to his offerings.
South Bend Cubs
I said Myrtle Beach is where it starts to get conjested but it is in South Bend that conjested turns into rush hour on the Kennedy Expressway. This is of course a good “problem” to have, but it will require some nimble maneuvering by manager Jimmy Gonzalez and pitching coach Brian Lawrence to keep everyone on track throughout the season. There is really no way to accomplish the task without use of extensive piggybacking throughout the season.
The Cubs went heavy with college starters in the 2017 draft and it is possible that their top five picks all begin the year in the South Bend rotation. The reason why I believe at least one or more will be challenged with the leap to Myrtle Beach right out of the gate is that the group of young starters ready to graduate from Eugene is really talented as well. Of course we all know about Jose Albertos at this point, but Jesus Camargo put together a Northwest League All-Star campaign in 2017 while Javier Assad struck out more than a batter per inning. The club will also need to make room for Bailey Clark who saw a late season call up to South Bend before returning to Duke to finish his degree last fall.
Depth options: Enrique De Los Rios, Carson Sands
Enrique De Los Rios flashes arm strength and some feel for secondaries. He bounced between the Eugene rotation and bullpen as the need arose last season and could fill the same role in South Bend, or they could choose to hold him back in order to give him a crack in the Eugene rotation full time.
It was not a smooth road back from injury for Carson Sands in 2017. His control completely abandoned him at times and his stuff did not look particularly sharp even when he found the plate. The former 4th rounder once featured a low-90s sinking fastball and a solid curveball but it has been two years now since we’ve seen either. He is still just 22 years old, so there is still time for him to make a comeback, but with the pitching depth the Cubs now possess throughout the system there is a real danger of him getting left behind if he can’t rediscover his groove this season.