By now we know what deep looks like. And, after looking at the Cubs’ infield, we know what very deep looks like. The fortunate few who have visited bottom of the Marianas Trench in the Pacific are familiar with the extremely deep.
And then we come to the Cubs’ right-handed pitching prospects.
To give you an example of this depth, consider Nick Struck. Struck, 22, opened 2011 in Daytona, but by the end of the season he had leaped through Tennessee and had started 11 games for Iowa. He wasn’t dominant in Triple-A, but he was effective. He projects as a back of the rotation stater and could make it to Chicago in the second half of the season if the Cubs need an extra starting pitcher. In short, Struck is a quality pitching prospect. He is also ranked 18th among the Cubs’ right-handed starting pitching prospects by Baseball America. That’s right, 18th. I counted it twice. And that doesn’t include relievers.
Like Struck, a large number of the Cubs’ right-handed pitching prospects project as back of the rotation starters or middle relievers. Many of those prospects are players I happen to like, but they will not be mentioned in this article. It probably isn’t reasonable to run down all three dozen or so right-handed pitchers with a good chance to reach the Majors, so I am going to limit this only to those at the very top of the list.
1 – Trey McNutt. Age: 22. Major League ETA: 2013
The Cubs have a very good area scout in the southern United States. Thanks to Jim Crawford, the Cubs found their top pitching prospect at Shelton State Community College and made him the steal of the 2009 draft when they took him in the 32nd round. While his 2011 season was plagued by bad luck and blisters, McNutt still projects as a No. 2 starter (if he can polish an off speed pitch) or a closer (if he can’t). He will most likely start the 2012 season as a starter in Iowa working hard on his change up. I do not see him as a candidate for promotion to Chicago as a starter until late in the season. However, I think he could earn consideration for a rotation job next Spring.
2 – Dillon Maples. Age: 19. Major League ETA: 2014
The controversy that plagued the North Carolina football program last summer might have helped steer Maples away from a chance to be a college kicker and into the Cubs’ farm system. I’m sure his hefty signing bonus didn’t hurt, either. While Maples has a somewhat unorthodox delivery that some scouts shied away from, the Cubs so far seem content to let him pitch with his current mechanics. Like McNutt, he’ll need to improve his off speed stuff if he is going to enjoy success as a top of the rotation starter. Peoria fans should get to see Maples this Spring.
3 – Rafael Dolis. Age: 24. Major League ETa: 2012
Dolis spent nearly the entire 2011 season in Tennessee, first as a starter and then as a closer. It is as a reliever that he could spend a majority of the season in Chicago. In Dolis, the Cubs may have found the eventual replacement for Carlos Marmol at closer. I’d like to see him give up fewer walks, but that is not a huge issue. He does a great job inducing ground balls. As the Cubs continue to improve their infield defense, Dolis’s effectiveness is likely only to increase. He should spend quite a bit of time in the seventh and eighth innings this year, but I think his future is in the ninth.
4 – Robert Whitenack. Age: 23. Major League ETA: 2013
Twelve months ago, Whitenack was a fairly anonymous right-handed starter lurking in the Cubs volume of pitching depth. He had a nice season in 2010, but not a remarkable one. As soon as the 2011 season started, however, this guy started putting up video game numbers in Daytona. The Cubs promptly promoted him to Tennessee, but he did not cool off a bit. His G0/AO rose to a phenomenal 2.53 and he finished the season with a WHIP of just 0.940. Unfortunately, he finished the season on the disabled list with elbow surgery. Early word out of the Spring Training is that he has recovered completely, but the Cubs no doubt be cautious with him. If he does regain his stuff, he projects as up to a No. 2 starter in the Majors. The Cubs will not rush him this season, but even so he should reappear in Daytona before the year is out. [Brett: I remember reading that Whitenack was one of those rare “lightbulb” types who, between seasons, figured out a way to add three MPH to his fastball, and sharpen up his breaking stuff. It’s rare that a kid goes from average to great in an offseason, but Whitenack is proof that it does happen. Hopefully he’s still the same post-TJS. Be patient, though, as sometimes it takes a full two years to really be back to 100%, as noted with…]
5 – Dae-Eun Rhee. Age: 23. Major League ETA: 2013
It has taken Rhee awhile to come back from his own elbow surgery, but late in the 2011 season he seemed to regain all of his old form. Rhee’s fastball can reach the mid-nineties and he pairs it with a nice change up and a curve, both of which could be plus pitches. After holding FSL hitters to a .265 average and pitching the clinching game as Daytona won their championship, he will head to Tennessee as the likely ace of a talented pitching staff. He projects as No. 2 or No. 3 starter in the majors.
Others To Watch
There are many other players I could be talking about here. Rather than list them all, I’ll ignore the better known prospects and mention a few you may not be familiar with. Fans of Peoria could see one of the best pitching staffs in the minors this season. Potential starters include Ben Wells, Austin Reed, Yao-Lin Wang, Starlin Peralta, and Luis Liria. 2011 draft picks Michael Jensen and Taylor Scott are likely to appear in Arizona or Boise. Dallas Beeler just missed the Top 5 and will likely report to Tennessee. By the end of the season, potential closer Tony Zych could also be in Double-A. And believe me, there are more names where those came from. The progress of the Cubs’ army of young, intriguing pitchers will be one of the top stories emerging from the farm system this season.
And that wraps up our preview of the Cubs’ prospects, position by position. Hopefully that will give you a better idea whom to watch for over the course of the season, as well as whom you are watching when you attend some Minor League games. If you are fortunate enough to see some Cub prospects in action, be sure to tell us what you saw either in a comment or on the Message Board. And as always, I’d be happy to hear from you via Twitter (@ltblaize).