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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.

Top Five

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).

  • Chris

    Nice list, Luke, but I disagree with placing a player currently recovering from TJ in a Top 5 list. Frankly, due to that, I wouldn’t even put Whitenack in my Top 50 Overall Prospect list.

    …At least not until he proves he can return to form

    • Cedlandrum

      I still have Whitenack in my top 12. He will pitch this season. He would have been in the bigs last year if not for injury. Good note from Brett about the light going on for him.

      I like Beeler a lot, a lot. He has the chance to be this years fast climber like McNutt and Whitenack before him. He has a big frame at 6″5′ and has room for weight. He was too aggressively promoted last year, but was killer in Peoria. He obviously like a lot of young guys needs polish. he was a recruited football player, so he is a good athlete. Had TJS in College. So he hasn’t had a ton of development. He can throw it up there.

  • Eric S

    Luke, any word on what is going on with Hayden Simpson? I was surprised when the Cubs picked him up number 16-17 overall I think it was last year, and he’s been quite ever since. All of the news I have heard about him hasn’t been good.

    • Cedlandrum

      Not Luke, but Simpson had Mono the summer after he was drafted. Lost a ton of weight and was very weak. Came back last year and tried to build strength. He was killed. At the end of last season it was revealed that he tried to pitch through and elbow injury.

      • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

        Cedlandrum pretty much nailed it.  Simpson was able to touch 90 MPH in his first start last season, but after that his velocity pretty much tanked.  He still has two plus to plus-plus breaking pitches in his curve and slider, but until he rebuilds the lost muscle and brings his velocity consistently back into the low 90s, we can’t be sure what the Cubs have in him.

        Oneri Fleita made some comments at the end of last season that were very positive on the kid and did not read like generic “I have to say something nice” language.  On the other hand, there are a few somewhat reliable reports from people who have seen him throwing this spring who say he is still no where near reaching 90 MPH again.

        Unless something else happens, he should appear in a full season league sometime this season.  If he is healthy, he should open the year with Daytona.  If the Cubs want him to build up his strength some more, he’ll stay in extended spring training for a few more months and then head to Daytona or Peoria in the second half.  Either way, we should get a better idea what he is capable of doing this season.

        • Eric

          I was under the impression that Simpson was a first round pick more because that year the Cubs were looking for someone they could offer a lower signing bonus and still obtain rather than the Cubs actually believing he is first round talent. Had anyone else read anything similar to this?

          I’m not trying to take away from Simpson as much as point out the difference in attitude Henry an Co. had between the 2010 and 2011 drafts. I expect the pending CBA changes were a huge motivator in they 2011 bonus frenzy the Cubs had.

          • http://www.casualcubsfan.com hansman1982

            The Simpson pick was highly controversial. Rumor has it the Cubs really wanted him but the Angels were going to grab him if the Cubs didn’t.

            • Eric

              thanks for the reply.

    • AB

      somebody saw him pitch and he struggled to break 90. Apparently his secondary pitches were more impressive.

      • Deer

        well, if he actually hit 90, that’s a promising sign. I heard he was mid-80s all last year.

        • AB
        • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

          I’m not sure he was mid-80s when I saw him in late May.  Even so, only two batters all day managed to make solid contact.  One of those was a (not-very) fastball that went over the right field fence, and the other was (I think) a hanging curve that got smacked into the gap.

          Other than that, he produced a steady stream of grounders, pop-ups, and awkward looking swings with his breaking stuff.  Considering he basically had no fastball and couldn’t really set up his breaking pitches at all, it wasn’t a bad performance.  He was thin, though.  Really, really thin.  I think he was officially listed at 165 lbs, but I sincerely doubt he was an ounce over 145.

          • AB

            As far as I understand, Simpson had somewhat significant elbow/ligament problems towards the end of the 2011 season that went undetected by the Cubs, and so he pitched through it. How that would happen, i have no clue, but that seems to be the story.

            It might help explain his poor second half results, but who knows if he incurred any permanent damage.

      • BD

        If a pitcher can keep hitters off-balance and guessing all day, he can be extremely effective no matter how hard his fastball is. I seem to remember one Greg Maddux building a hall of fame career on that style of pitching.

        I AM IN NO WAY SAYING SIMPSON IS MADDUX OR COULD BE MADDUX

        But your velocity doesn’t determine your effectiveness. I’ll take 5 pitchers throwing 70 if hitters can’t square it up and drive it.

        • Kyle

          During his peak, Greg Maddux had a low 90s fastball. He had above-average velocity.

          As he got older, he dipped down to average and then below average velocity. He got hit harder as he did, despite still having his excellent command and movement.

          I will go to my grave fighting the myth that Maddux didn’t have or need velocity.

          • DocWimsey

            Indeed, Maddux had a good heater, especially early in his career. I always read hitters saying that it looked 100 MPH after he threw one of his off-speed pitches, which might have given rise to the myth that it was not that good in the first place. And that helped make his off-speed stuff so effective in reverse: 10′ from his hand, you couldn’t tell how high that pitch was going to be when it got to home plate.

    • Mrp

      I thought I read somewhere (maybe here, can’t remember though) that Simpson’s fastball hasn’t hit 90 yet this spring. If that is true, then I am a bit worried about him ever regaining it.

      Edit, AB beat me to it….

    • http://www.viewfromthebleachers.com Norm

      I have personally written off Simpson…

  • Cedlandrum

    Great job again as always Luke.

    One note for those unfamiliar with Whitenack is that he throws a true knuckle curve. It is a pretty devastating pitch for him.

  • AB

    I would have put Wells in the top 5, maybe as high as #3.

    Very interested to see what he does at Peoria

  • J Wilson

    Give up on Simpson already. A scout saw Simpson this spring and said he didn’t top 90mph…with his fastball. Most think his velo spike was a fluke. Job well done w/ the list, I just wish there was a top-end prospect above.

  • BD

    So the Cubs’ system ranking from 14-20 has to have everything to do with lack of top-flight prospects. Their depth is quite astounding (especially for how much their system has been railed on). If a handful of these guys take a good step forward, I could see them jumping up to the top 5 (although the loss of Jackson and Rizzo from the rankings may pull them back just a little).

    • http://www.viewfromthebleachers.com Norm

      I think you can even stretch 14-20 to #4-30 or so.

  • http://www.viewfromthebleachers.com Norm

    I’m most excited about Dae-Eun Rhee of that group. Underrated IMO. I think I had him around #10 in Cubs system; 3rd in pitching behind McNutt and Maples.

    • Eric

      The Cubs were putting some money in Southeast Asian prospects for a while. I would love to see some return. I suppose that Na helped acquire Rizzo and Cates. That’s something ;)

      • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

        Hak-Ju Lee helped bring in Garza as well.

        But you’ll see some returns in Wrigley too.  In addition to Rhee, Jae-Hoon Ha and Pin-Chieh Chen are two of the Cubs better outfield prospects, and Yao-Lin Wang has been impressive early in his career on the mound.

        • Smitty

          Speaking of Cates. Where is he slotted to start the year and what are your thoughts on him Luke?

          • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

            I think he’ll wind up in the bullpen, but there is no reason to dismiss him as a starter quite yet.  If he does stick in the pen, I think he has a chance to develop into a setup man / closer type pitcher.  He’ll likely open the season in Daytona.  Last reports I saw on him indicated that he has quite a bit of work to do on a few of his pitches, so it could be a a year or three before he makes it to Chicago.

        • Eric

          I’m forcing Hak Ju Lee from my memory. As much I like Garza and think we should extend him, that trade still hurts.

  • ww

    Great series. Thanks!!

  • Crockett

    No way does Maples ETA for 2014. More accurate would be 2016, I’d say. He’s 19 with zero professional innings. Rating him this highly and that agressively is hoping for a bit too much.

    • Eric

      I agree that the ETA is very optimistic, but I don’t think it’s out of the question to have him in the 2 slot. Scouts loved this kid. If signability wasn’t an issue, many said he’d have been first round material. While he might be a bit of a gamble (I have heard lots of talk about his unorthodox delivery), most of the starting pitching prospects we have have much lower ceilings.

  • ty

    Luke–You left out Aaron Kurcz as one heck of a prospect. He is the only prospect that I ever saw sit on a golf cart at Fitch Field and Greg Maddux talked to him for two hours about pitching. My only worry is that some miserable asshole organization will try to steal him from us.

    • http://justinjabs.com/blog Justin Jabs

      Kurcz is in Boston now …

    • Brady

      Already happened.

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