After a steady run on hitters, it is time for Prospects Progress to pick up the first pitcher of the winter. Given his stellar performance in the postseason, soaring stock, and possible status as the best pitching prospect in the organization, I think C.J. Edwards is a good choice to be the first pitcher we cover.
But before we get to the details, let’s recap the purpose of the Prospects Progress series. The goal here is not to re-rank the prospects (that comes next year) or to assess the strengths and weaknesses of farm as a whole (that also comes next year). The goal for this series is to take each prospect individually, study the progress made so far, and see what we can learn about the future for that player.
A consensus seemed to be forming around Edwards as being the Cubs fifth or sixth best overall prospects (which is high praise in this system), and then Baseball America drops him in the three slot, arguably declaring him a Top 30 prospect in the process. With that ringing endorsement on his resume, there seems to be just one dominant question on Edwards.
Can he continue to start?
Edwards had a very, very good year. Then he was traded to the Cubs, promoted from the Low A South Atlantic League to the High A Florida State League. After that he had a jaw-droppingly good year.
First, lets look at the combined season numbers. Over a total of 116.1 innings he allowed just one home run while striking out 155, walking 41 and compiling a K/BB ratio of 3.78. It doesn’t matter if you look at his overall ERA (1.86), WHIP (1.006), K/9 (12.0), BB/9 (3.2) or GO/AO (1.41), the numbers range from good to excellent everywhere you look.
That might have gone by a little fast, so let me pause a second to give quick definitions of those acronyms. If you know your stats, feel free to move on to the next paragraph:
K/BB ratio: Strikeouts divided by walks. Higher numbers indicate a guy who strikes out many more than he walks.
ERA: Earned Run Average. The old standby of pitching stats. It is overused, I think, but still a nice stat for some purposes.
WHIP: Walks plus Hits divided by Innings Pitched. Another frequently used stat, but it has acquired a dubious reputation among many baseball fans. I still like it for minor league analysis, but many think it is too dependent on defense to be worth much at all.
K/9: Strikeouts per nine innings. Higher numbers are better. Numbers over 9.0 are quite good.
BB/9: Walks per nine innings. Lower numbers are better.
GO/AO: Ground outs divided by air outs. This measures how effective the pitcher is at getting ground ball outs. I like to see numbers over 1.30. Not as common as the other stats, but I am big fan of ground ball pitchers so I use this one a lot.
Remarkably, his numbers actually get better when he moves up to the more advanced Florida State League with the Cubs. The FSL is known for being a pitcher-friendly league, but even so I would not discount such a large degree of statistical improvement when moving to a more advanced league. These stats do come with a bit of a sample size alert (23.0 innings at that level).
With Daytona, Edwards put up an ERA of 1.96 with a GO/AO of 0.85 on K/9 of 12.9, a K/BB of 4.71 (no, that’s not a typo), a BB/9 of 2.7, and a WHIP of 0.913. He also pitched a pair of fantastic starts in the playoffs, allowing just a single hit between the two of them. Those are the numbers of an excellent pitching prospect.
But that is not in question. There is general agreement that Edwards has great stuff and that, if he can stick in the starting rotation, he could a candidate for the front of the rotation. That takes us back to the essential question:
Can He Start?
And here is the one true answer to that question: no one knows yet.
What we do know is that he has the endurance to pitch over 100 innings during the season and still have enough left in the tank to dominate the FSL playoffs. That is a good sign, but it isn’t conclusive of anything. His innings count was in line with what we would expect for a young pitcher in A ball who only threw 67 innings the year before. Pierce Johnson, for comparison’s sake, threw only 118 innings. We can’t conclude that Edwards threw only 116 innings because he was not capable of throwing more, but nor can we conclude that because he threw 116 he was capable of throwing more.
The internet is full of people speculating that Edwards is too thin to have a starter’s endurance, but that is all it is – speculation. No analysis of aerobic versus anaerobic muscle mass based on a few pictures and some internet video is going to settle this. The Cubs trainers have the best idea of where his future lies, but even for them it is an entirely moot point in the short term.
For the 2014 season Edwards, should he stay healthy, will almost certainly be a starter and pitch about 160 innings. And then, like any other young starter, he will remain in the rotation until he either pitches his way out of it, or the Cubs opt to move him out of it so as to speed up his promotion path, or he reaches Chicago.
C.J. Edwards will eventually tell us himself, with his pitching, whether or not he has the capability of remaining in the rotation long term. Until we see those 160+ inning results, we just won’t know. Until that time comes, though, the question will remain a valid one. There are concerns about the season-long endurance of slightly built pitchers despite any amount of anecdotal or statistical evidence to the contrary. Those questions may not be entire fair in all their phrasings, but they won’t be going away until Edwards chases them away with results.
Personally, I remain on the optimistic side. I think there is sufficient reason to think that he can stick in the rotation that we can continue to think of him in those terms until he demonstrates otherwise. But I’ll be watching his results as closely as anyone as his innings starts to mount in 2014.
I see no reason for Edwards to return to Daytona, so I think he’ll open the season as part of a deep and very talented Tennessee rotation. He will also likely open the season as one of the 10 best pitching prospects in the game for some analysts, and is almost a lock to be in the top 100 for nearly all of them.
Where will he fall in the Bleacher Nation Top 40? Good question. He’ll be very high, but I’m not sure I can quite get behind Baseball America’s ranking at Number Three. Not yet, anyway.
But after a few more months of admiring that High A K/BB ratio I might just change my mind.