Conventional wisdom holds that the Cubs’ organization has an overall lack of pitching. As we’ll see when we cover the right handers in the organization, that is not entirely true. With regards to the lefties, though, the Cubs find themselves in serious need of a restock. Quality southpaws are far more rare than right-handed pitchers, but that also tends to make them a little harder to acquire. If the Cubs want some quality left-handed options in their future, they would be well served by finding and developing their own.
Fortunately, although they do lack in quantity, the Cubs do have some quality. Even though the Cubs have few options, it is easy to see a major league future for a few of them, and there are more deep in the system with potentially high ceilings. And, of course, there are some wild cards lurking here and there as well.
For the sake of this article I am not counting Chris Rusin as a prospect. He is a solid option at the back of the rotation or in an emergency starter role, and I suspect he would do just fine in a middle relief job should the Cubs need it, but this article is focusing on players a little deeper (or a lot deeper) in the system.
Mainly due to luck, I have watched Eric Jokisch pitch in person more than any other pitcher in the organization, and every time I have liked what I saw. His stuff is not overpowering, but it is consistent. Although he isn’t much of a ground ball pitcher (his GO/AO last season with the Smokies was just 0.91), he does a nice job keeping the ball in the ballpark. None of his pitches grade exceptionally well, but he can locate them well enough to earn a K/BB ratio around 2.5 last season.
Ultimately Jokisch’s path to the majors may be via the bullpen, but I suspect the Cubs will keep him in the rotation until and unless that bullpen job opens up. At this stage he looks most like a back of the rotation / long relief type. He should begin the year as a key component of the Iowa rotation.
Rob Zastryzny, on the other hand, has a considerably higher ceiling. Zastryzny was the first pitcher the Cubs selected in the 2013 draft, and he quickly picked up notoriety due to his reported ability to throw his fastball at a wide range of speeds, ranging from the mid 80s to the low to mid 90s. That kind of variation, if actually part of his skill set, is both unusual and useful. The better news is that in addition to his fastball (which is a weapon at any speed), he also has changeup and a curve that projects to be average or better.
If he pitches near his ceiling, Zastryzny has the makings of a solid mid-rotation workhorse. He should open the season in either Kane County or Daytona, and could be a candidate to reach Tennessee by the end of the year.
Austin Kirk made a name for himself with a no hitter a few seasons back, but he did not fare nearly that well with the Smokies in nine starts last summer. He still has back of the rotation projections, but he may have a hard time finding starters innings as that very good Daytona 2013 rotation looks to move up a level.
Zac Rosscup is the most notable name among the bullpen prospects. The last Cub standing from the Garza/Archer trade, Rosscup spent much of last season dominating Double A to the tune of a 2.07 FIP and a 13.7 K/9. He won’t open the 2014 season in Chicago, but he should be ready just as soon as the Cubs need another lefty for their bullpen. He has a chance to carve out a very valuable niche for himself as a left handed setup man for the Cubs.
Also pitching well for Tennessee and Iowa last season was Jeffry Antigua. This lefty is younger than Rosscup and likely needs a little more minor league seasoning, but he offers some reason for optimism. Walks were an issue during his time in Tennessee last season (4.7 BB/9), but that number diminished nicely when he stepped up to Iowa (3.2 BB/9). Unfortunately, he also surrendered six homers in his 40 innings of Triple A work, good for a somewhat concerning 1.4 HR/9. If he can get a handle on those long ball tendencies while keeping the walk rate down Antigua could emerge as a second half option as a middle reliever for the Cubs. He could also be an attractive speculative throw when the Cubs start trading.
Hunter Cervenka deserves some mention here as well. He had a nice season for the Smokies last year, but like Antigua I suspect he’ll spend most or all of 2014 with Iowa.
There are some very interesting names in the lower levels of the systems, including a few who could yet emerge as prospects to be reckoned with. Most of them are very young and, in many cases, it is tough to put a hard upside on them yet, but it is not impossible that the Cubs have a future front of the rotation starter somewhere in this section.
The most well known name here, not entirely for good reasons, would likely be Gerardo Concepcion. The Cuban lefty was ineffective in his 2012 campaign after signing with the Cubs, and was shut down for most of 2013. He badly needs a good season in 2014 if he is going to stick with the organization.
There are a couple of southpaws from the 2013 draft class well worth monitoring, starting with Sam Wilson. Walks were an issue for him at Boise last summer, but the ingredients are there for Wilson to emerge as a quality bullpen arm in a few years. Tyler Ihrig was taken later in the draft, and in his 25 innings with the Arizona Rookie League he had little trouble (10.8 K/9, 7.50 K/BB, WHIP of 0.800). Look for both Ihrig and Wilson to appear in a full season league this summer.
The 2012 draft brought the Cubs Nathan Dorris, Michael Heesch, and Anthony Prieto, and of those Prieto is definitely the headliner. He was one of a handful of high ceiling high school arms the Cubs took that summer. Two summers in the Rookie League appear to indicate that he has some work to do on his control. That will be something to watch as he moves up the system.
Reaching back a little further in draft history, both Andrew McKirahan and Sheldon McDonald were moderately well thought of at one time, but neither has progressed out of A ball yet. Frank Del Valle, signed out of Cuba, has done some nice work for High A Daytona, including a K/9 of 11.3 last season, but 2013 also marked his third season at that level. If he can refine his control he may yet have late inning potential. He should open 2014 with the Smokies.
Still deeper in the system we find Carlos Rodriquez. The Cubs brought him to the Arizona Rookie League from his native Venezuela at the age of 17 after he mowed through the Dominican Summer League the previous summer. He will probably need another summer or two in short season ball before we really start to see what the Cubs have in this guy, but it is promising that the Cubs moved him to Arizona so young despite the lackluster results in 2013.
The Cubs have assembled an interesting mix of left hander options, but this is far from a strength of the farm system. While acquiring pitching in general should still be a priority for the Cubs, acquiring left handed pitching would be particularly beneficial.