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tennessee smokiesRemember the famed Daytona Cubs rotation of 2013? The one that led the Cubs to the FSL title by pretty much not allowing any team to do absolutely anything in the playoffs? The one that featured top prospects C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson, as well as Ivan Pineyro and Corey Black (among others, rotating in)? The one that was promoted, essentially in its entirety to AA Tennessee this year?

Well, it’s been a slog. Edwards was placed on the DL earlier this year with shoulder inflammation. Pineyro went down with a forearm issue. Johnson missed the first month with a hamstring injury, and is presently on the DL with a calf injury. Corey Black is healthy, so at least there’s that.

I’m not going to try and put lipstick on a pig here, but I will point out an interesting minor league phenomenon that arises only when you’ve got this kind of rampant injury bug hitting at one level. For a developmentally-focused organization like the Chicago Cubs, there isn’t going to be a lot of desire to immediately grab pitchers from High-A to insert into the AA rotation simply because there are openings there. Each player is on his own developmental plan, and promoting to fill a need could operate in a way that detracts from that individual plan.

So, you’ve got to find guys from outside the organization. No, guys you pick up from independent ball or the minor league free agent wire aren’t likely to be future contributors, but we’ve all see those stories. Hell, Scott Kazmir had to work his way back in independent ball just in the last couple years.

And having injuries in the AA rotation, while a really crappy thing overall, at least presents the Cubs with the opportunity to sign a couple guys with stuff, throw ‘em into the fire, and see what happens.

That’s what the Cubs have done, signing right-handed starters Julio Rodriguez and Joe Gardner this week, straight out of independent ball.

Gardner, 26, was a long-time Cleveland Indians prospect after being a third round pick in 2009. He eventually wound up in the Rockies organization, but couldn’t get past the AA level in a few years’ worth of tries. His ERA hovered in the 4.25 range at that level, and he never did much in the way of strikeouts (or walks, for that matter). Instead, Gardner specialized in the groundball, consistently sitting in the mid-to-upper-50% range, which would be elite at the big-league level. He’s a big guy – 6’4″, 220 lbs – which probably helps his downward plane in inducing groundballs.

Gardner started this weekend for the Smokies, going 5.1 innings, walking two, allowing two hits and an earned run, striking out two. That’s pretty much a vintage line from Gardner, with the caveat being that a guy who allows so many balls in play is going to give up runs. The hope would be that the groundball tendencies limit the damage.

Rodriguez, 23, was an 8th rounder for the Phillies out of Puerto Rico back in 2008, when he was just 17. He worked his way up to High-A by 2011, and absolutely dominated there as a 20-year-old. That put him squarely on the Phillies top 10/20 prospect lists for 2012, but a rough first go at AA knocked him back (though he was still striking out better than a batter per inning). After 2012, he was traded to the Orioles for minor league outfielder Ronnie Welty (an interesting, but not notable, prospect at the time), in a deal that looks to be each organization recognizing that they had only a year left of minor league control on a guy before having to make a 40-man roster decision, and making a swap for positional purposes.

Rodriguez threw just 27.2 innings for the Orioles last year – I can’t find the details, but it seems like it had to have been an injury issue – and then became a free agent. He started pitching in independent ball, and the Cubs decided to take a chance.¬†For his part, Rodriguez also started for AA Tennesee this weekend, also going 5.1 innings and allowing just one earned run. He gave up three hits and one walk, and struck out six. Because of his age and pedigree, Rodriguez is certainly an interesting guy to watch.

Let’s be clear: it’s not likely that either of these guys breaks out into prospect/future-piece status, but, with rotation openings and a preference not to rush younger prospects, it’s totally worth taking a crack a couple of the best arms in independent ball.

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