There are not many players in the history of major league baseball to be drafted any lower than C.J. Edwards and still reach the majors. With a good 2015 campaign, though, it is possible that Edwards could go from the 1,464th pick of the 2011 draft to a major league pitcher by the end of the season.
Notice I did not say what kind of pitcher. There is very little doubt, even among his harshest critics, that Edwards has the stuff to pitch in the major leagues and to possibly be quite successful at it. The questions revolve around his role. Does the slightly-built Edwards have the durability to be a starting pitcher? Or would the Cubs be better suited seeing how his stuff would play in the back of the bullpen?
I don’t think anyone knows the answers to those questions, but we’ll consider them anyway in this edition of Prospects Progress.
Prospects Progress, for the folks who haven’t read this before, is the annual offseason series that focuses on players at all levels of the minors. Each article will take one prospect … maybe a big name you instantly recognize, and maybe a fringe guy you haven’t heard of … and will spend some time looking at his numbers, his risk factors, and how he projects to fit into the Cubs’ future.
C.J. Edwards , RHP
Born: September 3, 1991
Acquired: The Cubs acquired Edwards from the Rangers in 2013.
The Case For Starting
Edwards has appeared in 50 regular season games as a professional baseball player, and he started in 49 of them. For three seasons, despite his smallish frame, he has remained in the rotation essentially full time (when healthy, anyway). It isn’t unusual for a clear future reliever to remain in a minor league rotation if he has pitches still need of of significant work, but that really isn’t the case with Edwards. He already has a good enough arsenal to compete for and likely win a job in many major league bullpens (including the Cubs, as competitive as that fight would be). If his coaches saw him as a clear future reliever, then given the relatively polished nature of his pitches I tend to think that he would be transitioning into the role of a reliever and would be getting used to working more frequently than every fifth day. That hasn’t happened.
It didn’t happen in particular in late 2014 when Edwards was coming back from a shoulder injury at Double A. It made all the sense in the world for him to return to pitching as a reliever, just to play it safe with the shoulder. Instead, the Cubs slotted Edwards right back into the rotation and steadily built up his pitch count, culminating with three straight starts of 80 or more pitches to end the season. That strongly indicates that the Cubs, or at least their minor league development staff, still see Edwards as a starter.
And when we look at his stuff, it is easy to see why any team would love Edwards to continue to start. Fangraphs projects his fastball and curve to both become worth 60s on the 20/80 scouting scale, with his change and overall command weighing in at 50 each. That’s roughly the profile of a number three starter, maybe a number two in some rotations, at the major league level. Prospects with that sort of potential are not common at any level of the minor leagues, let alone Double A. If there is a chance he can stick as a starter, it just makes sense to keep him in that role until he proves he can’t handle it.
The Case For The Bullpen
On the other hand, some would argue that he has already shown he can’t handle starting. Edwards lost most of 2014 to a right shoulder strain. He did not require surgery, but shoulder injuries of any kind are among the scariest injuries for pitchers. Medical advances such as ligament replacement surgery allow for a pitcher with an injured elbow to come back as good as ever (depending on the exact nature of the injury, of course). There really isn’t any such obvious option for the most serious shoulder injuries yet.
And the cause of shoulder injuries isn’t necessarily well understood either. Is it mechanics? Too many pitches in one game? Too many pitches in a season? Physical strength? Configuration of the shoulder? Some of all of the above? Something else? A medical expert could certainly point to evidence leaning one way or another, but at the end of the day it boils down to pitching a baseball being an unnatural act that, sooner or later, takes a toll on the body.
So, if Edwards’ body started paying that toll after throwing just 116 innings in 2013, the thinking goes, doesn’t that pretty clearly indicate he has no business in any starting rotation at any level, ever? Sure, a relief prospect is less valuable than a starting prospect (in many cases), but any pitching prospect is more valuable than a washed up, injury-induced bust. Besides, a good relief prospect is still pretty valuable. For example, only 10 relief pitchers in all of major league baseball had an fWAR of 2.0 or higher in 2014. If Edwards could join that club as a dedicated reliever (and he has the stuff the make that a possibility), the argument goes, wouldn’t that potent of an addition to the bullpen making converting Edwards worth it?
Looking To 2015
Personally, I still see Edwards as a starter. At least for now. While the shoulder injury is concerning, I don’t think we can automatically link it to his workload. There is a possible connection, but for me that chance isn’t compelling enough to make the change. On top of that, the Cubs happen to have one of the best pitching coaches in the game today as their minor league pitching coordinator. That Derek Johnson is content to let Edwards start is noteworthy.
That said, I think Edwards will likely spend time in both roles before 2015 is over. Barring any surprises in Spring Training, I look for Edwards to open 2015 at the front of the rotation for the Triple A Iowa Cubs. I suspect his workload will be monitored closely, particularly early in the season. Given that he pitched fewer than 70 innings last season, the Cubs will probably not want to push him much past 120 total innings in 2015.
With a successful start to the year in Iowa’s rotation, and with Edwards already possessing a spot on the Cubs 40-man roster, I think odds become very good that he will reach Wrigley at some point this summer. And when he does, it will very likely be as a reliever or a spot starter (or both).
That doesn’t mean the bullpen will be his permanent home, however. Should Edwards stay healthy and log 125 innings or so this summer, then in 2016 he should be able to step up to the workload of a full-season major league starter. He may not get one of those jobs, but I think his hat will certainly be in the ring.
A final possibility is that he never makes it to the majors with the Cubs at all, but is instead traded mid-season straight out of Iowa. If he stays healthy and has success, Edwards may well be a very valuable trade chip in July. Given the big league team’s trajectory, we can’t rule anything out right now, even as we dream about Edwards breaking out in the big leagues wearing a Cubs jersey. So it is with prospects.