Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

cj edwards daytona cubsC.J. Edwards is considered by most to be the Chicago Cubs’ top pitching prospect. With three potential plus pitches, including a fastball that has natural, late, cutting action, Edwards has the obvious hallmarks of future big league starting pitcher.

But, as you’ve heard countless times before, Edwards is not a big guy. Yes, he’s quite tall, but he’s thin. Remarkably thin. When I saw him at the back fields at Spring Training, walking with a group of other players, he’s slight enough to make your eyes pop a bit. There’s a reason this has been discussed so much over the last couple years.

That, alone, wouldn’t make you say Edwards can’t be a starter long-term. He could be uniquely durable, despite his size, and all could be well.

But, as you recall, Edwards had an injured shoulder last year – the very kind of injury that you worry about when a guy his size is trying to carry a starter’s workload. Yes, the injury was muscular, rather than structural, but it limited his innings significantly in 2014, and more seriously raised the question of whether his most likely future was in the bullpen.

Given that injury, and the time missed, this really shouldn’t surprise you:

Edwards, 23, managed just 48 minor league innings last year, plus a handful picked up in the Arizona Fall League. They were, of course, highly-effective innings, but a young pitcher can’t be expected to go from that to a full-season starter workload in a single year. It would be borderline reckless for the Cubs to ask it.

To that end, Edwards’ innings in 2015 were always going to be artificially restricted, one way or another. And, as we have discussed many times before dating back to November, there’s a chance that Edwards’ transition to the big leagues would start in the second half of this season in the big league bullpen. One way to limit the innings and simultaneously line Edwards up for a second half big league debut is to put him in the bullpen now at AA, let him get used to that role, promote him to AAA Iowa before too long, and then bring him up when there’s a need or an opening. Edwards, you should note, is already on the 40-man roster.

From there, with a healthy season under his belt, having already been exposed to big league hitting, and presumably after a reasonable innings bump from 2014, Edwards could be considered for a rotation gig in 2016. That’s not an uncommon path for young pitchers.

All that said, the Cubs could have just as easily managed Edwards’ innings at Tennessee by “starting” him in three or four-inning outings. In some ways, that’s even easier to control. Still, we can’t yet rule out the possibility that this is simply the mechanism by which the Cubs have chosen to slowly stretch Edwards out – giving him something akin to a longer Spring Training, given what happened in 2014 – and he’ll be starting at AA or AAA within a month or two.

So, we’ll see how Edwards is used to begin the year. Is he pitching like a true reliever – an inning here and there every couple days? – or is his pitching for multiple-inning stretches on a regular, and consistent basis? The latter would suggest that the Cubs are simply managing Edwards’ innings, and his future could still be as a starter, regardless of whether he joins the Cubs’ bullpen this year. The former, however, would suggest that a real transition to the bullpen could be underway.

A quality starter is worth a whole lot more – and is harder to find – than a quality reliever. The incentive here, of course, is to keep Edwards starting, if at all possible. But sometimes, the perfect thing is not going to happen, and you’re left with the choice between a very good thing and nothing at all.

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