Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

duane underwood pelicansWe all know the first round of the amateur draft is the most important round, and all the more so under the current draft rules that make overspending on later rounds extremely difficult. And we know that, lately, the Cubs have done pretty well in the first round. Kris Bryant was certainly a good pick. Kyle Schwarber looks like he was a pretty good pick as well. The jury remains out on Albert Almora but there is plenty there to like, and Javier Baez has already reached the majors and looks like he’ll be back there soon.  Lately the Cubs have been doing well in the first round of the draft.

But what about second round picks? In theory the second round pick should, barring any compensation picks, be the second most important pick a team makes in the draft. You might be surprised, then, to know that the Cubs record in second round picks has not been anywhere near as exemplary.

Of the Cubs recent first round picks, Bryant (2013) and Baez (2011) have already reached the majors. To find the last second round pick to reach the majors for the Cubs, though, we have to go all the way back to 2009 when the Northsiders took an infielder from Louisiana State by the name of D.J. LeMahieu. He went on to play a handful of games for the Cubs before being sent out to Colorado.

After checking in on the standings, we’ll take a look at the Cubs’ second round picks under the Theo Administration and see if there are any good candidates to break that drought in the near future.

Standings Watch

Iowa : 24-24, 2nd place.

The Cubs are back at .500 and are still in second in the division. Oklahoma City now leads them by nine games. Fortunately, though, the Pacific Coast League is not a split season league. There is no first half winner and second half winner; the only division leader that matters is the one on the last day of the season. Nine games is a deep hole to climb out of, but the Cubs have three months in which to do that climbing.

The Cubs are on a trek through the desert right now, but they’ll be back in town this weekend to start a series against the Memphis Redbirds.

Tennessee : 27-22. 2nd place.

Carl Edwards Jr. is out, Taylor Scott is in, and the Smokies are within two and a half games of Chattanooga. Tennessee is only so-so on the road (11-14), but at 16-8 they have the best home record in the Southern League. Fortunately this team spends most of the final three weeks before the All-Star break at home.

But first, they have a three game set in Chattanooga starting Monday followed by two more against the Lookouts in Kodak on Thursday and Friday. That two-city, in-state series may well determine which team takes home the first half title. If you are going to watch minor league baseball this week, this is the series to watch.

Myrtle Beach : 30-16, 1st place.

The Pelicans are the first team in the Cubs organization to reach thirty wins. They now have a division lead of six and a half game as well as the best record in the league. There is enough first half baseball left to be played that we can’t count on the title just yet, but the odds are very definitely in their favor.

The strength of the Pelicans continues to be their home play (19-6), but that also means that they are only just over .500 on the road (11-10). If we tried hard enough we could find a way to use that home-road disparity as a reason to be worried, but I think we would have to try very hard. The truth is the Pelicans are a very talented team playing fantastic baseball. So long as they keep that up they will be just fine.

South Bend : 21-28, 6th place.

Still sitting in next to last place, the Cubs now trail division leading Lansing by eight and a half games. For the Cubs, the mid-season schedule reset will open up a shot at the second half division title. Winning the first half is all but out of reach.

The news is not all bad for the Cubs, though. They are actually fourth in the league in team OPS (.690) and have the third fewest strikeouts when at the plate (357). And even though they have just eighteen home runs, they rank a respectable fifth in team slugging (.361). On the pitching side, while the Cubs are far from the league leaders in strikeouts, they have given up the fourth fewest walks (125) and lead the league in avoiding home runs (13).

Scrutinizing the Second Rounders

In 2011, the last draft under Jim Hendry, the Cubs used the eighth pick of the second round on left handed hitting first baseman Dan Vogelbach. Given the rate at which Vogelbach has been punishing pitching in Double A, I think it is very likely that he will reach the majors. Unfortunately, given that he is only an option at first base, I tend to doubt that he will do so as a Cub.

And that brings us to the 2012 draft, the first draft of the official rebuilding era under the Cubs new collection of front office talent. Interestingly, the Cubs second round pick that year was their fourth over all pick. After taking Almora in the first and pitchers Pierce Johnson and Paul Blackburn in the supplemental round, the Cubs selected pitcher Duane Underwood out a high school in the Atlanta suburbs with their second round choice.

That same Duane Underwood is now among the Cubs best pitching prospects. His arsenal is led by a fastball that may well be the best pitch in the farm system and is backed by a good change up and a breaking pitch that is developing nicely. This season with Myrtle Beach we have not seen Underwood wrack up the strikeouts like he has in the past (his K/9 is just 6.00), but he has an ERA of just 1.60, has an excellent ground out to air out ratio of 1.51, and has watched hitters bat just .192 against him.

Underwood, at times, looks like he has the stuff to emerge as a force at the front of a rotation, but I suspect his most likely future will be as a solid mid-rotation guy with number two upside. He remains on track for a major league future, though, and could be the first Cubs pitcher drafted in the second round to reach the majors since Donnie Veal (2005).

If, that is, the Cubs 2013 second round selection does not get there first. The Cubs took University of Missouri left hander Rob Zastryzny with their second round pick that year, and Zastryzny has already reached Double A.

Unfortunately he has not pitched since April 30 and remains on the disabled list. Until he comes back healthy and establishes more of a sample in Tennessee we won’t be able to learn very much more about his future, but the fact that the Cubs started him in Double A in his second full season as a professional is a good sign.

Last year with Daytona he got off to slow start, but steadily improved over the course of the year. By season’s end he was one of the better pitchers in that league. He finished with a K/9 of 9.00, a BB/9 of 2.70 and a FIP of 3.66 (ERA of 4.66). Those are solid numbers that support Zastryzny’s probable future (pending health) as a back of the rotation starter for the Cubs one day.

Last season the Cubs went right back to the college starter ranks for their second round pick, taking right hander Jake Stinnett out of Maryland. Stinnett converted from part time pitcher to full time pitcher during his college career, and as a result he may have been somewhat harder to value than many other college seniors. He had less mileage on his arm, which is good, but also had less experience on the mound.

This season, pitching in Low A, his numbers have been all over the place. He started off the season allowing few hits but way too many walks, and lately has cut down on the walks while giving up too many hits. His ground ball rates are fantastic, though, leading to a GO/AO of 1.75, but his strikeout rate is just 16.8%. His ERA is an ugly 6.27, but his FIP is a somewhat friendlier 4.79.

In other words, he is a work in progress. He gets a lot of contact, most of which goes to the ground, and lately that has resulted in batters hitting about .300 off him. On the other hand, he is missing the strike zone less often and has allowed just two home runs in his entire professional career. The raw materials for him to emerge as a number two or three starter are there, but we should probably wait to see some sustained minor league success before start penciling him into any future rotations. Again: Stinnett has a lot less pitching experience than your typical college-drafted pitcher.

Looking ahead to next week and the 2015 draft, given the Cubs’ recent history I think the odds are good that they will be taking a pitcher in the second round. This draft has some depth among college pitchers, so I would weight the odds a little in that direction, but it will really come down to how the draft plays out. If there is a run on college starters at the back of the first the Cubs may stumble into a bargain at the high school pitching ranks. Or vice versa. Given how hard this draft is to predict, though, just about anything could happen with the Cubs second rounder and it would not surprise me at all.

Picture via Myrtle Beach Pelicans on Twitter.

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