Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

cubs azl spring training logoEvery winter we take a closer look at various prospects in the farm system, and this winter is no different. Most recently, we checked in on top shortstop prospect, Gleyber Torres.

Next to receive the Prospects Progress treatment as we work our way down the Bleacher Nation Mid-Season Top 40 is right-handed pitcher Pierce Johnson.

It was not the best of years for Johnson. Once again, he was unable to turn in a healthy season, once again he finished up in Double A Tennessee, and once again his innings count was on the low side: 95.0 with Tennessee, plus 24.2 with Mesa in the Arizona Fall League.

His inning count was low because he did not start his season until June 11 (lat injury) and because he still needed to build up some endurance from there. It wasn’t until mid-July that he lasted into the seventh inning in back-to-back games, but from that point on, he never pitched few than six frames. From a developmental standpoint, he still had plenty of time to make some improvements (and likely made some significant ones), but from an evaluation point of view, it is a little to know what to make of him.

The injuries, while too frequent for comfort, are not repetitive. We are not seeing consistent hamstring or shoulder problems, for example, and that makes me think it is possible he’s just had a run of bad luck. When he is pitching, he has shown he can handle pitch counts around a hundred on consecutive starts (including three straight starts of over one hundred pitches this season) without any notable loss in performance, so I feel pretty good about his ability to handle a starting pitcher’s work load in the majors once he gets there.

The question is, and I’m not sure we have an answer yet, what sort of a pitcher will he be when he gets there?

We know Johnson has two good pitches in his fastball and curve (Fangraphs grades both at a projected 60). That’s a good start, and when we include some pretty good control (even though his BB/9 has been erratic), we have the foundation of a good starter. And, sure enough, he finished up his 2015 time in Double A with an ERA of 2.08 and an FIP of 3.47. Those are the marks we’d expect of a good starter.  His 6.82 K/9, on the other hand, was much more pedestrian. That jumped up to 7.66 in Mesa, but while in Mesa he also posted a high BB/9 of 4.74 and a really ugly HR/9 of 1.82. There are some small sample size issues here, but the overall picture is still that of a decent starter, not a great one.

With two pitches that grade as plus or better and decent command to back them up, even accounting for the injury time, we should be seeing evidence of more than merely a decent starter. With that sort of an arsenal, we can be justified hoping for an upside in the No. 2 / No. 3 starter range. Sure enough, if we check out the national prospect prognosticators, Johnson is listed as having the upside of a No. 2 / No. 3 starter. So how do we explain his less than great numbers from much of 2015?

It turns out that he was actually working on a pitch:

Johnson struggled in the early stages of the AFL because he was still making some mechanical adjustments and trying to find a feel for his slider, a pitch he had trouble locating for the bulk of the season.

“I actually threw it a lot back in 2014, but they wanted me to work on my changeup this year, and now that I feel confident in my changeup, I kind of lost my cutter,” Johnson said. “Just getting the feel for that again was huge, and I think that kept people off balance.”

Not using a pitch that was part of his normal arsenal and substituting a pitch that needed work could easily account for some inconsistent numbers during the 2015 season, but it does make it even harder to evaluate Johnson as a prospect. If he has added an improved changeup to go with his two current plus pitches and his average slider [Brett: it reads like, in the MLB article, by the way, that the slider and cutter are being talked about as the same pitch, so it’s a little unclear exactly what the pitch is], the net effect should be that Johnson is more effective and harder to predict. There is clear upside here, but so far he hasn’t been able to put it together consistently for a season.

Next year is going to be critical for Johnson, who was added to the 40-man roster in November. He turns 25 in May, and, so far, has not seen an inning of Triple A. That is not a good sign for a pitcher with a fairly high ceiling, and the fact that it is largely due to his injury history only helps to define the unease. All the ingredients are there, if he can stay healthy, for this next season to be his big breakout year. And, if it is, he could emerge as a good middle of the rotation starter for the Cubs by the end of the season. Another lengthy injury rehab, though, or a relapse into an elevated walk rate, or a further decline in the strikeout rate, and Johnson could finish the 2016 season as a candidate to lose his 40-man roster slot.

I like Johnson’s chances to become a regular Major League starter, and I think he could emerge as a somewhat better than average one when that day comes. His delivery looks pretty good to me (note: I’m not a scout), he repeats it well, and he has the size and endurance that we typically like to see in a starting pitcher. Thanks to the work he put into his changeup he now has up to four pitches he can throw for strikes, and he usually has the command to match. All he needs is a healthy season so he can pick up that final layer of polish in Triple A earn a chance to test himself in the majors.

But, until he turns in that healthy season along with some quality results in Triple A, I don’t think we can count on him as an option for Chicago. I’d love to list Johnson as the Cubs’ eighth or ninth starter coming out of spring training, but it would probably be a mistake to due so. Hopefully he can join that list by mid-season, but he isn’t there yet. He should open 2016 at the front of Iowa’s rotation; a dozen or so starts there should tell us quite a bit about his near-term future.

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