Underwood entered 2015 as one of the best pitching prospects in the organization. He finished it as a guy who was shut down for several weeks with elbow soreness and who did not quite have the success we were hoping for. It would be way too soon to give up on Underwood, though. Despite the rough patch that was 2015, there are still a lot of reason to remain high on Underwood.
Those reason start with his age. Underwood will enter 2016 at the age of twenty one. If he returns to Myrtle Beach to start the year, he will be slightly on the young side. If he goes to Double A, he will definitely be well ahead of the age curve. Should the arm issues ultimately result in him losing a season to surgery (so far there are no indications it will come to that), he might not fall behind the age curve at all.
The arm issues, elbow in this case, flared up in mid-season and resulted in Underwood being shutdown for several weeks. An MRI revealed inflammation, but no structural damage. Underwood did return for a few starts at the end of the year, pitching pretty well in them, but thanks to the elbow soreness he was held to just 14 starts and 73 innings for the year. In 2016, more than anything else, he really needs to stay healthy and put in a full season of work.
Thanks to the injuries, though, and possibly to a focus on developing his additional pitches over utilizing his primary weapons (as we saw in the case of Pierce Johnson earlier), Underwood only posted a K/9 of 5.89. His BB/9 of 2.95 was quite good, as was his ERA of 2.58, but the lack of strike outs could easily be cause for concern from some fans.
It shouldn’t be. Not yet, anyway. The stuff is legitimate, he was young for his league, and the Cubs are showing a consistent pattern of genuinely using the minor leagues for actual development purposes. It has become normal for us to see significant alterations to pitching deliveries, swings, and other mechanical aspects of the athletics of baseball. We keep seeing reports of pitchers being instructed to work disproportionately on a particular pitch, for example, even if that development plan hurts the immediate term chances of winning for the minor league team. The Cubs have proven to be willing to set their prospects on development plans that sacrifice short term statistical success in exchange for mechanical improvements that will provide long term benefits. In the case of a player like Underwood, that trend means that sometimes we have to look past the numbers to the raw abilities of the player.
Assuming he can stay healthy, I would not be surprised to see the Cubs go ahead and promote Underwood to Tennessee to start the 2016 season. If he does return to Myrtle Beach, I suspect it will only be for a handful of starts. Should he continue to hold down the walks (his 2.95 BB/9 in 2015 was a career low), those could be very good starts. If the Cubs do let him unleash his full arsenal, Underwood may well see a jump in stats to match the quality of his pitches, and that could easily result in a similar surge up the national prospect ranking charts. Do not be surprised to see a healthy Underwood ranking as high as Top 50 a year from now.