Right now, it’s not a stretch to say that the Cubs’ biggest organizational need right now (and in the next few years) is starting pitching options who provide roster flexibility. In other words, the Cubs need starters with minor league options left, whom they can shuttle back and forth between AAA Iowa and the big leagues, and thus hopefully keep the pitchers in the organization into 2018 and beyond.
The Cubs 2017 rotation looks fairly well set. Assuming Mike Montgomery or Tyson Ross takes the Jason Hammel slot at the back of the rotation, then everything is in place (subject to the Cubs’ probable additional desire to have a part-time sixth starter in place, too). Rob Zastryzny would be available as one of the first pitchers out of Iowa, should the need arise, but he would be far from alone. The Cubs could certainly use more depth, but the situation is stable.
After 2017, barring a trade or a new contract for someone, two more holes open in the rotation, as well as a couple in the bullpen. Dealing with that, even if a couple very good pitchers do make it to free agency, is going to be challenging. The Cubs are going to need the depth they are building now, and then some. Some of that additional depth will need to come internally, from the further development of some of the (large) number of future rotation candidates in or nearing the upper minors.
And that makes 2017 a very interesting year for the young righty pitching prospect I’d like to discuss today, Jen-Ho Tseng.
Tseng, who will only be 22 on Opening Day, and who was the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year in 2014, is starting on just his fourth season as an American professional. He has never pitched 120 innings in a single season, is coming off a year in which he spent a solid month on the disabled list, has watched his strikeouts per nine innings rate fall by roughly a full point each of the past two years, and still might be one of the pitchers most likely to be ready and able to help out in Chicago’s rotation if needed in 2017.
At this point we know who Tseng is: a control-oriented pitcher who relies on ground balls and weak contact rather than strikeouts. But there are indications that in the later part of 2016, the Cubs had him start making some changes that could – we will have to see – result in him being Major League ready by midseason.
Tseng made four starts in April and gave up an uncharacteristic number of walks in those four games. In fact, he gave up more walks in April than in any other month of the year.
In May he pitched just a few innings, hit the DL, and did not come back until early June.
In June he was his vintage self: limited walks, no homers allowed, not a lot of strikeouts, but not a lot of runs either. That pattern continued into mid July.
And July 27, something changed. In his 14 starts prior to that day, Tseng had allowed just four home runs (three of them in April). Starting July 27, over his final eight starts, he allowed on average a home run a game. Prior to July 27, Tseng had allowed seven hits in a game exactly twice. He allowed seven or more hits in six of eight starts starting on that day.
I cannot say for sure what happened in July that led to such an odd shift in Tseng’s results late in the year, but there is a theory that springs to mind. I don’t think the change was fatigue related. His two highest pitch totals, 102 and 100, came on back to back games in late August – not something we would expect if he was fighting tiredness. Southern League video is not good, but I don’t notice any glaring mechanical changes either.
My suspicion is that, as we have seen before in the minors, the Cubs changed Tseng’s arsenal. We have noticed several times in the past that the Cubs put an emphasis on their pitchers, particularly the starting pitchers, developing multiple pitches into usable options. Sometimes, in order to do that, the Cubs take away a pitch. And on multiple occasions, we’ve noticed the Cubs take away a pitcher’s out pitch. Instead of letting a pitcher throw the pitch he normally uses to get a guy out (a slider, for example), the Cubs might take that pitch out of his arsenal and make him throw a changeup or a cutter instead. The result is twofold: the pitcher hopefully gets a new pitch to mix into the rest of his stuff, and his stats take a pounding while he improves that new pitch. If the new pitch does not develop properly, the Cubs discard it and go on to a new plan.
We won’t know for sure until we get into Spring Training and see what he is throwing first-hand, but I suspect when February and March roll around, Tseng will be refining a pitch he simply didn’t have working for him a year prior. So far he has been a fastball, changeup, curve guy, with the offspeed offerings grading out a little above average. Both come with good command, and he sets up both with an average-ish fastball, of which he also has good command. He uses these pitches primarily to induce grounders and weak contact, not necessarily swings and misses. That has worked fairly well against right-handed hitters, but less so against lefties.
If he adds something – or markedly tweaks something – that is harder for a left-handed hitter to square up, something that breaks down and in to a left-handed batter, perhaps, Tseng just might be able to overcome the biggest hurdle to his taking a slot in the Cubs rotation one day, or at least being available as an up-and-down guy.
In addition to what he is throwing, when Tseng heads to Iowa in 2017 (provided that rotation has room for him), the stats to watch will be his numbers against left-handed hitters and his ground ball rate. If he can get lefties out consistently, and if he can continue or improve on his already high GO/AO (1.31 last season), Tseng should be a solid candidate to take some starts in Chicago by the end of the season.
Tseng needs to throw a full season, at least 160 innings, before the Cubs are likely to let him try to hold down that job at the highest level on a permanent basis, but that milestone could be cleared next year (if he stays healthy). And there is no reason why some of those innings could not come in Chicago should the Cubs need a spot starter (provided he is added to the 40-man roster, of course – of note, Tseng is eligible for the Rule 5 Draft after the 2017 season).
Tseng will hopefully have plenty of competition for John Lackey‘s rotation spot after the 2017 season, but with a good year, and with the successful inclusion of an effective out pitch against left-handed hitters, he should be in the mix.