Once upon a time, Duane Underwood Jr. was considered one of the top pitching prospects in the Cubs organization. He had an electric fastball, one of the best in the organization, promising secondary pitches, and appeared to be ticketed for a future as a front of the rotation starter after the Cubs tabbed him in the second round of the 2012 draft.
Then injuries happened. And then, as the injuries kept up every year, the stuff and results didn’t quite keep up pace with the projectability, and he started falling down the prospect rankings. He fell to 24 in the mid-season Top 40, is holding at 15th in the latest Baseball America rankings, and sits at 16 for MLB Pipeline. He used to be a frequent Top 10 guy, even in a loaded Cubs system.
Yesterday, the Cubs sent Underwood out from big league camp. He will start for the big league team on Friday, though.
At just 22 and already in Double A, Underwood still has plenty of time to recover from his recent prospect swoon, and move back up the charts.
Staying healthy and on the mound would certainly be a big help, and a move to the bullpen where he can pitch more off his fastball could benefit him as well. Even so, it is getting easier to imagine a future in which Underwood falls off the prospect rankings entirely. In some of the early runs of models that will result in the 2017 Top 40, that has already happened. There is a chance that Underwood will not be on my rankings this spring.
Looking at his results, it isn’t hard to see why. Underwood has pitched 50 or more innings at four stops, and in all of them he finished with a FIP over 4.00.
2013: Short Season A: 54.1 IP: 4.77 FIP
2014: Low A: 100.2 IP: 4.42 FIP
2015: High A: 73.1 IP: 4.16 FIP
2016: Double A: 58.2 IP: 5.09 FIP
For his career, he has a HR/9 of 0.8, including a 0.9 in Double A last season. His strikeout totals have been strong, but his career BB/9 is uncomfortably high at 3.7. In 2016 that figure was 4.3.
While it is true that Underwood has a good fastball, that doesn’t necessarily help when batters are able to sit on it. And since his control is inconsistent, particularly with his secondary pitches (which leads to the high walk rate), he eventually has to go to his fastball to get outs. Hitters can look for it, pounce on it, and regularly send it for a long ride. It comes as no surprise that hitters had a BABIP of .317 against him in Double A. That’s what comes of giving up regular, hard contact.
A move to the bullpen could help. The fastball would likely tick up in velocity a bit, and that should result in more strikeouts. One-pitch relievers are hard to find, though, so at least one of his secondary pitches will have to become consistent enough that he can use it to set up his fastball. And that secondary pitch will need to be a weapon against lefties as well; his WHIP against left-handed hitting last year was 1.82. At age 22, he still has plenty of time to develop that additional pitch.
But even if he does, a reliever with a good fastball, inconsistent command, and a high home run rate is unlikely to turn into a future setup man or closer. Based on what we have seen so far, Underwood is likely ticketed for a career in middle relief at best.
So, on the one hand, we have a 22-year-old who has a potentially plus fastball and who is already in Double A. That’s the viewpoint that leads to his rankings in the middle teens.
And on the other hand, we have a pitcher with a history of arm problems who gives up too many walks, too many home runs, and who at best looks like a middle reliever in the making. That’s the viewpoint that could have him falling off prospect rankings altogether.
Ignoring lackluster results and ranking primarily on future potential is easier for players in the lower minors. By the time a guy hits Double A, though, it gets tougher to rank high without some sort of numerical support to back it up. Then again, it is also tough to knock a guy who was just added to the 40-man roster. The Cubs, after all, know their prospects pretty well.
And all of that is why, for now, I have Underwood down as a prospect on the fringe of the Top 40. He could shed that fringe status in a hurry this season if he improves his overall command enough that hitters are no longer able to wait on the fastball. Add a little more command, find a weapon to use against left handers, and Underwood could drop his seasonal FIP from the high 4.00 range to something under 3.00 in hurry. His injury history could keep him ticketed for the bullpen in the long-term, but fewer walks and homers against him could set him up for a back of the bullpen future. None of those improvements are impossible.
But until we see signs of such improvement, he will remain, for me at least, a high-ceiling and intriguing pitching prospect with a lot of red flags lurking on the edges of Cubs’ prospectdom.