We previewed the BN Top 40, together with a look back at the history of the rankings, here.
Pitching is an emerging area of strength in the Cubs’ organization. For the first part of 2017, I think the bats will continue to hold most of the headlines, but the arms are coming. Half of the ten top players on the Top 40 are right-handed pitchers, and those five are spread across multiple levels of the minors.
There are a couple notes on stats that are worth reviewing before we get started. First, I continue to believe that a ground ball is almost equal to a strikeout in value to the pitcher… and in some cases could be more valuable. At worst a ground ball is a win for the pitcher, and that mindset shows up in my rankings. It also shows up in that I frequently refer to GO/AO – the ratio of Ground Outs to Air Outs. I like to see a number over 1.5, and the higher the better.
Second, beware of minor league velocities. I’ve listed some velocities below, but I would take all of them with a measured dose of skepticism. Some of those velocities will be based on radar guns held by actual scouts, and some of them will be based on scoreboard guns that could be off by a wide margin. The problem when reading about velocity from any source is that you have no idea which is which. As a result, our velocity data is probably off by at least some amount, but we don’t know by how much or in which direction. Pitch speeds are good to know, but don’t panic if some I list here as throwing in the low 90s appears to be pitching in the high 80s during the season.
Players are presented in order of their ranking in the top 40, and remember that these are just the right-handed pitchers. Dylan Cease is not my highest ranked prospect, just my highest ranked right handed pitcher. Overall, I have him at Number Three. There will be a consolidated list once all the positional rankings have been published.
3. Dylan Cease
Take a triple digit fastball. Add some promising breaking pitches and improving control. Mix in just one home run allowed in over twenty games. That’s Dylan Cease. With Eugene last year he struck out hitters at a 13.3 K/9 pace, finished with an ERA of 2.22, posted a solid GO/AO of 1.70, and basically dominated the Northwest League. Control is still in need of improvement (5.04 BB/9), but I suspect we’ll see significant strides in that department with South Bend this season.
Cease is the best pitching prospect to be drafted by the Cubs in a long, long time. He has a very long way to go, but this is a guy with front of the rotation potential. The biggest risk is his surgically repaired right arm. Hopefully he can handle the workload of a starter, but even if he can’t, I think he’ll have an excellent shot at becoming a dominant closer.
De La Cruz does not quite match Cease in velocity, but he still has the potential to develop three pitches that grade out at plus or higher, led by his fastball. A converted infielder, De La Cruz had moved slowly until 2016. Last season, despite some forearm issues (that went way without surgery) slowing his start, De La Cruz pitched at three levels and finished in Low A South Bend.
He takes his mid to high 90s stuff to High-A Myrtle Beach to open this season, but he’s the kind of guy the Cubs could promote aggressively. Strikeouts should not be a problem (11.39 K/9 in South Bend last year), but fly balls might be. His ground ball ratio was under 1.00 in Low A last year, and in just nine total games he allowed a pair of home runs. That will be something to keep an eye on as the 2017 season unfolds. (Some pitchers do work successfully up in the zone with their fastball to induce pop ups, but again, all else equal, ground balls are a good thing, because the margin for error is much larger.)
Since 2013, Trevor Clifton has been lurking in the farm system, moving up at a level per year, and showing improvement each and every year. Last year in High A Myrtle Beach he posted a strikeout rate of 9.76 K/9, finished with an ERA of 2.72, and completed a career high 119 innings. Clifton typically works in the low 90s and already has a couple of breaking pitches in his arsenal. Somewhat surprisingly for a pitcher yet to leave A ball, he already has found a way to handle left-handed hitting. His ERA against lefties was just 1.89 for the Pelicans last year (although that group did account for five of his eight allowed homers).
So far Clifton has generally been known only to hardcore prospect hounds, but I think that is about to change. He joins Double A Tennessee this year, and I suspect he will quickly emerge as the de facto ace of that staff. A good season in Tennessee could set him up to compete for the Cubs fifth starter job next spring. Long term, I see Clifton as good Number 3 type of starter.
There is a lot of excitement around Albertos, despite the fact that he has just four official professional innings to his name. The Cubs signed Albertos out of Mexico, a country where the Cubs have done very well over the past few years, and as soon as prospect analysts got a look at him in Mesa last summer the hype began. Depending on which reports you read, Albertos may already be throwing in the mid to high 90s with good command on the fastball, has a changeup that could grade out at double-plus before he is done, and features a hard breaking ball that may be as good as his changeup.
Durability is the first big question here. If he can eventually pitch 180+ innings, he has the arsenal to be a very good front of the rotation starter. If he can’t, then we can Albertos to the candidate list for Closer of the Future duties. The Cubs will probably monitor his workload closely, so don’t be surprised to see him move in and out of the rotation to limit his innings over the next few seasons. I’m not sure where he will start the year – he’s currently still at extended Spring Training – but I will be surprised if he doesn’t finish it in South Bend.
10. Alec Mills
The Cubs had to send a good outfield prospect, Donnie Dewees, to Kansas City in order to land Mills, but I think that trade could pay off very nicely. Mills finished 2015 in High A, and in 2016 the Royals promoted him aggressively; he made just twelve starts each in Double A and Triple A, then got a three inning taste of the majors. That aggressive promotion schedule makes me think he may need another layer of polish before the Cubs bring him to Chicago.
But when they do, fans will see a pitcher with stats that are almost eerily similar to Kyle Hendricks. He has a good, but not great, strikeout rate (8.38 K/9 in Triple A), limits the walks fairly well (2.95 BB/9), and gets quite a few grounders (1.17 GO/AO). Lefties still give him some problems, but that probably just defines where the Cubs will be working with him this season.
Look for Mills to be a part of the Iowa rotation to start the year, but if a need opens in the Chicago rotation we could see Mills get the call. Long term, I think he has the upside of a Number 3 or 4 starter for the Cubs, or he may wind up in the bullpen.
12. Ryan Williams
In 2015, Ryan Williams pitched 53 innings for South Bend, and then vaulted over Myrtle Beach into the Tennessee rotation. He did well there, finishing the year with a 2.76 ERA over 88 innings. 2016 opened with Williams in the Iowa rotation, but after nine games he was shut down for the season. He returns to Iowa in 2017.
Williams is essentially a ground ball pitcher, and a good one. His GO/AO in all of 2016 was a very healthy 1.62, and he opened his injury shortened Triple A campaign at 1.38. Strikeouts are not his weapon of choice, but his K/9 has consistently stayed in the low sixes at every full season stop. His walk rate has increased, but the 2.45 BB/9 he maintained in Iowa is still just fine. And as you would expect from a ground ball guy, he does a pretty good job limiting the homers.
I don’t see Williams as a high ceiling guy, but I do think he is one of the safest bets in the farm system to contribute to a Major League rotation one day. As a ground-ball-based fifth starter who can eat innings, I think he could have a nice career.
18. Jake Stinnett
Stinnett was expected to move quickly when he was taken in the second round in 2014, but that is not how things worked out. He has made steady progress up the farm system, though, pitching 116 innings for for Myrtle Beach last season. Stinnett finished with a FIP of 3.87 thanks in part to an improving strikeout rate (7.53 K/9), declining walk rate (3.10 BB/9) and a decent ground ball rate (1.19 GO/AO). He needs to improve against left-handed batters in particular (batting average against of .297), and I suspect that will be one of his main focuses when he gets underway this year.
I’m just not sure when that will be. He was expected to be in the Tennessee rotation, but the current roster does not list him. And he doesn’t appear on the DL yet, either. Provided he isn’t sidelined by a major injury, I do expect he will spend much of the season pitching for the Smokies. Long term, I still him as a potential Number 3 starter.
21. Felix Pena
There is a tendency among many baseball fans to give up on prospects by the time they reach their mid-20s if they haven’t at least reached Triple A by then. Late blooming prospects can be a reality, though, and you need look no further than Pena for proof. He started pitching in the Dominican Summer League in 2009, but did make it to High A until 2014. Last season was his first in Triple A, and his first as a full-time reliever since 2011.
And it was a successful season. He finished with 81 strikeouts in 63.1 innings, gave up just four home runs, and held hitters to just a .203 batting average. Against left-handed hitters that figure dropped to .180. He finished last season in Chicago, and I suspect he will return to Wrigley at some point this year. Look for Pena to carve out a role as a strikeout-centric middle reliever with setup man upside.
22. Jose Rosario
Jose Rosario also qualifies as a late bloomer. He started pitching in 2008, made it to High A, and then missed all of 2015. He opted for free agency, resigned with the Cubs, and in 2016 shot up the system from Myrtle Beach (12 games, 1.65 ERA) to Tennessee (11 games, 2.76 ERA) to Iowa (22 games, 2.95 ERA). In all that time he allowed just one home run.
Rosario is not major strikeout guy (7.59 K/9 with Iowa), but he does a good job getting ground balls and keeping the ball in the yard. Unfortunately, he struggles significantly against lefties. Against right handers he is very tough. He will need to find a way to get lefties out if he is going to take a back of the bullpen role in the majors, but I suspect he could come up any time this season and be very effective in middle relief.
26. Ryan McNeil
A former third round pick who needed arm surgery, McNeil emerged last season as one of the better relief pitchers in the Cubs’ farm system. Pitching as the closer for Myrtle Beach he piled up 22 saves, struck out 61 in just 54 innings, and finished with an ERA of 2.33. He was somewhat less effective against left handed hitting, but did well enough to continue to be developed as a back of the bullpen option at least for now.
In many cases a prospect being developed as a reliever while still in A ball would be cause for concern – typically the really good pitcher are kept in the rotation as long as possible. In this case though, due to the injury history, it makes sense. The Cubs may opt to move him back into the rotation one day, but for now his low to mid 90s stuff will do very nicely in relief. Double A will be a significant test for him, but if he handles that level well we could be seeing McNeil fighting for one of the last slots in the bullpen next spring.
28. Pierce Johnson
If we ignore what he did as a starter, Johnson had a pretty good season for Iowa. In 11 games (22.1 innings) Johnson held opposing hitter to just a .176 average. He walked quite a few (13), but struck out 35. And despite the three homers he gave up, his GO/AO was a very respectable 1.80. In short, as a reliever, Johnson looked pretty good.
And that is fortunate. Because as a starter, the oft-injured Johnson was having a disastrous season. Long term I would like to see him return to the rotation, or at least get a shot at it, but for now his mid 90s fastball/breaking ball combo should set up him as quality middle relief option in the near term. His injuries have generally not been related to his pitching arm, so it could be the change of role will be exactly what he needs to stay on the mound. His attempts to avoid the DL will be one of the bigger stories in Iowa this season.
31. Thomas Hatch
This is a very conservative ranking for Hatch. Normally I don’t rank players until they have pitched as professional in a real game in the United States, and as of the time of my typing this, Hatch had not done so. But in this case, and particularly since he is opening his professional career in High A, I’ll make an exception.
Hatch fell to the Cubs in third round in part due to a previous elbow strain that caused him to miss all of 2015. He looked good pitching for Oklahoma in 2016, though. His stuff is reported to center around a low-90s sinking fastball the he can command well and use to setup a breaking pitch and a promising changeup.
32. Bailey Clark
Another conservative ranking. Clark came out of the draft with questions surrounding his ability to consistently throw strikes. Naturally, in his first 11.2 IP between Arizona and Eugene last year, he did not walk a soul while striking out 13.
The short glimpse we had of Clark showed us a potentially excellent groundball pitcher with the added ability to pile up the strikeouts. He mostly pitches in the low to mid 90s, but is said to have hit 98 in the past. The Cubs will spend the first part of the year working on his mechanics in extended spring training, but I think he could see time in South Bend before the season is out. He will doubtless begin his career as a starter, but as a 6’4″ pitcher with a 98 MPH fastball, he could transition to closer down the line.
33. Erling Moreno
In five starts (30 innings) with Eugene last year, Moreno held opposing hitters to a .150 batting average and delivered a fantastic GO/AO of 2.00. He’s not a big strikeout guy, just 22 for the Emeralds, but he makes up for it by preventing solid contact and avoiding walks (his BB/9 for Eugene was just 1.50).
A low 90s sinking fastball and decent changeup are the core of his arsenal, at least so far, making it easy to see where all those ground balls are coming from. He’ll need to develop a third pitch to have a shot of sticking in the middle of a rotation, but his sinking stuff may be enough to turn him into a viable back of the rotation guy in a few years. For now, we’ll see how he handles the challenges of a full season league.
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39. Duane Underwood
Underwood has pitched 100 or more innings exactly once in his career, and that is the core of the problem. This guy just can’t seem to stay on the mound. And when he is on the mound, the results have been mixed. His FIP of 5.09 for Tennessee last year is consistent with what we have seen the past few years.
Underwood has a hard fastball, but some reports suggest it is too straight. Combine that with some control problems that are not helped by his frequent injuries, and you have a pitch that hitters can feast on. Double A hitters teed off him for 7 home runs and a .280 average last season.
Somehow, perhaps helped by a move to the pen, the Cubs need to keep Underwood on the mound. The raw materials are still here for a quality major league pitcher to emerge, and Underwood is still relatively young, but for now I do not see him as a pitching prospect that should be counted on to any great degree. He is about as high risk as a Double A pitcher can possibly be.
There were a lot of pitchers that did not make the cut who arguably could have. Dakota Mekkes, the strikeout artist reliever the Cubs drafted in 2016, or the enigmatic Brad Markey. Jen-Ho Tseng did not make the list this year, and neither did Preston Morrison who had a mini-breakout just last year. James Farris (since traded), Josh Conway, Dillon Maples, and Dave Berg were all in consideration. Adbert Alzolay was the Opening Day starter for Myrtle Beach; he missed as well. I could keep going.
The point here is that the Cubs have some very deep depth on the pitching side. Once you move past he handful of standout talents, sorting and organizing the sea of quality right handed pitching prospects is a significant task. There are a lot of pitching prospects I liked about as much as many on this list, but I can’t rank them all.
Fortunately, this is by far the deepest talent grouping. Next up is left-handed pitching, and that is a much shorter (but still very interesting) list.