With a successful offseason in the books, the Cubs will enter the season with a great five-man rotation that is, if all goes well, under control and in place for a few seasons. Odds are good that all won’t go well. Pitchers get injured, others surprisingly underperform, and the Cubs will have to find reinforcements somewhere over the next few years.
Sure, you can make trades on the fly and sign new guys in the intervening offseasons, but, when you have a full and well-compensated rotation already, finding full-time replacements should ideally be an entirely “internal” job.
Mike Montgomery, for now, is the next man up in the near-term, but what about the more medium term? What about if needs develop over the next couple years when Montgomery has settled in as a full-time reliever, or has moved on to somewhere that he can start regularly? Or, God forbid, what if Montgomery is already long in the rotation because of an injury when another injury comes up? (And assuming Drew Smyly, who is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery right now, doesn’t pan out.)
Unfortunately, developing pitching has not been a strong point for the Cubs in the current era. So far the Cubs have only graduated one pitcher drafted by this front office to the majors (Rob Zastryzny), although the development work they put into trade acquisitions Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr., for a couple examples, makes that metric one of suspect value.
Things did look better last season, though, on this front, which is why almost all of the hype associated with Cubs prospects these days is on the pitching side. Thanks to that improvement, and assuming we see those trends continue, I think we can safely say that rotational help is on the way for the Cubs.
Sorted by when they might arrive if necessary, here are some future rotation candidates to be watching in the minors next season. Most of these names should be familiar to you.
Early 2018: Jen-Ho Tseng
Tseng doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but he does have good control, commands his pitches well, and looks like a guy who could use that control/command to translate his pretty good stuff into pretty good results at the back of the Cubs rotation. If the Cubs need a starter in a hurry in April or May – assuming the Cubs aren’t going to be rapidly flipping Mike Montgomery’s role around this year – Tseng is a good candidate to get the call.
Late 2018: Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay
Mills lost nearly all of 2017 to injury, otherwise I think he’d be competing more realistically for the Cubs’ sixth/seventh starter slot in the spring. His control-oriented, groundball-heavy stuff should work at the back of a rotation, but after losing a season, he may need some time to shake off the dust and work his pitch counts back up. If all goes well, though, by mid to late season he should be an option.
Alzolay pitched well in Tennessee last year and cemented his status as one of the Cubs’ best pitching prospects in the process. The Cubs do value Triple A development time, so I wouldn’t look for him to jump into the majors in the first half regardless of what is happening in Chicago. In the second half, though, and particularly in September, he seems like a good candidate to get a look, perhaps even starting his big league career in the bullpen.
Early 2019: Thomas Hatch
Hatch pitched better in 2017 than his results showed. The guy has excellent stuff. If he can keep up the strikeouts while still limiting the homers in Double-A Tennessee, he may well see a second half promotion to Triple-A Iowa. If so, that would put the Cubs’ first pick in the 2016 draft on track to be potentially Major League-ready sometime in the first half of 2019. Hatch is probably a back of the rotation guy, but I wouldn’t give up on him as a Number Three just yet. If the Major League rotation stays healthy, he could also be an asset in the bullpen.
Late 2019: Alex Lange, Brendon Little
This is an aggressive projection for the two college pitchers the Cubs drafted in the first round last June, but both are thought to be relatively polished and could start as high as Myrtle Beach in April (maybe Lange a little moreso than Little).
If they do go to High A, and if they pitch well there, and if they pitch well in Tennessee to start 2019, and if they then move to Iowa mid-season, and if they handle that challenge well, a September call up could certainly be in the cards. A lot of ifs, but for successful, high-profile, good-stuff, college starting pitchers, that isn’t an out-of-the-question scenario. Mid-2020 would be a safer projection.
I think Lange is the safer bet to stick in the rotation, and his upside clocks in as high as a Number Three guy for a lot of folks. Little, the lefty of the pair, has a frame and a delivery that leaves a lot of analysts thinking he’ll head to the bullpen. If he does sooner rather than later, he could surpass even this best-case projected arrival date.
Sometime 2020: Jose Albertos
He’ll need to stay healthy for this to happen, but this timeline would set the Cubs’ best pitching prospect up to make his Major League debut at the age of 21. Albertos has some of the best stuff in the organization, and the fact that he pairs his fastball / changeup combo with pretty good command makes him all the more exciting. The Cubs won’t rush him, but they have shown a willingness to challenge their best prospects with fairly aggressive promotions once they have acclimated to playing baseball daily. If all goes well, that could mean Albertos arrives sometime in the second half of 2020, potentially as a leading member of a hopeful next wave of Cubs prospects.
Entirely TBD: Oscar De La Cruz
If Oscar De La Cruz can stay healthy, he could appear on this list anywhere from late in the second half of this season on down. Once he is on the mound, I think the Cubs will let him move as fast as he shows he is able. However, given his injury history, it’s still possible he’ll be moved to the bullpen as he accelerates up the system. His arrival in Chicago – especially if it comes soon – will likely be as a reliever instead of in the rotation. Longer term, if the guy could just stay on the mound, he’d show everyone why the mid-to-front-of-the-rotation projection has been on him for so long.