Thanks to an overflow of legitimate starting pitching prospects whose talent/development track would put them around the AAA/AA range heading into this season, we wondered how the Cubs would ultimately sort it out, knowing full well that some veterans would be let go, some pitchers would be injured (or injured enough to stick around Extended Spring Training anyway), and some guys would have to head back to High-A.
As for the AA Tennessee Smokies rotation, it’s initially going to shake out with five notable prospects in the mix:
Opening series at Tennessee pitching matchups.
RHP Ian Anderson vs. RHP Thomas Hatch
LHP Kyle Muller vs. RHP Cory Abbott
LHP Joey Wentz vs. RHP Keegan Thompson
RHP Patrick Weigel vs. LHP Justin Steele
LHP Tucker Davidson vs. RHP Tyson Miller
— Chris Harris (@CHarris731) April 3, 2019
In my years of following this stuff closely, it’s been really rare for the Cubs to sport a AA-level rotation that featured five legit big league starting pitching prospects. With all appropriate love and respect, there was always at least one or two guys that you knew were either not making The Show, or at most had a middle relief ceiling. These five are all guys who could be starters in the big leagues. They won’t all make it, of course – it’s possible none do! – but there’s so much to like.
Each of Hatch, Abbott, Thompson, Steele, and Miller are legit big league potential starting prospects, with only Hatch falling outside the BN Top 20. On a talent basis, Hatch – the Cubs’ top pick (3rd round) in 2016 – is a guy with a live fastball and great stuff, who dominated at High-A in his professional debut. His work at AA last year was not as inspiring, with some command issues, a drop in his strikeout rate, and a sharp uptick in homers. With the rising tide of pitching prospects swelling up around him, this may be a year for him to solidify himself as a starter, or to transition eventually into a high-leverage relief role.
Abbott, the Cubs’ 2nd rounder in 2017, was named the Cubs’ pitching prospect of the year by MLB Pipeline, as he absolutely cruised in the results department in 2018, split between Low-A and High-A. Thompson, the Cubs’ 3rd rounder that year after Abbott, was similarly very successful in results between High-A and AA last year, though he’s more of a polished, highly-diverse type of starter, rather than a purely “dominating stuff” type.
Steele, of course, is coming back from Tommy John surgery, after only a partial year in 2018 (albeit an impressive one). He was a high school draft pick for the Cubs back in 2014, and broke out at High-A in 2017 before his surgery. Miller was the Cubs’ 4th rounder in 2016, taken just after Hatch, and features some of the most impressive pure stuff in the system. He saw his results and peripherals improve significantly last year after the jump from Low-A to High-A, which is a good sign.
Beyond these five, it’s also possible we’ll see starts for guys like Michael Rucker and Bailey Clark, either as a 6th starter or pseudo starts as a piggyback. Alex Lange, one of the Cubs’ first round picks from 2017, and one of the top pitching prospects in the system, is returning to High-A.