If you like good stories, underdogs, and ground ball pitchers, then this is the Prospects Progress for you. Ranked twelfth in the mid-season Top 40, Ryan Williams came practically out of nowhere to finish 2015 as one of the best stories in the organization – and win pitcher of the year honors.
Williams opened his 2015 with 53.2 innings in Low A South Bend after being drafted as a 10th round senior signing type out of East Carolina in 2014. After he posted an ERA of 1.17, a FIP of 2.24, and just two walks over that entire span (he finished his time at South Bend with six straight starts without a walk) the Cubs opted to have him skip Myrtle Beach and jumped him straight to Tennessee.
Keep in mind that the jump from High A to Double A is generally considered the most difficult promotion in the minor leagues. Vaulting over High A altogether only makes that jump more difficult. Even for an experience collegiate starter like Williams, this was no walk in the park. He just happened to make it look like one.
Unless you like strikeouts. That is the one significant flaw in Williams body of work. While he does an excellent job attacking the strike zone, generating ground balls, and avoiding home runs, he does not earn a lot of strikeouts. His Tennessee K/9 of 6.24 was actually a slight uptick from the 6.20 he delivered in South Bend, but neither of those are in any way significant. In the minds of some prospect analysts, that lack of strikeout is a fatal flaw in his resume.
But in the minds of many Cubs’ fans, I suspect it leads to a comparison to Kyle Hendricks.
I was high on Hendricks after he joined the Cubs system, so it should come as no surprise that I am fairly high on Williams as well. I think there is a place in baseball for a lower strikeout pitcher that can efficiently gain outs by pitching to contact and generating ground balls, and for a time Hendricks looked like that sort of a pitcher. Hendricks actually improved his K/9 to a very respectable 8.35 in the majors, but it was as a control-based, weak-contact-generating ground ball artist that he got there in the first place. The path Williams will take to the majors will likely look very similar.
If he does reach the majors in 2016, Williams will likely be taking advantage of an injury created opportunity to work at the back of the Cubs rotation. And according to ZiPS projections (provided by Fangraphs), he would probably do alright in that role. ZiPS projects Williams to be very average (4.02 ERA, 3.92 FIP, 103 ERA-, zWAR 1.3), despite a projected strikeout rate of just 5.96 K/9. The reason? In part, a 2.01 BB/9 projection that is better than any of the Cubs most likely starting five.Alternately, I don’t think we can rule out Williams earning consideration for a bullpen job. The Cubs have shown a clear desire to stock up on versatile, multiple inning relievers who can be used to take over the third time through a batting order or in higher leverage situations. These super utility pitchers (h/t Brett) could allow the Cubs to use Williams as a ‘twice through the lineup’ sort of starter, but he may well be a better fit in the super utility role. Williams’s best pitch, a sinking fastball that hangs out around ninety and generates plenty of grounders, is a very useful pitch for a super utility pitcher. His tendency to avoid walks would also be valuable. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that the Cubs need upper level minor league starting options so badly, I would be hoping to see Williams tried out in that role in Iowa this spring.
But the Cubs do need starting pitcher with Major League capabilities in the upper minors as an insurance policy for 2016, as well as to develop depth for the rotation of future seasons, and Williams is one of the very few players in the organization who fits that description. For 2016, at least, after a long look in spring training, I think he will join the rotation in Triple A Iowa. If the Cubs need to call up a pitcher for an extended period, and if room on the forty man roster can be found, Williams should be a candidate.
His longer-term role probably depends on how the roster shapes up around him. If the Cubs are able to land a young starter who is under control for a few seasons without parting with Hendricks, and if the next wave of pitching shapes up well as it reaches Tennessee and Myrtle Beach this season, then Williams may be converted to a super utility pitcher as soon as next season. Otherwise, look for him to be fighting for a job in the 2017 rotation.