Jake Arrieta’s 2015 Cy Young award winning season was an overwhelming positive for the Chicago Cubs. His on-field dominance during the season was historic and one of the primary catalysts for the Cubs’ first postseason appearance since 2008. Still, there exist other, equally important, ways he has positively affected the Cubs’ organization and it has nothing to do with his work on the field.
Specifically, I’m talking about his renowned work ethic, attitude, experience (of both struggles and success) and overall baseball knowledge. For at least one young Cubs pitching prospect, Pierce Johnson, it has made all the difference. You’ll want to read that Cubs.com article.
If you recall, Johnson, 24, was selected by the Cubs with the 43rd overall pick in 2012 MLB draft. In the 2.5 years after he was drafted, he made his way up to AA Tennessee before receiving an invitation to Spring Training in 2015. There, he took the opportunity to pick the brain of pitchers like Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and Jason Hammel, to learn as much as he can. The way Carrie Muskat puts it, “Pierce Johnson could have been accused of stalking Jake Arrieta … last spring.”
Despite the capability of completing lengthy appearances (100+ pitches/start), Johnson finished AA Tennessee last year with just 95 innings pitched. And that total comes just one year after throwing only 102 IP between High-A and AA in 2014. Luckily, his injuries have been entirely unrelated/non-repetitive, not located in his pitching arm, and appear to have been – as much as you won’t believe it – a series of bad luck.
But his most recent injury – a lat injury that kept him out until June 11 – might have actually been a blessing in disguise.
During his extended time off – rehabbing from the lat injury – Johnson took the opportunity to work, extensively, on his changeup. As Luke explained here, Johnson was already known to have two good pitches in his fastball and hard curveball (both of which FanGraphs grades out at 60), but starters are more or less required to have at least three effective pitches to get through a lineup two or three times.
With the renewed ability and interest in incorporating a third pitch, Johnson returned to AA Tennessee to great success. He finished the season with 2.08 ERA (3.47 FIP) and a much lower walk rate (8.4%) than he had the first time through AA (14.5%). More importantly, he felt comfortable throwing his changeup more often against both left and right-handed hitters, and for strikes.The reason I bring all of this to your attention now is because Johnson, who was added to the 40-man roster in November, looks primed for a breakout season in 2016. Likely headed to AAA Iowa out of the gate, Johnson should (hopefully) see some time with the Cubs (perhaps out of the bullpen) next season. With an improved pitch mix and a healthy go at it, he might even arrive midseason into the rotation should the opportunity present itself.
Although, let’s keep our expectations in check.
For 2016, I’d be most happy if he could stay healthy, utilize all three pitches and realize a great deal of success in Iowa. That, then, could set him up nicely to compete for a rotation spot in 2017, alongside a developing young, cost-controlled core of starting pitchers, which also includes Adam Warren and Kyle Hendricks. If that trio could emerge as a reliable 4-5-6 in the rotation (you pretty much always need a good sixth starter), you’d already be feeling good about the Cubs’ rotation in 2017 before the Cubs even made a single move.