Maintaining a successful Major League team requires significant trades (as we have seen), and significant trades require noteworthy prospects to trade (again, as we have seen). And the Cubs are now lacking in noteworthy prospects to trade.
That doesn’t mean they are devoid of talent, just the sort of talent that is going to allow them to pay the premium for impact help in July a few more times. To get back to where they can do that, they are going to have find and develop some quality talent while drafting at the back of the first round and working with a relatively limited International Free Agent budget.
In short, they have to do that most difficult of front office tricks – rebuild a farm system when you aren’t rebuilding the big league team.
If the Cubs are going to pull it off, and they certainly act like they are determined to do so, one thing they will have to do is find, sign, and develop International Free Agent talent better than pretty much any team ever. Despite working under steep penalties the past two IFA signing windows (no contract greater than $300k), the Cubs have in fact found some intriguing hitters, which we looked at earlier, that I’m pretty excited about keeping track of on Mesa 1, Mesa 2, or Eugene this year.
And it turns out they also have some pretty interesting pitching prospects as well.
When looking at prospects this deep in the minors, I am mostly looking at a handful of the most meaningful predictive statistics, since we don’t have video to review performance and scouting reports are limited or non-existent. Among those stats: K/9 (higher the better), BB/9 (lower the better), and GB% (over 50%). Basically, if a pitchers can get strikeouts, avoid walks, and doesn’t give up very much in the air, he is probably a pitcher to keep an eye on. And that’s what we’re saying here: not that these guys are future top prospects, only that they should be on your radar.
And with that, some names …
Didier Vargas (18, LHP) is a pitcher to keep an eye on. Through 63 innings (14 starts) in the Dominican Summer League last year, Vargas posted an amazing ground ball rate of 61.3% while striking out enough (7.77 K/9) and doing a decent job of limiting the walks (3.25 BB/9). He finished with an ERA of 0.99 and a FIP of 3.01. He also allowed just one homer all year.
Vargas could probably handle 100 or so innings next year, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him vault Mesa and go straight to Eugene as a member of the rotation. Then again, given all the pitchers the Cubs have drafted lately, he might have to hang out for a time on one of the two Mesa teams. (Yes, if you missed it, the Cubs now have two rookie league teams in Mesa.)
Yovanny Cruz (18, RHP) threw 56 innings over 13 games (12 starts) and finished with an ERA of 3.51 and a FIP of 3.16. His groundball rate wasn’t quite as high as Vargas posted, but 56.4% is still very good. As were his strikeout (8.63 K/9) and walk (2.24 BB/9) rates. Like Vargas, I think Cruz could handle the innings needed to be a Eugene starter, but there may not be room for him there.
At this age, players are very much works in progress, so it isn’t uncommon to find players who do well in some of our three main categories, but not all. Take, for example, Kleiber Carreno (19, RHP).
Through 17.1 innings (all in relief) Carreno put up very impressive strikeout (12.98 K/9) and groundball (59%) rates, but his terrifying walk rate of 13.50 BB/9 held him back from exceptional results. His ERA of 8.83 isn’t something that would ordinarily indicate a prospet to watch closely, but with that ability to gets strikeouts and grounders, it might not take much of an improvement in control for him become a very effective pitcher. That makes him well worth watching, as the numbers are suggestive of excellent stuff.
Wander Feliz (20, RHP) is right up there on the intriguing prospect list. Even though he as been in the system since 2015, he only converted to pitching full-time last year. His walk rate was high in his 33 innings of work (6.3 BB/9), but he also struck out plenty (9.0 K/9) and maintained a groundball rate of 53.4%. Those are really nice numbers for a guy switching to the mound from the outfield. He’ll almost certainly in be Mesa later this summer.
Hector Matos (19, RHP) checks both the low walk rate (1.48 BB/9) and good groundball rate (51.6%) boxes. He only appeared in 24.1 innings over 7 games (4 starts). His strikeout rate wasn’t exceptional (7.03 K/9), but his overall line is a good start for a guy just beginning his professional career. If he comes to the States in 2018, I doubt he makes it past Mesa.
Fernando Calderon (21, RHP) is older than most players we would consider really interesting prospects from the Dominican Summer League, but he makes this list anyway for two reasons. First, he has only been in the system since 2016 and has totaled just 56 professional innings. That would make him, experience wise, comparable to the Cubs drafting a college pitcher who switched to the mound while in college. Second, he took some significant strides forward in 2017. His strikeout rate soared from 4.91 K/91 the previous year to 10.13. His walk rate fell from 6.61 BB/9 to 2.25. And he did that while holding a groundball rate essentially unchanged right about 50%. That sort of progress in a single season is noteworthy, and it makes Calderon someone look for when short season league rosters are announced in June.
And after considering one of the older players, we’ll wrap up with one of the youngest: Jonathan Bruzual (17, LHP). In 14 games (9 starts) Bruzual pitched 39.1 innings and finished with an ERA of 6.86 and a FIP of 4.46. His walk rate is awful (8.24 BB/9) and his ground ball rate nothing to get excited about (47.4%), but a strikeout rate of 9.38 K/9 in his debut season a 17 year old is a very positive sign. He definitely needs to take some steps forward in the coming years, but there is likely some upside here.
I don’t think we should expect any of these players to break out so explosively in 2018 that they could become the centerpiece of another impactful trade deadline move (or even an essential secondary piece), but if things go very well we could see one or two of these players taking on that role in 2019 or 2020. It is even possible that one or more of these pitchers will be part of next talent core that the Cubs will rebuild around when their current crop of young stars start departing into free agency.