The news that former Cubs pitching prospect Pierce Johnson received $5 million from the Padres to come back to Major League Baseball after a successful run in Japan has me thinking today about starting pitching prospects, and some of their conversion to the bullpen. This offseason, I have written about the Starter or Reliever Question that awaits the Cubs regarding both Adbert Alzolay and Justin Steele.
These conversations happen in every farm system, every year, with the vast majority of pitching prospects. The Cubs during this front office regime have been very resistant – I believe to their detriment – to transition guys to the bullpen too early in their minor league careers. I think of a guy like Rob Zastryzny, a player who showed success in 2016 as a reliever, was returned to the AAA rotation in 2017, and had his career re-stagnate. You just wonder what might have happened if there were a commitment to the bullpen earlier on.[Brett: A quick note is worthwhile here – some development philosophies have some prospects continuing to develop as starters in the minors even knowing that their future big league role is as a reliever. In some situations, you want to let a young guy develop as a starter so that he can learn to work in a variety of situations with a variety of pitches as he and the organization figure out what’s going to be the best relief mix for him down the road. What Bryan is talking about, however, is when guys reach AA/AAA with plenty of pro experience – or they’ve stalled out at a lower level – and much of what they can be should already be known by the organization. More confident attempts to max them out as relief arms should be entertained. Back to Bryan.]
This season, I believe there are six pitchers (not including Alzolay and Steele) where the Starter or Reliever Question is coming close to a head. If I’m the Cubs – and I’m a believer in just trying stuff in the minors – I’d want to begin accumulating data of how these particular six might look in different roles sooner than later.
RHP Erich Uelmen, 23, AA
The first relief consideration – and the Cubs to their credit have already tried this out a bit- is Erich Uelmen. The Cubs fourth-round pick in 2017, Uelmen has been discussed as a possible reliever since the day he was drafted. This fall, the Cubs sent the right-hander to the Arizona Fall League, specifically looking at how his sinker/slider mix would play in relief. And the early results are really positive. Uelmen allowed just five hits and a run in 12 innings in Arizona, though he struck out just nine.
On the mound, Uelmen will remind people of Jake Peavy in build, athleticism, and stuff. He’s obviously not as electric as Peavy was, but in Arizona, the sinker flirted with 95 mph in two-inning stints. That’s going to play given his natural sink, and I believe there might be another tick or two to unlock. He made some nice strides in 2019 pitching to lefties, be it owning the armside corner with his fastball or executing the backfoot slider.
Given the absolute flux the big league bullpen is in, I’d actually give Uelmen a NRI to big league camp. Let the big league coaches try him in short relief, see how it works at the highest level of competition, with the ultimate plan that you can keep him in Extended Spring Training in April to build his endurance back to a starter’s level (with an eventual assignment to Double-A Tennessee).
LHP Bryan Hudson, 22, High-A
I mentioned it quickly in Rule 5 prep, but to reiterate, I would move Bryan Hudson to relief tomorrow. His problems with consistency wouldn’t be as damaging in the bullpen, and hopefully it would be a better fit for the health of his arm. If that sinker -coming from his enormous 6’8″ frame – could play at 93/94 in the bullpen, that’s a Major League foundational pitch. Get him in the Tennessee bullpen from day one and find out what you have.
RHP Matt Swarmer, 26, AAA
One guy that I think most likely starts the year in a minor league rotation is Matt Swarmer, as the Iowa staff will need people who are stretched out, while guys like Alzolay and Jharel Cotton compete for big league bullpen spots. That said, I think at some point in 2019, Swarmer should spend a couple weeks out of the pen.
Yes, the 2018 minor league pitcher of the year had a 2.1 HR/9 last year, so on the surface, he might be a terrible fit in relief. However, Swarmer’s weird blend of deception and a damn good slider continue to draw swings and misses. Among pitchers in the Cubs system with 50 innings at AA or AAA last year, Swarmer had the sixth highest swinging strike percentage, higher than guys like Duane Underwood or Michael Rucker. Right-handed hitters especially just don’t see the ball with Swarmer, and so even despite the obvious landmines his style creates, I’d give it a shot at this point. Why not?
LHP Brendon Little, 23, High-A / LHP Jack Patterson, 24, AA
There are two southpaws in the Cubs system with opposite pedigrees, both of whom the Cubs are still trying to find the perfect role. One a first-round pick, the other a 32nd rounder. Brendon Little and Jack Patterson.
The latter began last season in the bullpen, moving to the rotation when his breakout started. He hit a wall in Double-A, with strikeout and groundball numbers crashing (but only three starts), so 2020 will be used more to determine his long-term viability as a starter. Patterson has such little experience, it makes sense to give him a longer leash than the other guys on this list.
With Little, I’m not so sure. The former first-round lefty has never had sustained success in the Cubs organization, and will be Rule 5 eligible already next year. If he shows good stuff in 2020 – and he has in spurts during his minor league career – he could potentially be a threat to be drafted. Everyone knew he was a little more raw coming out of the draft, so the arm talent is there for it to click suddenly. I think I’d want to know where Little’s fastball would sit in the bullpen, and if his curveball might return to being the fully-plus pitch he was touted with having. Little has topped 60 innings in just two of the last five seasons, so his arm is starting to push him toward the bullpen anyway. I’d be willing to have him start the season in the rotation, but I’d pull the plug in the second half unless a breakout occurred.
RHP Cam Sanders, 23, Low-A
One last name to watch, who is admittedly much earlier along on his developmental path: Cam Sanders. The 2018 12th round pick had a 2.94 ERA and .198 batting average allowed last year in the South Bend rotation, and also made some huge developmental strides last year, with his command inching towards acceptability. What was most interesting was his velocity variance. What began the year in the cold Midwest League in the high 80s reached as high as 98 mph in the summer. Sanders will start the year in the Myrtle Beach rotation, and the Cubs will continue to monitor the consistency of his fastball. And because of the upside he’s shown, there will always be some curiosity about what things will look like if he returns to the pen.
Exploring those curiosities – sooner than they had in the past – should be a theme for the new farm director and his staff. The pitching side of this minor league system has talent. The key moving forward is better optimizing it.