From the Pages of Vine Line: 2014 Minor League Prospectus, Pitching Depth
Kyle Hendricks was the Cubs 2013 Minor League Pitcher of the Year. (Matthew Shalbrack/Tennessee Smokies)
For many Chicagoans, February means cold weather. At Vine Line, it’s all about the Cubs minor league prospectus. In the February issue, fans can check out frequent contributor Sahadev Sharma’s player breakdowns for more than 45 of the organization’s top prospects, from teenagers like Eloy Jimenez to elite talents like Javier Baez. We’ll post some of the profiles here on the blog in the coming weeks so you can keep track of all the names to know in the Cubs highly ranked system.
Also from the series:
The Cubs’ last two drafts kicked off with position players Albert Almora and Kris Bryant, but the next dozen rounds or so were focused heavily on adding pitching depth to the system. While the Cubs still lack a knockout pitching prospect (something missing from most systems around baseball), they have some interesting arms acquired via bulk drafting, trades (both major and seemingly minor ones) and international free agency.
The draft strategy the Cubs have employed over the past two Junes has done two things: It’s increased their chances of finding a gem who can be a big contributor in their rotation and given them options to fill the bullpen with arms who don’t stick as starters. In the long run, this will save the Cubs money and keep them from investing heavily in relievers, who are notoriously erratic from year to year. That way, they can allocate funds in different areas while attempting to improve the major league ballclub.
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: DAYTONA
2013 STATS: 107.2 IP, 3.93 ERA, 116 K, 55 BB (24 STARTS)
It’s easy for scouts to peg Black as a bullpen arm, because he’s a smaller guy with a slender upper body. However, while he does have some effort in his delivery, he brings premium stuff, including a mid-90s fastball and a big-time slider to complement his very aggressive personality on the mound.
“I love watching this guy pitch,” said SVP of Scouting and Player Development Jason McLeod. “He is a bulldog and a half.”
The most common guess is that Black ends up as a reliever, with the potential to be an elite back-of-the-bullpen arm. But the Cubs are going to keep him in their loaded Tennessee rotation to see if his stuff will play up in a starter’s role.
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: BOISE
2013 STATS: 46.0 IP, 3.33 ERA, 38 K, 29 BB (12 STARTS, 13 APPEARANCES)
With a strong delivery, three pitches and good arm action, Blackburn has all the ingredients to be an advanced feel pitcher. He relies on plus command, but the youngster had some outings in which his walk totals perplexed the Cubs front office. While he has room to fill out and possibly bring his average fastball into plus territory, Blackburn still projects as an efficient, innings-eating, athletic pitcher even if the velocity stays where it is now.
He can move the ball all around the zone, but he often nibbles, which creates the high walk totals. If he can trust his stuff on a consistent basis, he has everything it takes to develop into a solid middle-of-the-rotation piece.
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: IOWA
2013 STATS: 166.1 IP, 2.00 ERA, 128 K, 34 BB (27 STARTS)
Recent Dartmouth grad Hendricks is a premium strike thrower who has the ability to cut up both sides of the plate with multiple pitches. He is the type of pitcher who throws to a scouting report rather than relying on pure stuff, and was one of the more efficient pitchers in the Cubs system in 2013. He lasted six innings or more in 19 of his 27 starts and did so while throwing a minimum of pitches.
Though his fastball isn’t light, it isn’t overpowering either, sitting at 88-92 mph. But his ability to locate the pitch with precision, combined with a cutter he can throw to both sides of the plate, keeps hitters from barreling him up too often. He’s never going to rack up strikeouts, but with his four-pitch arsenal, he will keep hitters guessing and could fit nicely in the back end of the Cubs rotation.
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: DAYTONA
2013 STATS: 118.1 IP, 2.74 ERA, 124 K, 43 BB (21 STARTS, 23 APPEARANCES)
Johnson did everything asked of him in 2013 and progressed just as the Cubs hoped he would. He showed steady improvement throughout the season and got stronger as the year went on—his velocity actually ticked up when he was promoted to Daytona.
Johnson is getting better at repeating his delivery, an important point of emphasis as he often finishes upright, causing his fastball to be up in the zone. He also developed more consistency with both command and his breaking ball. His focus this offseason has been on adding weight to his frame, as he looks to increase his workload. He should team up with C.J. Edwards to lead a formidable Tennessee rotation.
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: KANE COUNTY
2013 STATS: 76.2 IP, 4.93 ERA, 75 K, 50 BB (16 STARTS, 21 APPEARANCES)
With Maples, the key is and always has been consistency with his delivery. After a very up-and-down couple of months at Kane County, Maples was sent down to Boise in July and turned his season around. It was the best many in the Cubs front office had ever seen him perform in terms of his delivery. During that time, Maples got his curveball over the plate and down in the zone, generating swings and misses.
Not only were the results different, but so was Maples’ attitude. Observers say he looked more confident on the mound in Boise, with a chest-out bravado. He was aggressive in the zone, a stark contrast to the pitcher who seemed to be constantly thinking about his mechanics and worrying about getting hit, which led to nibbling and high walk totals. If the new and improved Maples can carry over this season, he may end up turning into the steal many thought the Cubs had when he was drafted in the 14th round in 2011.
BARRETT LOUX (RHP) – Loux brings a four-pitch mix, but injuries have diminished the stuff that made him a top 10 pick in Arizona just three years ago. Despite shoulder issues, he still proved competitive on the mound last season. He will continue his shoulder maintenance program with hopes of recovering some of the life on his once-plus fastball and other pitches.
TREY MASEK (RHP) – Masek is on the smaller side, so his eventual role could be out of the bullpen. He uses a fastball-slider combo and has a split-grip change-up. He will be given the chance to be a starter in 2014.
NEIL RAMIREZ (RHP) – The former Rangers first-rounder suffered through shoulder and elbow injuries in 2013, so the Cubs are taking a conservative approach with him. When healthy, he shows a typical three-pitch arm, featuring a fastball that sits at 90-94 mph and a hard slider. The focus is on getting him strong and healthy so he can get through a full season.
TYLER SKULINA (RHP) – Skulina is a big man who touches 96 mph with his fastball and has a swing-and-miss slider. At 6-foot-6, his key is getting consistent rhythm to his delivery. He impressed in instructs and could jump up the rankings if he continues to develop his change-up.
ROB ZASTRYZNY (LHP) – Zastryzny is a hard-nosed lefty with a 90-93 mph downhill fastball, plus curveball and solid change. He’s a strong competitor who pitches with a chip on his shoulder and will attack the zone every fifth day.