The CCO’s off-season look at the Cubs’ minor league system continues today. With all eight defensive positions covered, it is time to switch to the arms currently in the organization and the possibilities for the pitching staff at Triple-A Iowa.
Triple-A Iowa Starters and Relievers
The top of the 2014 rotation for the I-Cubs should begin with the CCO’s 2013 Minor League Pitcher of the Year Kyle Hendricks. The 23-year old Hendricks was promoted to Triple-A Iowa on August 8 after compiling a 10-3 record and 1.05 WHIP to go along with a league best 1.85 ERA from Double-A Tennessee. Hendricks went on to post a 3-1 record with a 2.48 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP with 27 strikeouts in 40 innings for Iowa. According to scouting reports, Hendricks has a fastball that touches just above the 90 mph range, to go along with a curve, cutter, and change-up. He has above average command and control, and is able to use his fastball to set up hitters for his change and cutter. He has a repeatable delivery with good mechanics that give him the appearance of being effort free.
Following Hendricks most likely will be another acquisition form the Rangers, Barret Loux. Originally drafted in the first round by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2010, Loux was not offered a contract after concerns over a torn labrum and elbow damage caused him to fail their physical. Major League Baseball than made the unprecedented move of declaring Loux a free agent, and he signed with the Texas Rangers after throwing for scouts. Loux was assigned to High-A Myrtle Beach in the Carolina League for 2011 where he went 8-5 in 21 games (109 innings) with an ERA of 3.60 and a 1.28 WHIP (127 strikeouts and 34 walks). Loux was then promoted to Double-A Frisco in the Texas League for 2012 where he improved to 14-1 record with a 3.47 ERA in 25 starts (127 innings). His strikeout total slipped to 100, while his walks increased to 41but his WHIP dropped slightly to 1.27. At the 2012 trading deadline, the Cubs sent catcher Geovany Soto to the Texas Rangers for RHP Jacob Brigham and a player to be named later. Brigham pitched in two games for Double-A Tennessee and was 0-2 with a 19.64 ERA. It was discovered that Brigham was experiencing elbow soreness, a pre-existing condition. He was shipped back to the Rangers in exchange for Loux and the two teams dropped PTBNL from the original deal. After spending time in big league camp on a non-roster invite, Loux was assigned to Triple-A Iowa in 2013 to be part of their rotation. Due to his injury history, Loux was “nursed” through his first season with the organization. Loux appeared in only 19 games (16 starts) and landed on the disabled list a couple of times. Loux went 4-5 with a 4.84 ERA and a 1.64 WHIP that included 76 strikeouts and 46 walks in 80 innings. The 6-foot-5, 215 pounder throws a fastball that has been clocked as high as 96 mph, along with a power slider and a curve.
The next two slots in the order will depend a lot on the 40-man roster and the Rule 5 Draft, with Eric Jokisch and Dallas Beeler being prime candidates. The Cubs selected Jokisch in the 11th round of the 2010 draft and assigned him to Short Season-A Boise. He had a rough go in his first stint in pro ball and went 2-3 with a 7.08 ERA and a 2.01 WHIP (28 strikeouts in 34.1 innings). Jokisch opened the 2011 season with Low-A Peoria and was assigned as a piggy-back starter to 2010 first round pick RHP Hayden Simpson. Jokisch began the season 7-0. When physical troubles shut down Simpson for the rest of the season, Jokisch moved into a starter role and went 2-3 the rest of the way to finish at 9-3 with a 2.96 ERA in 118.2 innings for the Chiefs. His 1.16 WHIP reflected his nearly 4:1 strikeout to walk ratio (103 strikeouts, 32 walks). He then jumped ahead to Double-A Tennessee and finished out the season by going 1-0 with a 4.11 ERA and a 1.63 WHIP in three starts. A more conservative approach was used with Jokisch for the 2012 season. Jokisch began the year at High-A Daytona. After a meager 3-4 start with only a 3.45 ERA in nine games, Jokisch was promoted back to Tennessee. With the Smokies he seemed to pick up the pace and went 7-2 with a 2.91 ERA and 1.133 WHIP in 17 starts (105 innings). The 24-year old returned to Tennessee in 2013 where he ended up second in the Southern League with 137 strikeouts, which was also first among all Cubs’ prospects. Jokisch posted an 11-13 record with a 3.42 ERA and 1.23 WHIP, and pitched a no-hitter on August 6. The 6-foot-3, 185 pounder sports a high 80s-low 90s fastball and a curve, but his bread-and-butter pitch is his change-up. Inevitably, soft-tossers like Jokisch will get compared to long time major leaguer Jamie Moyer, but Jokisch has a stronger physical make-up than Moyer.
Trying to re-establish himself in the Arizona Fall League as a top pitching prospect is the Cubs 41st round pick in the 2010 draft Dallas Beeler. The product of Oral Roberts University, Beeler tossed 18 innings after he signed and was 0-3 with a 2.95 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP between the AZL Cubs and Boise. Beeler appeared to jump on the fast track in 2011 after he went 1-1 with a 1.66 ERA and a 0.95 WHIP (35 strikeouts in 43.1 innings) for Low-A Peoria. The Cubs jumped Beeler to Double-A Tennessee from Peoria and the 6-foot-5, 205-pound righty tossed 51.2 innings with 33 strikeouts while posting a 4.53 ERA and 1.45 WHIP. Beeler then spent all of 2012 with the Smokies and was 6-7 with a 4.24 ERA and a 1.57 WHIP that included 70 strikeouts in 135 innings. Back in Tennessee for a third straight year in 2013, Beeler was posting his best numbers since the beginning of 2011. Beeler was 4-2 with a 3.13 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP (35 strikeouts in 54.2 innings). Unfortunately, Beeler’s season ended abruptly with a torn tendon in his pitching hand. Despite his large frame, Beeler is known as a control pitcher and features a low-90’s two-seam fastball, change, and curve. Beeler limits the amount of extra base hits he gives up (only 22 home runs in 304 career innings), and despite his low strikeout total has a better than 2:1 strikeout ratio. Beeler is eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, so a good showing in the AFL could lead to a spot on the 40-man roster.
Rounding out the rotation should be mid-season acquisition Neil Ramirez. A supplemental first round pick of the Texas Rangers in 2007, Ramirez has dealt with injuries and inconsistency throughout his career. The Rangers were cautious with Ramirez in his first year with Short-Season A Spokane. Ramirez averaged around 3.1 innings per outing (13 starts) and posted a 1-2 record with a 2.66 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP. Ramirez then spent the next two seasons at Single-A Hickory and tossed only 66.1 innings in his first year with a 3-6 record, a 4.75 ERA, and a 1.43 WHIP. He broke out in his second season with 142 strikeouts in 140.1 innings and was 10-8 with a 4.43 ERA and 1.33 WHIP. Ramirez then made the big jump in 2011 to Triple-A Round Rock after pitching one game at High-A Myrtle Beach. Ramirez once again dealt with injuries and needed to rehab at Double-A Frisco for six games. Ramirez was a combined 5-3 with a 3.12 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP (110 strikeouts and 44 walks in 98 innings). Ramirez opened the 2012 season at Round Rock again but really struggled and was demoted to Frisco at midseason. Ramirez was a combined 8-13 with a 6.28 ERA and a 1.40 WHIP (108 strikeouts in 123.1 innings). The Rangers kept Ramirez at Frisco in 2013 where he continued to experience shoulder trouble but still put up a 9-3 record with a 3.84 and a 1.16 WHIP (127 strikeouts in 103 innings) before being the PTBNL in the Matt Garza trade. The 24-year old sports a low-mid 90s fastball that has touches the upper 90s on occasion, along with a very good change-up. However, he has not been successful with developing a breaking pitch and has tried both a slider and a curve.
Yoanner Negrin could also be vying for starts in Iowa, along with the inevitable signings of former big leaguers to minor league deals. The 29-year old Cuban national is coming off his first full season in the minors in 2013. Negrin signed in 2011 and spent the majority of 2012 on loan to Tabasco in the Mexican League. Negrin appeared in 34 games for the I-Cubs last year and showed a more promise as a reliever than as a starter. Negrin posted a 4-7 record with a 4.17 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP with close to a 4:1 strikeout to walk ratio (118 strikeouts and 31 walks in 108 innings).
The I-Cubs will not be at a loss for a closer and should have several candidates to choose from in the spring. After experiencing a career odyssey, the incumbent will be Brian Schlitter. Schlitter was originally selected by the Phillies in the 16th round of the 2007 draft. Schlitter spent nearly two full seasons in the Phillies organization before being acquired as the PTBNL for LHP Scott Eyre. Schlitter finished the 2008 season with Daytona and was a combined 4-5 with nine saves (2.21 ERA, 1.26 WHIP and 67 strikeouts in 57 innings). Schlitter was then assigned to Tennessee for the 2009 season and went 1-7 with 22 saves and a 4.38 ERA with a 1.40 WHIP (51 strikeouts in 61.2 innings). Moving up to Iowa in 2010, Schlitter was 2-1 with a 3.15 ERA and a 1.42 WHIP that included 42 strikeouts and 13 saves in 45 innings. Schlitter also spent about a month with the parent club in 2010, pitching eight innings in seven appearances (0-1 with a 12.38 ERA). Schlitter was then placed on the disabled list with a shoulder injury. After the 2010 season, Schlitter was placed on waivers and claimed by the Yankees, who then cut him in February 2011. The Phillies then claimed him off of waivers, but the commissioner’s office returned Schlitter to the Cubs because of a past elbow injury. Schlitter spent all of the 2011 season on the shelf and returned Daytona to start the 2012 season. Schlitter then split time between Daytona and Tennessee. Schlitter went a combined 3-5 with a 2.61 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 63 strikeouts, and eight saves in 68 innings. Schlitter returned to Tennessee to begin the 2013 season, but was promoted to Iowa at the end of May. Between the two clubs, Schlitter was a combined 1-6 with a 2.42 ERA, 1.216 WHIP, 58 strikeouts, and 22 saves in 63.1 innings. The soon-to-be 28 year old (December 21) looks the part of a classic closer at 6-foot-5, 235 pounds. Scouting reports have Schlitter with an upper 90s moving fastball and quality change-up, along with a so-so slider.
Brian Schlitter was able to wrestle the system save title away from Frank Batista, who held it for the past two seasons. Since signing as a free agent in 2009, Batista has racked up 74 career saves in five seasons. Batista bounced between being a starter and reliever in his first two seasons before being assigned to Daytona in 2011 and named their closer. With the D-Cubs, Batista was 5-3 with a 2.36 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 46 strikeouts, and 26 saves in 61 innings while being named a Florida State League All-Star. Batista was promoted to Tennessee to start the 2012 season, but after being named the Minor League Pitcher of the Month in April was promoted for three weeks to Iowa. After seeing sporadic use with the I-Cubs, Batista was returned to Tennessee where he was named a Southern League All-Star. For the year, Batista was 2-0 with a 2.69 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 44 strikeouts, and 24 saves in 60.1 innings. In 2013, Batista returned to Tennessee and had to battle for playing time as the organization auditioned six other pitchers for the closer role. In the end, manager Buddy Bailey ended up returning to the reliable Batista, who went 3-3 with a 2.60 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP with 19 saves (52 strikeouts in 62.1 innings). Batista has been remarkably consistent throughout his career, but some flaws became apparent in 2013. While sporting a low 90s fastball and what may be the best change-up in the organization, the 24-year old is best known for his pinpoint control. However, when his control is off, Batista gets hit hard. At only 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, Batista tends to lose effectiveness when being asked to go longer than an inning at a stretch or is used too many days in a row.
The Cubs claimed Eduardo Sanchez off of waivers from St. Louis in 2013, and he could be in the mix for the closer’s role. Signed as a free agent by the Cardinals at the tender age of 17 in 2006, Sanchez spent eight seasons with the organization and saw time in the big leagues in 2011 and 2012. After being claimed by the Cubs, Sanchez was assigned to Iowa but was called up to the parent club for two weeks in August and went 0-1 with a 5.86 ERA and a 1.58 WHIP (five strikeouts in 6.1 innings). The Cubs then returned Sanchez to Iowa for the rest of their season, and then designated him for assignment on September 1. For the year, Sanchez was 1-1 with a 3.38 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 35 strikeouts, and three saves in 40 innings between St. Louis and Chicago’s Triple-A clubs. The 24-year old is a power pitcher despite his 5-foot-11, 175 pound frame and sports a mid-upper 90s fastball and power slider.
A slow developing prospect that is getting closing experience in the Mexican Pacific League this winter is Marcus Hatley. The Cubs selected Hatley in the 39th round of the 2006 draft. Hatley was an outfielder at Mission Hills High School in California. Hatley was used both as a starter and reliever in his first three seasons in the organization, but experienced arm trouble that needed Tommy John surgery and lost most of his 2010 season. Hatley returned to form in 2011, and he saw action with Peoria, Daytona and Tennessee. Hatley posted a combined 5-1 record with 11 saves and a 3.32 ERA with a 1.32 WHIP (60 strikeouts in 59.2 innings), all in relief. Hatley split time in 2012 between Tennessee and Iowa and was used more in middle relief. Hatley was 4-1 with a 4.62 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 64 strikeouts, and four saves in 60.1 innings. Hatley saw action with both Tennessee and Iowa once again in 2013. Hatley was 4-4 with two saves and a 3.86 ERA with a 1.451 WHIP (74 strikeouts in 60.2 innings). The 25-year old features a mid-90s fastball and a curve, along with a splitter.
About the only Iowa reliever without eyes on the closer role is Casey Coleman. The 15th round selection by the Cubs in the 2008 draft has seemed to be around “forever” as a prospect, especially after wowing fans with a 4-2 record and 4.11 ERA in 12 appearances for the parent club in 2010. Since then, Coleman has given up on being a full-time starter and has reinvented himself as an inning-eating middle reliever. In 2013, Coleman was 5-3 with a 3.16 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 66 strikeouts, four starts and three saves in 88.1 innings (41 appearances). The 26-year old still has the same repertoire of a high 80s-low-90s fastball, two-seam fastball, change, curve, and cutter.
Management is holding their breath in hopes that Arodys Vizcaino is able to come back from arm injuries. Acquired from Atlanta as part of the Paul Maholm trade, Vizcaino has not thrown a pitch in a meaningful game in two years while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Vizcaino was originally signed by the Yankees but traded to Atlanta for RHP Javier Vasquez. Vizcaino then enjoyed a meteoric rise through the Braves’ system and went from Single-A Rome in 2010 to the majors in 2011. His career minor league totals in four years was 19-15 with a 2.91 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP that includes 279 strikeouts in 268.2 innings. While being used as a starter in the minors, Vizcaino only saw action as a reliever with the parent club and went 1-1 with a 4.67 ERA and a 1.44 WHIP (17 strikeouts in 17.1 innings). Prior to his surgery, the 22-year old was tossing in the low-mid 90s, which many scouts felt could reach the upper 90s as he matured. Vizcaino’s best pitch may be his curve, while he is developing a change-up. There is no telling at this point as to where Vizcaino’s fast ball sits now, since he was unable to compete in both the Arizona Fall League and the Fall Instructional League. Even though Vizcaino was primarily used as a starter prior to the injury, management will probable want to limit him as a reliever until he builds up arm strength.
Other relievers that could be in the mix are 25-year old Rafael Dolis, 26-year old Jaye Chapman, and 26-year old Henry Rodriguez, all of whom are minor league free agents.