Cubs Down on the Farm Report – 11/14/13

Pitching Analysis

The CCO’s off-season look at the Cubs’ minor league system continues today. After viewing the possible pitching staff for Triple-A last week, we now turn to the staff for Double-A Tennessee.

Double-A Tennessee Starters and Relievers

Tennessee Smokies:

Heading the Tennessee staff for 2014 should be three pitchers looking for redemption in Nick Struck, Matt Loosen, and Dae-Eun Rhee. Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2012, the 24-year old Nick Struck struggled mightily at Iowa in 2013 and went 6-8 with a 6.17 ERA and a 1.77 WHIP with 56 strikeouts against 54 walks in 109.1 innings. This is quite a contrast for a pitcher who had an 18-17 record with a 3.68 ERA and a 1.344 WHIP with 207 strikeouts and a no-hitter over four levels in his first two seasons. Management revamped Struck’s delivery in 2012, and while he was 14-10 with a 3.18 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP that included 123 strikeouts in 155.2 innings, he also struggled as part of the 2013 Arizona Fall League squad. Whether the organization will allow Struck to return to the mechanics that made him successful, or if Struck will be able to master his new delivery remains to be seen.

Great things were expected from Matt Loosen after he was 11-5 with a 4.07 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP that included 110 strikeouts in 122 innings at High-A Daytona in 2012, but he put together an inconsistent 2013 season. Loosen was selected by the Cubs in the 23rd round of the 2010 draft and went 2-3 with 3.86 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP (40 strikeouts in 44.1 innings) between the AZL Cubs and Short-Season A Boise. Held out of the start of the 2012 season due to injuries, Loosen began in June at High-A Daytona, but bounced between the D-Cubs and Single-A Peoria, along with making two starts for Double-A Tennessee. Loosen was a combined 4-6 with a 3.55 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP (74 strikeouts, 28 walks in 76.2 innings). And that brings us to spring of 2013. Loosen was held back again in extended spring training to build up his arm strength then began his season with Tennessee. Loosen was shuttled back to Daytona following a poor start. But with the D-Cubs, Loosen tossed a no-hitter and helped out in what turned out to be a Championship season in Daytona. Promoted back up to Tennessee, Loosen went 2-1 with a 4.21 ERA down the stretch to aid Tennessee in their playoff run. For the year, Loosen was a combined 8-5 with a 4.20 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP that included 116 strikeouts in 120 innings. The 24-year old throws a low-90s fastball along with a curve, slider, and change. What makes Loosen effective is his command, and he struggles with finding it.

Dae-Eun Rhee is another pitcher that has battled injuries throughout his career. Signed as an international free agent in 2008, Rhee was an immediate success at Low-A Peoria. Rhee went 4-1 with a 1.80 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP (33 strikeouts in 40 innings) before he experienced arm trouble and needed Tommy John surgery. Rhee was limited to only 8.2 innings between the AZL Cubs and Short-Season A Boise in 2009. The Cubs felt Rhee was good enough to come back in 2010 and placed him at High-A Daytona where he went 5-13 with a 5.27 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP that included 70 strikeouts in 114.1 innings pitched as a starter. It was no surprise that Rhee was back in Daytona for 2011. With a better team behind him, Rhee flourished as one of the top starters in the Florida State League. Rhee ended up seventh in the league with 117 strikeouts and he went 8-7 with a 4.02 ERA and a 1.363 WHIP in 127.2 innings. And he was awarded with a non-roster invite to spring training in 2012, where he was somewhat impressive. Some thought Rhee was on the verge of a breakout season and could end up as one of the best pitchers in the minors in 2012. But Rhee struggled at Double-A Tennessee and went 9-8 with a 4.81 ERA and a 1.54 WHIP with only 78 strikeouts in 142.1 innings. Rhee dealt with injuries again at the beginning of the 2013 season. Rhee was held back in extended spring training and he made rehab starts for the AZL Cubs and Boise. Rhee finally made it back to Tennessee in mid July were he went 5-1 with a 3.34 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP (35 strikeouts in 59.1 innings). Rhee’s best pitch is his change-up, which sets up his mid-90s fastball. The 24-year old also throws a curve which he will hang at times. Rhee has struggled with his mechanics which has led to the injury problems. Whether he has worked those out and can stay physically fit remains to be seen.

Joining the rotation should be three members of High-A Daytona’s “Gang of Four” that helped lead the team to the Florida State League Championship: Pierce Johnson, Ivan Pineyro, and Corey Black. While all three had less than ten starts the D-Cubs, each looks as if they are on schedule with their developmental plan.

The current regime made Pierce Johnson the first pitcher they selected as a supplemental first round pick of the 2012 draft. After signing with the franchise, player development took a cautious approach with Johnson and limited him to two innings per outing. The results were a 0-0 record with a 3.27 ERA and a 1.55 WHIP (14 strikeouts in 11 innings) between the AZL Cubs and Short-Season A Boise. Johnson was assigned to Low-A Kane County to start the 2013 season and he was among the Midwest League leaders in strikeouts (74 in 69 innings). Promoted to Daytona in late June, Johnson quickly rose to the head of the rotation. For the year, Johnson ended up at 11-6 with a 2.74 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP that included 124 strikeouts over 118.1 innings in 23 appearances (21 starts). The 22-year old has a 95-plus mph fastball along with a hard curve and a change-up with downward action.

Twenty-two year old Ivan Pineyro was acquired by the Cubs in a mid-season trade that sent veteran outfielder Scott Hairston to Washington. The Nationals signed Pineyro in 2011 and he went 4-6 with a 2.20 ERA with a 1.19 WHIP (73 strikeouts in 69.2 innings) in the Dominican Summer League. Pineyro saw action in both the rookie league and Short-Season A Auburn in 2012, and went a combined 3-2 with a 4.26 ERA and a 1.351 WHIP (50 strikeouts in 57 innings). Pineyro started last season (2013) at Single-A Hagerstown, but he was jumped up to High-A Potomac prior to the trade. Pineyro was assigned to High-A Daytona after the trade and ended up at 9-4 with a 3.29 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP (111 strikeouts in 125.2 innings). Most scouting reports list Pineyro with a low-mid 90s fastball and a solid change. Reports have suggested Pineyro has been working on a breaking pitch to add to his repertoire.

Another acquisition last season was 22-year old Corey Black. Selected by the Yankees in the fourth round of the 2012 draft, Black was placed on the fast track by Bombers. Black moved quickly from the Rookie League to Short-Season A Staten Island to Single-A Charleston in a matter of two months. For the season, Black ended up with a 2-2 record that included a 3.08 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP (50 strikeouts in 52 innings, 12 starts). Black opened the 2013 season with High-A Tampa, but moved across the state to Daytona when he was traded by the Yankees to the Cubs for Alfonso Soriano. In 24 starts last year, Black was 7-8 with a 3.93 ERA with a 1.45 WHIP (116 strikeouts in 107.2 innings). Scouting reports state that Black throws an upper 90s fastball that can hit triple digits with hard sink, but at midseason point last year was throwing in the low-mid 90s, topping out at 95 mph. Black throws a tight slider, a knee-buckling curve, and a change-up. Black needs time to work on throwing each pitch with consistency. With a slight 5-foot-11, 175-pound frame, there have been suggestions that Black should junk some of the pitches and concentrate on his fastball while moving from starter to closer.

With the collection of talent being held over and coming up from lower levels, what exactly will happen to pitchers such as Kyler Burke, Eduardo Figueroa, P.J. Francescon, Austin Kirk, and Trey McNutt remains to be seen.

The story of 25-year old Kyler Burke received a new wrinkle this past season when he was the winning pitcher in a seven-inning, three-pitcher no-hitter. Burke was acquired from San Diego in 2007 for catcher Michael Barrett. Burke was an outfielder at the time of the trade and actually ended up as the Cubs’ Minor League Player of the Year after hitting .303/.405/.505/.911 with 15 home runs, 89 RBI, and 14 stolen bases for Low-A Peoria in 2009. But after struggling at the plate the following season, Burke agreed to switch back to the mound. Burke started back in Short-Season A Boise in 2011 and the lefty was 2-1 with a 2.86 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP (47 strikeouts in 44 relief innings). Burke was promoted to Peoria at the start of the start of the 2012 season and ended up in a starter’s role. Burke was named a Midwest League All-Star. Following his appearance in the midseason exhibition, Burke was promoted to High-A Daytona. Burke went 3-9 with a 3.44 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP for the season that included 91 strikeouts in 130.2 innings. Burke had some injury concerns in 2013 and appeared in only 13 games. Burke was 6-1 with a 3.35 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP (40 strikeouts in 51 innings). Burke relies on a low-90s fastball to go with a curve and a change-up. Burke elected for minor league free agency and could end up signing with another organization. As a lefty, he’ll get all the breaks he can, but only time will tell whether he has a future or is just a nice underdog story.

Recently re-signed to a minor league contract, Eduardo Figueroa has become the jack-of –all-trades in the Cubs’ system. Signed way back in 2007, Figueroa was part of a team the Cubs co-opted with the Twins in the Venezuelan Summer League. In his zigzag course through the minors, Figueroa has played in the Dominican Summer League, the AZL Cubs and Boise for two seasons, Peoria for a season, Daytona for two-plus seasons, and finally Tennessee last year. Figueroa has a career record of 23-28 in 169 appearances over seven seasons. Figueroa has started 35 games, finished 39 and has earned six saves. He has a decent career ERA of 3.48 with a 1.37 WHIP that includes 314 strikeouts in 434.2 innings. Figueroa turns 25 years old at the end of the month (November 30) and is a workhorse that can be plugged into any role on a pitching staff and provide quality innings.

Selected by the Cubs in the 40th round of the 2011 draft, Patrick Jacob (P.J.) Francescon worked as a starter for most of his career before pitching out of the bullpen for Tennessee last season. After signing in 2011, the organization used Francescon as a late inning man and he was a combined 1-4 with a 3.49 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP (44 strikeouts in 38.2 innings), finishing nine of his 19 games and recording three saves with the AZL Cubs, Peoria, and Daytona. Francescon moved to the starting rotation to begin 2012 and was very effective. Francescon went 5-1 with 1.86 ERA and a 0.79 WHIP in nine starts for Peoria before being promoted to Daytona. Francescon found things a little tougher in High-A and finished the year at 8-7 with a 3.01 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP (95 strikeouts in 137.1 innings). Returning to Daytona for 2013, Francescon started 13 games and was 5-4 with a 4.76 ERA before he was promoted to Double-A Tennessee. Francescon moved to the pen and was 2-0 with a 4.29 ERA in 16 appearances. For the season, Francescon was a combined 7-4 with a 4.59 ERA and a 1.37 WHIP that included 83 strikeouts in 100 innings. Turning 25 years old after the first of the year, Francescon is more of a sinkerball pitcher than strikeout pitcher and sports a low-mid 90s sinking fastball and change-up.

Austin Kirk could be the fourth member of the Tennessee pitching staff with a no-hitter on his résumé. Kirk tossed a memorable Fourth of July no-no for Peoria in 2011. Selected by the Cubs in the third round of the 2009 draft, Kirk has seen his career stall a little recently. After inking a deal, the high-schooler from Oklahoma split time between the AZL Cubs and Boise and went 2-1 with a 3.95 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP (15 strikeouts in 12 innings). Kirk once again split his time in 2010 and pitched for both Boise and Peoria while posting a 5-6 record with a 3.36 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP (65 strikeouts in 64.1 innings). Kirk completed his first full season in 2011, and it showed. Kirk ran out of gas after the no-hitter and ended with a 5-12 record that included a 4.29 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP (122 strikeouts in 151 innings). Kirk was better prepared for the 2012 season and split time with Daytona and Tennessee. Kirk was a combined 9-3 with a 3.12 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP (91 strikeouts in 152.2 innings). However, Kirk did not look like the same pitcher in 2013 that finished 2012. Kirk began the year at Daytona and was promoted after going 6-2 with a 4.50 ERA. Kirk pitched nine games for the Smokies before going on the disabled list with shoulder soreness. For the season, Kirk was 8-5 with a 5.61 ERA and a 1.67 WHIP that included 72 strikeouts in 96.1 innings. Only 23 years old, Kirk has usually shown good command with a very good curveball, a low-mid 90s fastball, and a change-up.

The star has really fallen for Trey McNutt. McNutt has gone from a top ten prospect in 2011 to off the 40-man roster this off-season. A non-descript 32nd round pick in 2009, McNutt went 3-1 with a 0.98 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP (28 strikeouts in 27.2 innings) between the AZL Cubs and Boise. McNutt really exploded in 2010 and started the season 6-0 with a 1.51 ERA in route to an overall 10-1 record with a 2.48 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP (132 strikeouts in 116.1 innings) with Peoria, Daytona and Tennessee. Great things were expected of McNutt in 2011, but he struggled with a series of minor injuries and ended up with a 5-6 record that included a 2.55 ERA and a 1.67 WHIP (65 strikeouts in 95 innings) for Tennessee. Both the struggles and injuries continued in 2012 as an increasingly ineffective McNutt was moved from the Tennessee starting rotation to the bullpen during the-season. For the year, McNutt was 9-8 with a 4.26 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP (66 strikeouts in 95 innings). In 2013, the organization tried to force-feed McNutt into the closer role. McNutt really struggled and was 2-5 with a 4.60 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP that included 23 strikeouts in 31 innings (27 appearances) before going on the disabled list again. The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder has the build of a rotation workhorse to go along with a mid-high 90s fastball, power curve, and change-up. However, command has been an issue with the 24-year old over the past few seasons. You have to wonder whether McNutt was just a flash-in-the-pan, or if he can ever find his niche.

The closer role should be a spirited, four-way battle between two right-handers, Armando Rivero and Tony Zych and two lefties, Frank Del Valle and Hunter Cervenka.

Signed out of Cuba prior to the 2013 season, Armando Rivero had always been used as a closer prior to coming to the Cubs. Held back in extended spring training, Rivero made his organizational debut in late June with Kane County. He was promoted to Daytona at the beginning of August, and spent two weeks with the D-Cubs before moving to Tennessee. Rivero was 0-1 with a 4.15 ERA and a 1.39 WHIP that included 45 strikeouts in a combined 30.1 innings with two saves in 2013. The 25-year old was sent to the Arizona Fall League to further work on his upper-90s fastball, two-seam fastball, and slider.

Tony Zych is another pitcher the organization has been trying to force into the closer role. A fourth round pick in the 2011 draft, Zych was seen as a surprise signing as he had college eligibility left. Zych got into four games before the season ended in 2011, and was 0-0 with a 2.25 ERA and 1.00 WHIP (five strikeouts in four innings). Zych was then jumped all the way to High-A Daytona in 2012 where he was 3-3 with six saves in 27 appearances before he was fast-tracked up to Tennessee. For the season, Zych was 5-4 with a 3.67 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP (64 strikeouts in 6.1.1 innings). In 2013, Zych was one of the many players the organization wanted to take control of the closer role from Frank Batista at Tennessee, but he was unable to complete that task. Zych went 5-5 with three saves and a 3.05 ERA with a 1.29 WHIP (40 strikeouts in 56 innings). The 23-year old is showing a similar developmental arc as former Cubs’ reliever Kyle Farnsworth in that he has an upper-90s fastball that can touch triple digits along with a hard slider, but doesn’t seem to have the make-up of a closer at this time.

A starter for the bulk of his career, Frank Del Valle was used almost exclusively as a reliever for the first time in 2013. The Cuban national was signed as an international free agent in 2011 and moved quickly through the system. Del Valle saw time with the AZL Cubs, Peoria, and Daytona and went 3-4 with a 3.95 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP (47 strikeouts in 57 innings over 14 appearances, 12 starts) in 2011. Back at Daytona in 2012, Del Valle once again spent most of his time as a starter and posted a 5-5 record with a 3.26 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP (84 strikeouts in 99.1 innings, 22 appearances, 15 starts). Del Valle posted some mixed results pitching exclusively in relief in 2013. Del Valle was 3-3 with nine saves and a 2.29 ERA with a 1.43 WHIP that included 64 strikeouts in 51 innings. There is some dispute as to the speed of his fastball, with some reports claiming low-mid 90s while others say he can reach the upper 90s. The 24-year old also has an above-average curve and a change-up.

The least known of the closer candidates is Hunter Cervenka. Acquired along with Michael Bowden in the Marlon Byrd trade, Cervenka spent two plus seasons in the Red Sox organization before coming to the Cubs in 2012. The Cubs placed Cervenka at Low-A Peoria and promoted him to Daytona after he went 3-0 with a 2.54 ERA in 15 appearances. For the season, Cervenka went 3-3 with a 4.31 ERA and a 1.47 WHIP (71 strikeouts in 62.2 innings) along with a save in 35 appearances. Cervenka began 2013 at Daytona, but moved up to Tennessee after making 11 appearances and saving five games for the D-Cubs. Cervenka saw more time in middle relief with the Smokies and ended up 6-1 with a 3.00 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP (54 strikeouts in 60 innings) that included six saves in 41 appearances. The 23-year old has a low 90s fastball, but also has a cut fastball, a curve, and a change-up.

Four veteran relievers could also be in the mix for the Smokies … 29-year old Marcos Mateo, 27-year old A.J. Morris, 25-year old Yeiper Castillo, and 25-year old lefty Jeffrey Lorick. All, with the exception of Castillo have battled injuries and have seen time as both starters and relievers in their careers. Present management seems to think highly of Castillo, who was a combined 2-2 record with a 3.35 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP that included 80 strikeouts in 88.2 innings (29 appearances).

ChicagoCubsOnline Minor League Position Analysis

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