Cubs Down on the Farm Report – 11/29/13

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 Iowa, Double-A Tennessee, and High-A Daytona, it is time to shift to the pitching prospects for Low-A Kane County.

Low-A Kane County Starters and Relievers

Kane County Cougars:

Fans in the western suburbs will see a deeper, more mature, and more talented pitching squad than they saw in their first summer as a Cubs’ affiliate, beginning with the CCO’s 2013 Short Season Co-Pitcher of the Year James Pugliese as their probable Opening Day starter. Selected by the Cubs in the 18th round of the 2011 draft, Pugliese signed quickly and went to work for the AZL Cubs. In the rookie league, Pugliese went 2-2 with a 4.62 ERA and a 1.51 WHIP that included 32 strikeouts in 39 innings (15 appearances, nine starts). Pugliese joined Short-Season A Boise in 2012, but he struggled and went 1-5 with a 5.37 ERA and a 1.66 WHIP that included 51 strikeouts in 60.1 innings (11 starts in 15 appearances). Pugliese made an adjustment in his delivery and returned to Boise for the 2013 season, and the change made a big difference. Pugliese went 4-3 with a 2.32 ERA before being promoted to Low-A Kane County for three starts. Pugliese went a combined 4-5 in 2013 with a 3.32 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP (59 strikeouts in 76 innings, 14 starts, 15 games). The 21-year old changed from being a “drop and drive” pitcher to an upright, over the top delivery that allowed him to pound the bottom of the strike zone with his sinking low-90s fastball, slider, change, and a curve in development.

Next up for the Cougars should be another young, but talented pitcher in Paul Blackburn. Taken by the Cubs as a sandwich pick in the first round of the 2012 draft, Blackburn received his first taste of professional baseball in mid-July with the AZL Cubs. Blackburn became one of the most reliable pitchers for the A-Cubs as they made a playoff push. Blackburn went 2-0 with a 3.48 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP that included 13 strikeouts in 20.2 innings (six starts, nine appearances). For the 2013 season, Blackburn slotted in behind James Pugliese as Short-Season A Boise’s number two starter. Blackburn led the team with 12 starts (13 appearances) and had a 2-3 record with a 3.33 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP (38 strikeouts in 46 innings). Blackburn will turn just 20 years old on December 4, and has an arsenal of a low-mid 90s fastball along with a change and a curve that can be considered plus pitches.

It seems as if Cubs fans have been holding their breath in anticipation for Dillon Maples since he was selected by the Cubs in the 14th round of the 2011 draft. Maples was thought to be unsignable with a scholarship to punt for the University of North Carolina football team in his back pocket. However, the Cubs were able to achieve what was deemed impossible and inked Maples toward the end of the signing period. Maples chose to ignore the off-season workout program given to him by the Cubs and decided to follow his own routine instead which resulted in an arm injury. Maples made only six appearances toward the end of the 2012 season and just four starts. Maples went 0-1 with a 4.35 ERA and a 1.55 WHIP that included 12 strikeouts in 10.1 innings. Maples was held back in extended spring training to start 2013 then was assigned to Low-A Kane County where he flopped. Maples managed a 0-2 record with an 8.31 ERA in 11 appearances. Maples regrouped after he was demoted to Short-Season A Boise and went 5-2 with a 2.14 ERA. For the year, Maples was 5-4 with a 4.93 ERA and a 1.57 WHIP. Maples struck out 75 batters in 76.2 innings (16 starts, 21 appearances). The 21-year old Maples sports a mid-90s fastball and a hammer curve along with a change-up that needs work. Maples struggles to repeat his delivery, and as a result has trouble commanding the strike zone. If he can get his mechanical issues ironed out and develop a third pitch, Maples has the potential to be a top of the rotation starter.

Returning to Kane County and taking the next spot in the rotation should be 2011 fifth round pick Tayler Scott. A native of South Africa, Scott moved to Arizona late in his high school career and is relatively new to baseball. Scott barely got his feet wet after being drafted and pitched only 3.2 innings in two appearances with the AZL Cubs. The 2012 season was the first true test for Scott. He started for Short-Season A Boise and went 5-1 with a 2.52 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP (43 strikeouts, 71.1 innings, 15 starts). Scott was promoted to Kane County for the 2013 season and he did not fare as well as the year before. Scott posted a 6-8 record in 24 starts with a 4.22 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP (67 strikeouts in 130 innings). Scott does not turn 22 years old until the middle of next season, and with a 6-foot-3, 165 pound frame could benefit from repeating this level. Scouts feel that Scott has great athleticism and a plus curve to go along with a low-90s fastball. Scott will have to get bigger and stronger as well as develop his secondary pitches.

Joining the rotation should be the Cubs’ 15th round pick in the 2013 draft Michael Wagner. The 22-year old made 14 appearances last season after signing with the organization. Wagner went 1-3 with a 3.77 ERA and a 1.61 WHIP (27 strikeouts in 28.2 innings) with the AZL Cubs and Short-Season A Boise. Wagner had been a closer in college at the University of San Diego but he moved back into the starting rotation his junior season. With a low-90s sinking fastball that has topped out at 97 mph, Wagner also features a plus change-up as well as a developing breaking pitch.

The backbone of the Cougars’ squad should be an array of mature, experienced arms in case any of the projected starters falter or are slowed down by injury. Among those available should be Loiger Padron, Carlos Martinez-Pumarino, Zack Godley, Trevor Graham, Zak Hermans, and Brad Renner.

Loiger Padron and Carlos Martinez-Pumarino are both 22 years old and filled several roles on a very talented Boise Hawks pitching staff last season. Signed as an international free agent in 2009, Padron spent three-plus seasons in the Dominican Summer League before being promoted to the AZL Cubs in 2012. Padron made appearances in 12 games and went 4-0 with a 2.54 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP that included 31 strikeouts in 28.2 innings. Opening 2013 as part of Short-Season A Boise’s rotation, Padron moved aside when several draft picks joined the team, but was ready to pitch when innings limits were reached. For the season, Padron went 2-4 in 13 appearances (five starts) with a 5.89 ERA and a 1.54 WHIP (32 strikeouts in 38.1 innings). Cuban national Martinez-Pumarino was signed in December of 2011 and pitched for the AZL Cubs in 2012. Martinez-Pumarino was 5-0 in 14 appearances (one start) with a 3.53 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP (44 strikeouts in 43.1 innings). Pitching primarily out of the pen for the Hawks in 2013, Martinez-Pumarino made 18 appearances (one start) and went 4-2 with a 6.51 ERA with a 1.74 WHIP (29 strikeouts in 27.2 innings).

Zack Godley, Trevor Graham, Zak Hermans, and Brad Renner were all drafted by the Cubs in 2013. Selected in the tenth round, the 23-year old Godley pitched one inning in the rookie league before being promoted to Boise. Godley was 2-0 with a 2.02 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP for Boise with 28 strikeouts in 26.2 innings (14 appearances). Twenty-two year old Graham was selected in the 13th round and spent his time with the AZL Cubs. Graham made 11 appearances (four starts) and went 0-0 with a 2.01 ERA with a 1.03 WHIP (17 strikeouts in 22.1 innings). Drafted in the twenty-eighth round, the 22-year old Renner only saw time in the rookie league, but in four appearances he ended up without a win or a loss (0-0 record) and one save, a 0.00 ERA and a 0.67 WHIP (eight strikeouts in six innings). Lastly, Hermans was the Cubs’ 30th round selection and the 22-year old went 1-1 in six appearances (one start) in the rookie league with a 3.12 ERA and a 1.62 WHIP that included 10 strikeouts in 8.2 innings.

The closer role will be contested among several talented young pitchers, including right-handers Trey Masek, Corbin Hoffner, and Scott Frazier as well as lefties Brian Smith and Sam Wilson.

Getting the first shot at closing out games for Kane County should be 2013 fifth round draft pick Trey Masek. The 21-year old is a little undersized for the rotation at 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, and has pitched exclusively out of the bullpen since signing with the Cubs. Masek has a starter’s arsenal in a low-mid 90s fastball, slider, curve and developing change-up. Masek’s greatest asset is his control, although he has a tendency to get pitches up in the zone. After a brief appearance in the rookie league, Masek was promoted to Boise and went 1-0 in 10 appearances with a 2.16 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP (19 strikeouts in 16.2 innings).

Corbin Hoffner, the Cubs 14th round pick in the 2012 draft, is only 20 years old … and is a closer in the making. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound right-hander made only seven appearances for the AZL Cubs after signing and was 0-1 with a 0.71 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP (13 strikeouts in 12.2 innings). Hoffner was a workhorse out of the pen after moving up to Boise in 2013 and was named one of the CCO’s 2013 Short Season Co-Pitchers of the Year. Hoffner tossed 46.2 innings in 16 appearances and was 2-0 with a save, a 1.74 ERA and a 0.90 WHIP (42 strikeouts). While Hoffner sports only a low-90s fastball to pair with a slider and change, many feel that with his size and leverage he could up to 10 mph more on his heater with more maturity.

Selected just behind Masek in the sixth round of last June’s draft was Scott Frazier. A mountain of a man at 6-foot-7, 215 pounds, Frazier has only been used in the bullpen, but may eventually move back into the rotation. Frazier went straight to Boise after signing and made 14 appearances out of the pen. Frazier was 1-2 with a save, a 2.61 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP that included 19 strikeouts in 20.2 innings. He has a lot of work to do in smoothing out his mechanics, but Frazier features a low-mid 90s fastball with late movement, a change-up, and a curve that needs work, but has a chance to be an above average pitch.

The soon-to-be 21 year old (December 12) Brian Smith played for the Cougars last season, the lefty from Pickering, Ontario looks return in 2014 but his role is unclear at best right now. Smith was selected in the 40th round of the 2011 draft and the high schooler from Canada has moved slowly up the minor league system. Smith made 14 appearances (12 starts) for the AZL Cubs in 2011 and was 3-4 with a 3.30 ERA and a 1.49 WHIP that included 41 strikeouts in 46.2 innings. Smith returned to the rookie league to start the 2012 season, but moved to Short-Season A Boise after seven appearances (three starts). Smith was only used in three games, all in relief. For the season, Smith was 1-0 with a 1.16 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP (22 strikeouts in 23.1 innings). Breaking training camp with Kane County in 2013, Smith made his first nine appearances of the season out of the bullpen before switching to the rotation and making seven starts. Smith then was placed on the disabled list, but instead of rehabbing in Arizona he was loaned to the independent Rio Grande Valley White Wings of the United Baseball League. Smith made three starts for Rio Grande Valley before returning to the Cougars. Back with Kane County, he made three relief appearances to end the season. For the year, Smith was 3-6 with a 4.26 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP (69 strikeouts in 80.1 innings). Smith is a little small at 6-foot-0, 170 pounds to be in the rotation, and would need to come up with a third pitch to match with his fastball and curve.

Another left hander that shows a lot of promise is 2013 eighth round pick Sam Wilson. The 22- year old from Lamar University looked impressive in the Fall Instructional League after a productive season with Short-Season A Boise. Upon signing with the Cubs, Wilson tossed an inning with the AZL Cubs and was promoted to the Hawks, where he went 3-1 in 12 appearances with a 3.33 ERA and a 1.60 WHIP (25 strikeouts in 23.1 innings). Wilson features a mid-90s fastball and a slider, and is a good athlete. Wilson served as an emergency outfielder when Boise had to travel to Vancouver for the League Championship.

As with the rotation, the bullpen for the Cougars will be backed-up by a number of mature, experienced arms. With 11 career saves and a 6-5 record, Eddie Orozco, the Cubs 22nd round pick in the 2012 draft, is a nice security blanket to have. The 24-year old had an injury marred 2013 season that saw him split time between Boise and Kane County. Orozco was 3-4 with five saves, a 4.41 ERA and a 1.59 WHIP that included 39 strikeouts in 34.2 innings. The closer role for the Boise Hawks last season fell to Tyler Bremer, who will turn 24 years old on December 7. Bremer, the Cubs 27th round selection in the 2012 draft, was pretty reliable for the Hawks despite his 0-3 record. Bremer notched seven saves in 23 appearances, along with a 2.15 ERA and a 1.02 WHIP (48 strikeouts in 29.1 innings). Twenty-two year old Jasvir Rakkar also has closing experience, but was mainly used as a set-up man for Boise in 2013. Selected in the 26th round of the 2012 draft, Rakkar is yet another Canadian and hails from Brampton, Ontario. Rakkar was very useful for the Hawks, and was 4-1 with a save and a 3.58 ERA, a 1.09 WHIP, and 41 strikeouts in 37.1 innings.

There are also two wild cards capable of joining the Kane County staff, the first being Joshua Conway. The Cubs selected Conway in the fourth round of the 2012 draft, but he wasn’t able to pitch after signing due to recovering from Tommy John surgery. There was some controversy surrounding the 22-year old as teams broke Spring Training in 2013. Many close observers felt that Conway out-pitched Lendy Castillo, and deserved a spot on the Kane County Cougars’ roster. However, Castillo traveled north and Conway headed to Extended Spring Training, where he suffered a stress fracture of his pitching elbow due to poor playing conditions. Most feel that if Conway had been assigned to the Cougars the injury may never have happened. Prior to the injuries, Conway projected as a starter with a low-90s fastball, slider, and change-up. However, it is not certain that he will ever pitch professionally.

The other wild card is 21-year old lefty Gerardo Concepcion. The Cuban national was one of several international signings made by the Cubs in December 2011. Rumors at the time suggested the Cubs inked Concepcion to help sign OF Jorge Soler. The southpaw was assigned to Low-A Peoria for the 2012 season and went 2-6 in 12 starts with a 7.39 ERA and a 1.91 WHIP (28 strikeouts in 52.1 innings). Concepcion came down with a case of mono and was shut down for the season. Concepcion was not seen again until camp opened for the rookie league in 2013, where he pitched only 3.2 innings in two appearances with four walks two strikeouts. When he was right, Concepcion featured a low-90s fastball, curve, and change-up. Whether or not he is physically okay to resume his career remains to be seen.

ChicagoCubsOnline Minor League Position Analysis

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Quote of the Day

"People who write about Spring Training not being necessary have never tried to throw a baseball." – Sandy Koufax