Position Analysis – High-A Pitchers
The CCO’s off-season look at the Cubs’ minor league system continues today. After viewing the possible pitching staff for Triple- and Double-A, we now look at the prospects for High-A. With a rotation that can go eight to nine deep, the pitching squad for Myrtle Beach in 2017 may turn out to be very special.
High-A Starters and Relievers
The 2015 draft provided several high-end pitching prospects. The foremost of these was eighth round pick Preston Morrison. Starting the year at Low-A South Bend, the side-arming 22-year old began slow but compiled a 9-4 record, 2.24 ERA and 1.170 WHIP before being promoted to Myrtle Beach in late July. Morrison became a mainstay in the Pelicans rotation, going 3-0 with a 1.77 ERA and 1.037 WHIP in six starts. Altogether, Morrison was 12-4 with a save in 23 appearances (22 starts) with a 2.11 ERA, 1.113 WHIP and 122 strikeouts in 128 innings. Included in those numbers, Morrison also had a very low 122:33 strikeout-to-walk rate. Morrison has a high-80s/low-90s sinking fastball, a very hard biting slider, and a changeup, with his sidearm action making it very difficult on right-handed hitters.
Just 21 years old last season, Erick Leal is a pitcher that many overlook. Acquired in 2014 from the Diamondbacks in exchange for OF Tony Campana, Leal doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but hitters have an unusually hard time against him. Leal induces weak contact, and has flirted with no-hitters several times in his career, including taking one into the 10th inning. In 2016, Leal dealt with some injuries that cost him four to five starts. For the year, Leal went 11-4 with a 3.13 ERA, 1.188 WHIP and 71 strikeouts in 97.2 innings. Control rather than power is Leal’s game, as he has only issued 92 walks in 407.2 innings over five seasons. Leal has an upper-80s/low-90s fastball, along with an advanced curve and changeup. Many believe that Leal’s velocity will increase as he matures.
Flying under the radar for fans, Ryan Kellogg has impressed the scouts. A fifth round pick in 2015, the 6-foot-5 left-hander quietly went about his business and was second in the Midwest League in WHIP and sixth in ERA. Kellogg led the Low-A South Bend staff in starts and innings, and was 9-7 with a 3.03 ERA, 1.079 WHIP and had 107 strikeouts in 130.2 innings. The 22-year old Canadian has a low-90s fastball, a curve and a changeup.
Although his 2016 was cut short by injuries, there should be no reason Oscar De La Cruz does not advance to the Carolina League next season. The 21-year old had a one game warm-up for the AZL Cubs in mid-July, and then set out in destroying the competition. De La Cruz blew away Northwest League hitting in two starts before being promoted to Low-A South Bend at the end of July. With the SB Cubs, De La Cruz faced some stiffer competition, but still posted a 1.084 WHIP and 35 strikeouts in 27.2 innings. The overall numbers were pretty impressive, as De La Cruz went 1-3 with a 3.00 ERA, but had a 1.051 WHIP and 51 strikeouts in 39 innings. Listed as 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, observers place De La Cruz at closer to at least 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds. And he’s still growing. His continued physical development sometimes plays havoc with De La Cruz’s mechanics, but has helped improve his velocity. While it is reported that his fastball sits in the 94 mph range with good movement, De La Cruz has also been able to clock in the upper-90s. De La Cruz also has a curveball and, like most young pitchers, is working on a changeup.
Making a huge improvement over the course of a year, Jose Paulino may be as exciting a prospect as teammate Oscar De La Cruz. The left-hander moved from thrower to pitcher this past season, cutting down on his strikeout totals but improving in every other phase. Starting the year with Short Season-A Eugene, Paulino dominated Northwest League hitters, going 4-0 with a 0.51 ERA and 0.629 WHIP in six appearances. Promoted to Low-A South Bend, Paulino’s numbers were still good in another seven starts. For the year, Paulino went 7-1 in 13 starts with a 1.92 ERA and 0.907 WHIP and 69 strikeouts in 75 innings. While Paulino possesses a mid-90s fastball, there is debate as to whether his changeup or slider is actually his best pitch.
Although he has yet to throw a pitch in any meaningful action, those close to the action believe 2016 third round pick Thomas Hatch can make the immediate jump to High-A ball. Shouldering much of the burden for Oklahoma State in the 2016 College World Series, the Cubs were cautious with the 22-year old after they signed him. Scouts have made comparisons to former Oakland A’s right-hander Tim Hudson and former Dodger Bob Welch. A sinkerball pitcher, Hatch uses a low- to mid-90s fastball, circle change, cutter and slider and is said to have excellent command.
One of the workhorses for Low-A South Bend last season, just where and in what role Adbert Alzolay will be in is uncertain. Despite being only 6-foot, 180 pounds, the 21-year old was second on the team in starts and innings pitched, while tying for the team lead in victories. Alzolay had a very uneven 2016, as most players do moving to full season play. Alzolay was one of the best pitchers on the SB Cubs’ staff in April and May, before hitting a wall in June and July. Altogether, Alzolay was 9-4 with a 4.34 ERA, 1.222 WHIP and had 81 strikeouts in 120.1 innings. With a fastball that tops in the mid-90s, Alzolay has both an inconsistent curve and change. The Cubs organization likes to take smaller pitchers with above average stuff and see how they do in the bullpen. That may be the course they take with Alzolay.
If there ever was a confirmed title of utility pitcher, 2013 15th round pick Michael Wagner be among the first considered. The 25-year old appeared at all four full-season levels in the Cubs’ organization last year. Wagner was also used in practically every role, starting 18 of his 24 appearances and finishing two games. Through it all, Wagner was 3-2 with a save, a 4.29 ERA, 1.420 WHIP and 82 strikeouts in 94.1 innings. With a low-90s sinking fastball that has topped out at 97 mph, Wagner also has a plus changeup, but must continue to develop his breaking pitch.
It was a season to forget for Carson Sands, as he moved from a pitcher on the brink to a major question mark. Things started unraveling for the 21-year old after a dominant May, as he went 2-4 with a 10.05 ERA in 13 appearances the rest of the way and ended up banished to the bullpen. The totals for 2016 were a 7-4 record with one save, a 5.91 ERA, 1.621 WHIP and 51 strikeouts in 74.2 innings. The left-hander has a low-90s fastball that has touched up to 94-95 mph, a solid curve and a good feel for his changeup. Over his career, Sands has not seemed to handle the spotlight well and may improve with a reduced role.
Middle relief has a couple of standouts in Casey Bloomquist and lefty Kyle Twomey. Able to perform in any role, the 2015 17th round selection Bloomquist was equally effective as a starter and a closer for Low-A South Bend, going 8-8 with four saves in 30 appearances (12 starts) with a 3.00 ERA, 1.060 WHIP and 87 strikeouts in 117 innings. A sinkerball pitcher, the 21-year old Bloomquist has a low-90s fastball. A 13th rounder in 2015, Twomey almost evenly split last season between the rotation and the bullpen. A 23-year old today (Dec. 29), Twomey appeared in 19 games (10 starts) for South Bend and was 2-3 with a save, a 3.44 ERA, 1.295 WHIP and 75 strikeouts in 73.1 innings. Twomey has a low-90s fastball along with a slider, curve, and changeup.
Bullpen depth continues with Greyfer Eregua and Kyle Miller. The initial closer for Low-A South Bend, the 23-year old Eregua worked through a series of minor injuries this past season. Tossing a career high 74 innings, Eregua had a 3-4 record with three saves, a 3.77 ERA, 1.095 WHIP and 67 strikeouts. A 19th round selection in 2015, Miller ate 73.2 innings for South Bend as he was pressed into service as a starter nine times in 20 appearances. Another 23-year old, Miller was 5-2 with a 2.57 ERA, 1.086 WHIP and 56 strikeouts. Miller has a mid-90s fastball along with a slider and change.
A college teammate of Cubs outfielder/catcher Kyle Schwarber, Scott Effross was a pitcher that could not reproduce his success at a higher level. As a member of Low-A South Bend, the 23-year old was 6-0 with a 2.77 ERA in 32 appearances. Moving to Myrtle Beach in mid-August, Effross had just nine more appearances and a 5.25 ERA. Combined, Effross went 7-0 with two saves, a 3.23 ERA, 1.328 WHIP and 59 strikeouts in 64 innings (41 appearances). Effross’ fastball sits in the low- to mid-90s and he features a slider and a changeup that needs work.
Another pitcher that had trouble making the transition to High-A ball, Craig Brooks still has the makings of a very useful pitcher. The 24-year old former 2015 seventh rounder was 2-1 with five saves in 23 appearances for Low-A South Bend when promoted in early July. With High-A Myrtle Beach, Brooks ran into problems, going 2-0 but with an 8.25 ERA in 17 appearances. Brooks also had a 4-1 record with five saves, a 4.31 ERA, 1.615 WHIP and 69 strikeouts in 56.1 innings. On the mound, Brooks has a low- to mid-90s fastball, a cutter, curve and changeup.
Known as much for his rapping as his ability on the mound, lefty John Williamson was a solid contributor to the Low-A South Bend pitching staff. The 24-year old is considered a left-handed specialist (LOOGY) even at this level with his high-80s/low-90s sidearm fastball. Williamson was 2-1 with a 2.37 ERA, 1.140 WHIP and 53 strikeouts in 57 innings.
The line for closer begins with 2015 21st round selection Jared Cheek. The 24-year old returned to Short Season-A Eugene after getting pretty beat up the previous season. Cheek was more than up to the task as his seven saves in 13 appearances earned him a quick promotion to South Bend. Cheek had another 13 appearances with the SB Cubs and added four more saves to his total as he was 3-0 with 11 saves, a 2.04 ERA, 1.019 WHIP and had 34 strikeouts in 35.1 innings between the two teams. Cheek is a mid-90s fastball, slider pitcher who throws strikes and limits his free passes.
A slow developing prospect, Pedro Araujo is a hard-thrower that can pay dividends down the road. The 22-year old joined Low-A South Bend in late-May from extended Spring Training and tore up the Midwest League, going 3-0 with three saves, a 1.59 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 34 innings. Promoted to Myrtle Bach in the beginning of July, Araujo found the Carolina League much tougher and was sent back to South Bend after posting a 5.21 ERA in 13 appearances. For the season, Araujo went 3-2 with four saves in 29 appearances with a 2.89 ERA, 1.151 WHIP, and 67 strikeouts in 53 innings. Araujo has a mid-90s fastball that can reach the upper-90s, but is still behind in his secondary pitches.
Flame-throwing Daniel Lewis continued his evolution as a pitcher last season. The undrafted free agent spent four years in the Air Force, and credited the training and conditioning he received in improving both his mechanics and velocity. Held back in extended Spring Training, the 25-year old was assigned to High-A Myrtle Beach in late-May, but needed some minor rehab in Short Season-A Eugene after an injury. In 20 appearances for the Pelicans, Lewis went 5-0 with a 2.59 ERA, 1.468 WHIP and 20 strikeouts in 31.1 innings. Lewis still has a lot of work to do on his control, with only a 20:16 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Lewis has an upper-90s fastball which can edge close to triple digits, but does not yet have a reliable second pitch.
A perennial disappointment, Dillon Maples must now go out and show that his 2016 was not just beating up on lower competition. Opening the year with the Pelicans, the 24-year old was just plain awful, averaging less than an inning per outing and posting a 7.71 ERA and 2.286 WHIP in nine appearances. Sent back to Arizona in late June, Maples returned to action in early-July with Low-A South Bend. With the SB Cubs, Maples led the team with nine saves but was far from a reliable closer, with only a 17:10 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 3.33 ERA in 19 appearances. Altogether, Maples was 1-3 with nine saves, a 4.22 ERA, 1.375 WHIP and 23 strikeouts in 32 innings. Maples sports a mid-90s fastball and a hammer curve, along with a changeup, but he struggles to repeat his delivery and as a consequence has trouble commanding the strike zone. While rumors abound about Maples being un-coachable, they seem to have quieted down over the past year. But the clock may be running out on Maples’ future.
For a long time, James Norwood had trouble finding his niche. Now that the 23-year old has emerged as a closer candidate, keeping Norwood on the field is the next priority. Norwood was back-and-forth on the disabled list and between starting and relieving before being put in the bullpen permanently to start the year. Back with Low-A South Bend, Norwood was part of a closer rotation and racked up a 3-1 record with six saves before going to Myrtle Beach in late July. With Ryan McNeil closing out games for the Pelicans, Norwood was used sparingly for the last month, making eight more appearances for the year. All totaled, Norwood was 4-1 with seven saves, a 3.25 ERA, 1.444 WHIP and 43 strikeouts in 36 innings. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Norwood has a mid-90s fastball with decent sink, a slider, an above average curve, and an improving changeup.
Cubs Position Analysis Reports
- First Base
- Second Base
- Third Base
- Left Field
- Center Field
- Right Field
- Triple-A Starters and Relievers
- Double-A Starters and Relievers