Position Analysis – Triple-A Iowa Pitching Staff
The ninth installment of the off-season series to summarize and project how the minor league system looks on a position by position basis focuses on the possibilities for the pitching staff at the highest level in the Cubs’ system, Triple-A Iowa.
Triple-A Iowa Starters and Relievers
The Cubs pulled off a big trade with the Oakland A’s last summer that not only netted top prospect Addison Russell, but RHP Dan Straily. Selected by the Athletics in the 24th round of the 2009 draft, Straily enjoyed a steady rise through the Oakland system, splitting his time between Triple-A Sacramento and the parent club last season. The 26-year old even started a playoff game, appearing in Game 4 of the 2013 ADLS against Detroit. Straily began the 2014 season in the majors, but he was back down with the River Cats when the trade to the Cubs happened. Straily was assigned to Triple-A Iowa when he arrived, and was promoted to Chicago after starting ten games with the I-Cubs.
Straily’s minor league totals were 7-8 with a 4.42 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP that included 123 strikeouts in 118 innings. In the majors, Straily was 1-3 with a 6.75 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP (47 strikeouts in 52 innings). Straily has a four-pitch arsenal with a four-seam fastball in the low-to-mid 90s, along with a slider, curve, and change. The biggest problem Straily appeared to have was command issues that could stem from his wind-up and throwing motion. The Cubs’ brain-trust of Chris Bosio and Bruce Walton feel that if they are able to work out some of Straily’s issues, he could have the same type improvement seen from Jake Arietta before landing at the top of the rotation.
The prime candidate for the next slot in the rotation would be lefty Eric Jokisch. The Cubs selected Jokisch in the 11th round of the 2010 draft and drew attention as a prospect in 2011. Jokisch began the 2011 season 7-0 and finished with a 9-3 mark with a 2.96 ERA in 118.2 innings for the Low-A Peoria. The 25-year old rose up the ranks and pitched a no-hitter on August 6, 2013 as a member of the Double-A Tennessee staff.
Last season was the first for Jokisch at Triple-A Iowa, and he turned out to be one of the best pitchers in the Pacific Coast League. Jokisch was second in the league in strikeouts (143) and third in WHIP (1.18), and fifth in ERA (3.58). Jokisch was solid in four appearances, one start, in the majors (1.88 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, four walks, 10 strikeouts in 14.1 innings). 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-tossing lefties like Jokisch will get compared to long time Major Leaguer Jamie Moyer, but Jokisch has a much stronger physical make-up, more swing-and-miss stuff, and is a much better athlete than Moyer.
Another pitcher that was among the best in the PCL last season was 41st round, 2010 draft pick Dallas Beeler. The product of Oral Roberts University was still coming back from a torn tendon in his pitching hand when the bell rang for the 2014 season, which placed him in extended Spring Training for another month to build up his arm strength. When Beeler finally took the field in early May, the results ensued. The 25-year old finished second in the league with a 1.16 WHIP and third in the league in ERA (3.40). Beeler ended up with a 9-6 record that included 83 strikeouts in 124.1 innings. Despite his large frame, Beeler is known as a control pitcher, with a low-90s two-seam fastball, change, and curveball. Beeler was hit a little harder in the offense-friendly PCL, but he generally limits the amount of extra base hits (only 30 home runs in 428.1 career innings). Even though he has a low strikeout total, Beeler has maintained a better than 2:1 strikeout to walk ratio throughout his career. Beeler made two starts with Chicago this past season and was 0-2 with six strikeouts and seven walks in 11 innings (3.27 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, 3.95 FIP)
A dark horse for the rotation could be the somewhat forgotten 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 made the unprecedented decision to declare Loux a free agent. After throwing for scouts, Loux signed with the Texas Rangers. After playing two years in the Texas system, Loux followed a convoluted path that eventually landed him with the Cubs for catcher Geovany Soto.
In 2013, Loux was assigned to Triple-A Iowa to be part of its rotation. Due to his injury history, Loux was “nursed” through his first season with the organization and appeared in only 19 games (16 starts) while landing a couple of times on the disabled list. In 80 innings, Loux went 4-5 with a 4.84 ERA and a 1.64 WHIP that included 76 strikeouts with 46 walks. However, the 25-year old missed the entire 2014 season, and it was never explained exactly why. If Loux had surgery, news of his rehab would have been reported. But if the decision was made to rehab the injury instead of opting for surgery, the risk of future injury and surgery remains. The 6-foot-5, 215 pounder throws a fastball that can hit 96 mph on the gun, along with a power slider and a curve. If Loux can finally shake the injury bug, the Cubs may have another power arm to build their rotation on.
An even deeper candidate for the Iowa Cubs rotation could be Frank Batista. “El Tiburon” (The Shark) has been one of the most successful closers in Cubs minor league history, with 85 career saves, 80 over the last five years. Since signing as a free agent in 2009, Batista has been named a Florida State League All-Star and Minor League Pitcher of the Month in April of 2012. This past season, the Cubs seemed bent on getting some other prospects some experience closing at Double-A Tennessee and loaned Batista out to Tijuana in the Mexican League. Eventually, the organization wound up returning to Batista when some of the other options didn’t work out. For the Year, Batista was 4-2 with a 2.10 ERA with 11 Saves, a 1.119 WHIP, and 50 strikeouts in 64.1 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 25-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 would lose effectiveness when being asked to go longer than an inning at a stretch or is used too many days in a row. But Batista has returned to being a starter in the Dominican Winter League for the first time since 2010. Batista has held his own for Cibaenas, averaging a little over 4.1 innings per start with a 3-1 record, a 3.73 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 31.1 innings.
Among others vying for starts with Iowa could be righties Alberto Cabrera, Yoanner Negrin, Carlos Pimentel, Dae-Eun Rhee, if the Cubs re-sign them, and lefty Jeffry Antigua. The 26-year old Cabrera is blessed with some very good “stuff,” but he’s never been able to consistently turn that into production. Cabrera was used entirely in relief this past season for Triple-A Iowa, appearing in 40 games and posting a 4-2 record with two saves, a 3.29 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, and 61 strikeouts in 65.2 innings. Cabrera has started in the past, and as a reliever, he has a habit of allowing inherited runners to score. Almost a left-handed version of Cabrera, Antigua is very similar in that he has great “stuff” but just can’t seem to put it to good use. The 24-year old split time between Tennessee and Iowa and was 1-2 combined in 22 games (four starts, eight games finished) and posted a 3.90 ERA and a 1.39 WHIP with 34 strikeouts in 55.1 innings. Antigua is eligible for the upcoming Rule 5 Draft.
There are several options for a closer, but the first in line could be Armando Rivero. Signed out of Cuba prior to the 2013 season, the 26-year old had always been used as a closer prior to signing with the Cubs. Rivero was handled cautiously after he signed, but moved up three levels in 2013. Beginning the 2014 season at Double-A Tennessee, Rivero was one of the best pitchers in the Southern League. Rivero saved 10 games and posted a 1.56 ERA with 54 strikeouts before moving to Iowa in mid-June. With an already established closer for the I-Cubs in place, Rivero only finished nine games in 23 appearances and recorded a save. For the year, Rivero was 5-1 with 11 saves in 49 appearances. Rivero put up a 2.22 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP with an even 100 strikeouts in 65 innings. Rivero brings all the tools you like to see in a closer with an upper-90s fastball, two-seam fastball, and slider.
On hand could be some experienced closers, including Blake Parker. There are few players that had the success that Parker had in 2014 for the Iowa Cubs. Parker not only led the PCL with 25 saves, his total was seven more than his nearest competitor. Parker also posted a 1.77 ERA and 1.15 WHIP to go along with 52 strikeouts in only 35.2 innings. However, Parker had trouble replicating those numbers in the big leagues where he had a 5.14 ERA and 1.33 WHIP. Parker struck out 24 batters in 21innings with the parent club, but far too often had outings in which he was hit rather hard. Parker has certainly come a long way since being drafted as an infielder in 2006. But the 29-year old is starting to run out of time to prove he belongs in the majors, and he may end up carrying the dreaded “Four-A Player” label. If Parker cannot make the trip north with the big club, he may have to be content with being a very good security blanket for developing pitchers.
Coming from the left side could be Zac Rosscup. The lone remaining remnant from the 2011 trade that acquired RHP Matt Garza from Tampa, Rosscup battled injuries up until the 2013 season and is just beginning to flash his potential. The 26-year old was drafted by the Rays in 2009, and has put together solid back-to-back seasons. As a full member of the Iowa Cubs in 2014, Rosscup was 2-0 with four saves in 29 appearances. For the second year in a row, Rosscup posted an ERA under 2.50, with a mark of 2.10 and a 1.10 WHIP along with 38 strikeouts in 30 innings. Like Parker, Rosscup did not fare well when called up to the majors. While Rosscup did record a victory and 21 strikeouts in 13.1 innings, he also had a 9.45 ERA and a 1.95 WHIP.