Position Analysis – Double-A Tennessee Pitching Staff
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
The first wave of Cubs pitching prospects reside in Tennessee this coming season, headed by the first pitcher selected by present Cubs management, Pierce Johnson. A supplemental first round pick in the 2012 draft, Johnson was on track to be the 2014 Opening Day starter for the Smokies when a hamstring injury sidelined him in Spring Training. The 23-year old missed Opening Day but came back in late April, making six starts before returning to the disabled list. Johnson was slow in coming back and needed a two game warm-up at Low-A Kane County before rejoining Tennessee. Once back, Johnson was lights out, going 4-3 with a 1.66 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 65 innings. His totals for 2014 were 5-5 with a 2.54 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and 99 strikeouts in 102.2 innings. Johnson has some top of the rotation qualities in make-up, with a 95 mph-plus fastball along with a hard curve and a change-up with downward action. What Johnson needs to work on is control as he still has times where he can be hit hard.
Another top 10 prospect that dealt with injuries last season and is primed for a breakout is C.J. Edwards. One of several players acquired from the Texas Rangers as part of the Matt Garza deal, Edwards was a 48th round selection in the 2011 draft. After assisting High-A Daytona in securing the 2013 Florida State League Championship, Edwards began the next season with Double-A Tennessee. Things started out well for the 23-year old as he had a 2.61 ERA with 20 strikeouts through his first four starts. But Edwards started to experience discomfort in his throwing shoulder, and the Cubs took immediate action. Edwards was shut down, and had to slowly work back into shape. Returning to action in late July, Edwards pitched two games in the rookie league before coming back to the Smokies for the last month of the season. In six starts, Edwards had a 2.30 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 27.1 innings. For the year, Edwards had a 1-2 record with a 2.35 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, and 54 strikeouts in 53.2 innings.
C.J. Edwards followed that up with an impressive showing in the Arizona Fall League, going 1-0 with a 1.80 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 13 strikeouts in 15 innings (six starts), and an appearance in the Future Stars Game. Edwards has a mid-90s fastball with cutting action that is considered a plus-plus pitch. Edwards also has a 12-6 curve that is considered a plus pitch, along with a slider and change-up. Mechanics are also considered a plus for Edwards, but his velocity tends to drop as the innings progress due to his slight frame.
One pitcher that was able to stay in the rotation all season was Corey Black. Selected by the New York Yankees in the fourth round of the 2012 draft, Black was traded by the Yankees to the Cubs for OF Alfonso Soriano in 2013. At times, the 23-year old had to carry the pitching staff last season as the rotation looked more looked more like a waiver wire list with a multitude of injuries. In 26 starts, Black was 6-7 with a 3.47 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, and 119 strikeouts in 124.1 innings. While all of his numbers indicate an improvement from the following season, the consensus is that Black still needs to do a better job in lowering his WHIP with improved control and learning to sequence his pitches better. Scouting reports state that Black has an upper-90s fastball the can hit triple digits with hard sink. Black also has a slider, a curve, and a change-up, but there is disagreement as to how good each pitch is at this time. With a slight 5-foot-11, 175 pound frame, there have been suggestions that Black junk some of the pitches and concentrate on his fastball while moving from starter to closer.
It was somewhat of a lost season for Ivan Pineyro last year as he dealt with injuries. The Nationals signed Pineyro in 2011, and he was acquired by the Cubs in a 2013 trade of outfielder Scott Hairston to Washington. The 23-year old struggled out of the gate for Double-A Tennessee, and was clearly not the pitcher he was in 2013 when he went 3-1 with a 1.18 WHIP following the trade. Pineyro still managed to post a 3.60 ERA in seven starts before going on the disabled list in mid-May with a forearm injury. It wasn’t until mid-July when Pineyro returned to the field, but there was some question as to whether he was ready. Pineyro had a shaky two starts in the rookie league before rejoining the Smokies in August, where he was rocked in his final five starts. Pineyro ended up at 0-6 with a 5.55 ERA, 1.63 WHIP, and 50 strikeouts in 60 innings.
In order to make up for some lost time, Pineyro was assigned to the Arizona Fall League. Pineyro had to be removed from his third start with an injury, but for the most part pitched well, going 1-0 with a 1.98 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 13.2 innings. Pineyro is now looking to get a few more innings under his belt in the Dominican Winter League. Most scouting reports list Pineyro with a low-mid 90s fastball and a solid change. Some mention that he is working on a breaking pitch, but aren’t specific.
A fifth starter could be 2013 second round draft pick Rob Zastryzny. The 22-year old also dealt with an injury last season and struggled with command, but has probably pitched enough at the High-A level to warrant consideration for a promotion this spring. The lefty was struggling in his first full season with an 8.33 ERA through his first six starts for High-A Daytona when he was struck on the forearm by a line drive. Zastryzny only missed one start and had a 2.78 ERA in his next seven appearances before missing another start to have his arm evaluated at the Cubs’ facility in Arizona. When he came back, Zastryzny played a pivotal part in the D-Cubs push for the playoffs, going 4-0 and averaging five innings over his final 12 starts. For the season, Zastryzny was 4-6 with a 4.66 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, and 110 strikeouts in 110 innings. However, he was 4-3 and his ERA was 2.39 with 84 strikeouts after the injury. Zastryzny has a four-seam fastball that he throws in the low-90s as well as a two-seam fastball. After some concern about it when he was drafted, scouts now believe that Zastryzny’s slider is his best pitch and a change-up giving him a four-pitch arsenal.
On the outskirts of the rotation could be Felix Pena. Signed as a free agent in 2009, to use a football term, Pena is a “tweener” who seems to work best as a limited starter and long reliever. The 24-year old suffered from a lack of run support while being the most consistent starter for High-A Daytona in 2014. Pena was only 4-6 for the D-Cubs, but had a 3.19 ERA and 1.27 ERA in 19 starts. Promoted to Double-A Tennessee, Pena found the going a little rougher as his ERA ballooned to 7.48. For the year, Pena was a combined 6-10 with a 4.15 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, and 102 strikeouts in 123.2 innings. As you can see Pena is an innings-eater that most likely will start out in the pen before moving into the rotation when some of the pitchers receive promotions.
Left in limbo could be Tayler Scott. The 22-year old South African did not have the greatest season last year, but with High-A Myrtle Beach’s rotation looking loaded, there is no telling where Scott may land. A fifth round pick in 2011, Scott was a consistent presence in High-A Daytona’s rotation last season, but looked as though he could use further development. Scott will not turn 23 years old until the middle of next season, and with a 6-foot-3, 165-pound frame, he could benefit from further growth and maturity. Starting 26 games, Scott posted an 8-8 record with a 4.34 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, and 79 strikeouts in 134.2 innings. Scouts feel that Scott has great athleticism and a plus-curve to go along with a low-90s fastball. What niche Scott is able to carve out for himself remains to be seen.
Middle relief appears to be rock solid as the organization has a plethora of former starters congregated at this level. Great things were expected from Matt Loosen, especially after he tossed a no-hitter for High-A Daytona in 2013. But the 25-year old Loosen wasn’t able to find any consistency as a starter for Double-A Tennessee last year, going 5-5 with a 5.77 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, and 96 strikeouts in 106 innings.
Selected by the Cubs in the 40th round of the 2011 draft, Patrick Jacob (P.J.) Francescon pitched out of the bullpen for Tennessee last two seasons. In 2014, the 25-year old Francescon bailed out the Smokies’ pitching staff time after time, posting an 11-6 record with a 3.52 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, and 48 strikeouts in 69 innings. Francescon is more of a sinkerball than strikeout pitcher that sports a low-mid 90s sinking fastball and change-up.
Lefty Austin Kirk also has a no-hitter on his résumé, but the 2009 third round selection has seen his career stall a little recently. Splitting his time between Tennessee and Daytona, Kirk was 2-4 with a 3.75 ERA in 39 appearances that included a 1.36 WHIP and 46 strikeouts in 69.2 innings. Only 24 years old, Kirk still has a little time to improve his command. Kirk features a curveball, a low-mid 90s fastball, and a change-up.
Blake Cooper and Jose Rosario might fit into the mix for a spot in the bullpen. Acquired from the Diamondbacks for OF Brett Jackson, the 26-year old Cooper could figure into the plans for Triple-A Iowa’s bullpen as well. However, Cooper did not do all that well at Triple-A Reno last season, with an ERA of 6.00 in 17 appearances. All totaled, Cooper was 4-3 with a 3.16 ERA in 49 appearances, 1.26 WHIP, and 69 strikeouts in 68.1 innings. Cooper would have to be outstanding this spring to make the Iowa squad. Rosario has always had an impressive arm, but he has had difficulty staying in one piece. After an injury marred 2013, Rosario was thrust into a starting role for High-A Daytona in which he had a 5.42 ERA in 16 starts. Rosario didn’t do much better in relief, posting a 5.51 ERA. Overall, the 24-year old was 5-8 overall with a 5.44 ERA, 1.75 WHIP, and 92 strikeouts in 101 innings. Despite his slight 6-foot-1, 170-pound build, Rosario has always been a strikeout pitcher with a mid-90s fastball and power slider. Rosario may be better in his second season back from arm troubles.
A wild card for the Tennessee staff could be Michael Jensen, the Cubs 26th round pick in the 2011 draft. The 24-year old had a very good bounce-back season in 2014 after losing all of 2013 to arm trouble. Previously a starter, Jensen was a mainstay in High-A Daytona’s bullpen. Jensen was 7-4 record with a save in 36 appearances that included a 2.85 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, and 62 strikeouts in 60 innings. Jensen mixes a low-90s fastball with a plus curve, a change-up and a cutter that is a work in progress. The future looked bright for Jensen before the injury, but it is uncertain how the organization will use him this coming season. While his numbers show that he deserves to be promoted, Jensen may be held back at High-A Myrtle Beach in order to provide maturity and leadership to a young and talented staff.
The closer role should be a spirited, three-way battle between two right-handers in Zach Cates and Tony Zych and lefty Hunter Cervenka.
Acquired from San Diego in the deal that brought Anthony Rizzo to the Cubs, Zach Cates has always been a favorite of Cubs’ GM Jed Hoyer. Moved to closer toward the end of the 2013 season after spending his career as a starter, Cates had trouble establishing himself in that role last season. While his numbers with High-A Daytona looked good, Cates was never able to seize the closer position during the first two months of the season. Nevertheless, the 24-year old was promoted to Double-A Tennessee at the beginning of June and struggled to find an identity there. Combined, Cates was 3-2 with two saves in 36 appearances, with a 4.08 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, and 40 strikeouts in 53.1 innings. Assigned to the Arizona Fall League, Cates was lit up like a Christmas tree with a 9.28 ERA in nine appearances. Cates has an upper-90s fastball and slider, but control has always been an issue.
Another power arm that has underwhelmed is Tony Zych. A fourth round pick in the 2011 draft, Zych was seen as a surprise signing as he had college eligibility left. Zych was pushed through the system, sometimes even when his performance did not indicate that he deserved a promotion. The 24-year old now seems to have stalled at Double-A Tennessee. Zych was given the closer’s role to begin the 2014 season, but he was not able to deliver. Zych put up some of the worst numbers of his career, going 4-5 with two saves in 45 appearances, a 5.09 ERA, 1.59 WHIP, and a career low 35 strikeouts in 58.1 innings. The organization had hoped Zych would show similar developmental as former-Cub Kyle Farnsworth, in that he has an upper-90s fastball that can touch triple digits along with a hard slider.
The opinions on Hunter Cervenka fluctuate between being a good set-up man or a closer. Acquired along with Michael Bowden in the Marlon Byrd trade in 2012, Cervenka had spent two plus seasons in the Red Sox organization before coming to the Cubs. The left-hander had a very good 2013 season, but did not significantly improve with Tennessee this past season. The 24-year old saw more playing time in middle relief than at closer last year and he ended up with a 4-4 record with a save in 48 appearances. Cervenka had a 3.79 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and 65 strikeouts in 61.2 innings. While he has closed ballgames in the past, with a low-90s fastball, a cut fastball, curve, and a change-up, Cervenka may be better suited as a set-up man.
Other options could be veteran pitchers in 26-year old lefty Jeffrey Lorick, 25-year old Lendy Castillo, 23-year old Starling Peralta, 23-year old Steve Perakslis, and 23-year old Yao-Lin Wang. All, with the exception of Perakslis, have battled injuries and have seen time as both starters and relievers in their careers.
Minor League Position Analysis
- First Base
- Second Base
- Third Base
- Left Field
- Right Field
- Triple-A Iowa Pitching Staff