Position Analysis – High-A Myrtle Beach 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 Iowa and Double-A Tennessee, we now look at the pitching prospects for High-A Myrtle Beach.
High-A Myrtle Beach Starters and Relievers
A rotation that may go eight deep and a staff containing the remnants of the Florida State League runners-up and members of the Midwest League Champions, the pitching squad for High-A Myrtle Beach in 2015 may be the best class ever produced by the Chicago Cubs.
Heading up the rotation most likely will Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year, and The CCO Minor League Co-Pitcher of the Year, Jen-Ho Tseng. In early July 2013, the Cubs signed international free agent Tseng out of Taiwan. Just 19 years old at the start of the 2014 season, Tseng was impressive enough last spring to bypass both the rookie and Short-Season leagues and begin his professional career with Low-A Kane County.
After the first two months of the season, Tseng missed about four weeks as a sore shoulder placed him on the disabled list. The missed time essentially took Tseng out of the running for qualifying among the league leaders. However, the now 20-year old Tseng became one of the most feared pitchers in the Midwest League as he had a 0.867 WHIP and 85 strikeouts against 15 walks in 105 innings. Tseng went on to post a 6-1 record and a 2.40 ERA. As for his “stuff,” Tseng has a fastball that sits in the low- to mid-90s range, with a deep release point that makes it look even faster. Tseng also has a curve that he needs to command better and possibly the best change-up in the system.
Following Tseng in the order should be The CCO’s other Minor League Co-Pitcher of the Year, Daury Torrez. Signed as an international free agent in 2011, the 21-year old Torrez is finally beginning to garner some national attention after being named The CCO Short-Season Pitcher of the Year in 2012 and one of our Five Players to Watch prior to the 2013 season.
On a team with some very high profile pitchers, the one that was among the most dominant in the Midwest League was Torrez. The Dominican led the league with a 0.997 WHIP and tied for second with 11 wins. Torrez was also fourth in the league with a 2.74 ERA and had 81 strikeouts against 21 walks in 131.1 innings. Torrez can use a little more muscle on his 6-foot-3, 170 pound frame, which is why scouts feel that his low-90s fastball can gain in velocity as he matures. Torrez also features a hard slider and a change which he commands well, as noted by his 36 career walks in 300.2 innings.
Among the Cubs pitcher to get the most attention recently has been Duane Underwood. Taken by the Cubs in the second round of the 2012 draft, Underwood was a high school player out of Marietta m Georgia. Underwood’s early career went in fits and starts as he got some of his personal habits under control. Now focused and professional in his approach, Underwood showed marked improvement, going 6-4 with a 2.50 ERA, 1.202 WHIP, and 84 strikeouts against 36 walks in 100.2 innings. Turning just 20 years old in the middle of last season, Underwood has a mid-upper 90s fastball characterized as “easy heat” due to his clean delivery. Underwood also has a curve and change which scouts feel can develop into plus pitches. Underwood is considered a good athlete, garnering as much attention as an outfielder as he did as a pitcher prior to the 2012 draft.
Next up for the Pelicans should be another young but talented thrower in Paul Blackburn. Taken by the Cubs as a “sandwich” pick in the first round of the 2012 draft, Blackburn was the bedrock of the Kane County staff in 2014. Finishing tied for eighth in the Midwest League with a 1.19 WHIP and tenth with a 3.23 ERA, Blackburn went 9-4 in 24 starts with 75 strikeouts in 117 innings. Blackburn just turned 21 years old on December 4, and has an arsenal of a low-mid 90s fastball along with a change and a curve that can both be considered plus pitches. While not considered a sinkerball pitcher, Blackburn’s game is to keep batters off balance and get themselves out.
A new acquisition for the system, Jonathan Martinez is a stealth prospect for most Cubs fans. An international free agent signing by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2011 as a 17-year old, Martinez worked his way up the system and was assigned to Low-A Great Lakes to begin the 2014 season, where he was named their Opening Day starter. Traded by the Dodgers in exchange for infielder Darwin Barney, Martinez moved from the East to the West Division of the Midwest League and joined Kane County for the remainder of the season. Martinez’s combined 11 wins tied with Daury Torrez for second in the league, while he finished just ahead of Paul Blackburn with a 1.18 WHIP and just behind him with a 3.26 ERA. Martinez also had 106 strikeouts against only 21 walks in 129.2 innings. Just 20 years old, Martinez has a mid-90s two-seam fastball along with a change-up and slider and is said to be very good at changing speeds.
If you are looking for a lefty in the rotation, then Tyler Ihrig would be the pitcher you are looking for. Mainly a closer at College of Marin when the Cubs drafted him in the 23rd round in 2013, the organization primarily worked Ihrig as a starter last season. The 23-year old was an emergency call-up for High-A Daytona when injuries hit their pitching staff in late May. After three appearances which included a start, Ihrig returned to extended Spring Training to prepare to open the season with Short-Season A Boise. Ihrig was a very reliable part of the Hawks’ rotation, averaging nearly six innings a start and posting a 36:6 strikeout to walk ratio. Ihrig was promoted to Low-A Kane County for their stretch run to the championship. Ihrig made five appearances including a three inning save and went 3-1. Altogether, Ihrig was 7-3 in 16 games (13 starts) with a 4.01 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and 64 strikeouts against 14 walks in 83 innings. Ihrig’s “stuff” is reminiscent of former Cub Sean Marshall in that he has a big, sweeping curve along with a low 90s fastball and change-up. It is not clear as to whether the front office had Ihrig pitch as a starter to get him more innings, or if they are committed to him there.
Another 2013 draft choice that could also be a part of the rotation is fourth round pick Tyler Skulina. Selected out of Kent State University, Skulina had a season of extremes in 2014. As a member of Low-A Kane County, Skulina went seven innings of a combined no-hitter and had a very solid 1.18 WHIP. However, Skulina could not turn that into victories, and he looked lost after being promoted to High-A Daytona. Skulina was a combined 4-9 with a 3.57 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, and 75 strikeouts in 98.1 innings. The 23-year old has a mid-90s fastball and a power slider, with a change-up that needs work. A big man at 6-foot-5, 252 pounds, Skulina has the size you look for in a starter. However, his frame contributes to a breakdown in mechanics, which causes him to lose control of his pitches, and that is why some scouts see Skulina as a reliever.
Just where 2010 seventh round selection Ben Wells figures in all of this is anyone’s guess. A high school pitcher out of Bryant, Arizona, Wells has had to battle injuries while fending off stories that his contract predicated some of his promotions. Whatever the case, Wells started out the 2014 season with High-A Daytona and fell flat on his face, posting a 6.55 ERA and 2.27 WHIP in 22 innings. Wells was sent back all the way to Short-Season A Boise to collect himself, where he put up some modest numbers including a 2-2 record and 3.86 ERA. That got Wells moved back up to Low-A Kane County, were he benefitted from a more experienced and confident team. Those factors helped Wells put up his best numbers of the season, going 4-0 with a 2.23 ERA. Wells’ totals for the 2014: 8-6 in 21 appearances (18 starts), 3.86 ERA, 1.65 WHIP, 60 strikeouts in 86.1 innings. Only 22 years old, Wells is a sinkerball pitcher with a heavy fastball clocked in the low-mid 90s range, along with a slider and change. His age suggests that a return to this level shouldn’t be out of the question, but with the uncertainty surrounding his contract it’s unclear as to where Wells will be assigned for next season.
Almost as deep as the rotation will be the bullpen, in which Myrtle Beach could first turn to veterans Justin Amlung and Nathan Dorris. At 24 years old each, both righty Amlung and lefty Dorris were pressed into service at starters when injuries hit High-A Daytona, but both were more effective as relievers for Low-A Kane County. Amlung was 8-4 between the two levels with a save in 27 appearances (13 starts) that included a 3.13 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, and 85 strikeouts in 106.1 innings. Dorris went 9-8 with two saves in 32 appearances (11 starts), with a 5.14 ERA, 1.557 WHIP, and 74 strikeouts in 96.1 innings.
Supporting in middle relief should be a pair of left-handers in Gerardo Concepcion and Michael Heesch, and right-hander James Pugliese.
After basically not playing in 2013, the Cubs have yet to solve the enigma that is Gerardo Concepcion. Looking a little rusty at the start the season with Low-A Kane County, Concepcion looked as if he was just starting to turn a corner when he took a line drive off his foot and broke a bone. Concepcion worked his way back to the Cougars by playing in the rookie league, and looked good enough in his return to be promoted to High-A Daytona. With the D-Cubs, Concepcion showed the promise that he displayed when the Cubs signed him as an international free agent in 2012. Concepcion finished the 2014 season with a combined record of 3-2 in 29 appearances with a 3.32 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP (55 strikeouts in 59.2 innings). The 22-year old was assigned to the Arizona Fall League were he reverted back to previous form and was hit hard (5.87 ERA and 1.63 WHIP in 15.1 innings). Just what will be seen out of Concepcion in 2015 is unknown.
Another pitcher trying to move his career forward is lefty Michael Heesch. Selected in the eighth round of the 2012 draft, Heesch was initially tried as a starter, but the experiment ended after a season as he was pounded by right-handed hitting. Held back in extended Spring Training to stat last season due to injury concerns, Heesch returned to the bullpen at Low-A Kane County and was effective, going 3-1 in 24 appearances with a 2.18 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and 59 strikeouts in 45.1 innings. The 24-year old also made a brief appearance with Triple-A Iowa, striking out four in 3.1 scoreless innings in early July. Heesch features a low-90s fastball, slider and a change-up. And the 6-foot-5, 245 pounder is built to absorb innings. It no longer appears that the organization views Heesch as a starter, so he will have to be content as an innings-eating reliever.
Beginning his career as a starting pitcher, James Pugliese has seemed to have found his niche in the bullpen. Selected by the Cubs in the 18th round of the 2011 draft, Pugliese had a great 2013 season and was named The CCO’s Short Season Pitcher of the Year.
During the off season, the decision was made by the organization to move Pugliese to the bullpen and he struggled to adjust to the change in workload and ended up on the disabled list. However, his adjustment problems didn’t seem to affect his pitching as Pugliese went 4-0 with three saves in 31 appearances (1.66 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 56 strikeouts in 54.1 innings). The 22-year old made an adjustment in his delivery, changing from a “drop and drive” pitcher to an upright, over the top delivery. That adjustment has allowed Pugliese to pound the bottom of the strike zone with his sinking low-90s fastball, slider, change, and a curve in development.
Up first in the battle for closer could be Juan Carlos Paniagua. The story of Paniagua is fraught with aliases, fraudulent paperwork, and visa issues which hide the fact that the 24-year old has an upper-90s fastball and plus slider. Because of all of his legal issues, Paniagua had his first full season in the minors in 2014.
In desperate need of meaningful innings, Paniagua was used as a sixth starter in the rotation for Low-A Kane County and flashed his potential. In 17 games (14 starts), Paniagua was 6-4 with a 3.36 ERA. Promoted to High-A Daytona in mid-July, Paniagua had an additional eight appearances (seven starts), but did not have the same success, going 2-4 with a 6.14 ERA. All totaled, Paniagua went 8-8 with a save, a 4.10 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP that included 98 strikeouts in 109.2 innings. While it would be unusual for the organization to move a player up a level with so little exposure to the previous level, given Paniagua’s age and the need in Double-A, it would not be a surprise to see Paniagua begin his season there.
The next option for closer could be Francisco Carrillo. Not signed by the Cubs until he was 22 years old in 2012, Carrillo spent a season in both the Dominican Summer League and the Venezuelan Summer League before getting a shot to come stateside in 2014. Carrillo began the year with Short Season-A Boise and moved up to Low-A Kane County in the beginning of August. Carrillo took the bull by the horns and proved to be a shutdown closer in the stretch, racking up six saves and a 1.35 ERA in 12 appearances. For the year, Carrillo was 1-3 with seven saves, a 2.06 ERA and a 1.093 WHIP. But Carrillo had 49 strikeouts in 39.1 innings. Turning 25 years old prior to the 2015 season, Carrillo relies on experience and guile rather than overpowering stuff, which could be possibly successful in the early going of the season until another closer candidate emerges.
Challenging for the closer role could be 22-year old David Garner. Drafted in the seventh round in 2013, Garner has made a grand total of 31 appearances over the past season and a half at three levels. Beginning 2014 with Short Season-A Boise, Garner showed good swing-and-miss stuff, fanning 23 batters in 15 innings. Promoted to Low-A Kane County in late July, Garner failed to establish himself and lost the closer position to Francisco Carrillo. Garner was 2-1 with three saves in 22 appearances for the 2014 season. Garner posted a 3.82 ERA and 1.53 WHIP with 36 strikeouts in 30.2 innings. Garner has a mid-90s fastball, along with a change-up and a breaking pitch. The biggest problem Garner has had to this point is command of the strike zone. If Garner can show better control and stop leaving pitches up in the zone, he has the stuff to close out games.
There are some others who might make an appearance in High-A next season, including promising 23-year old Austin Reed, who had to be shut down after 17 appearances in 2014 with an arm injury. Others include 24-year old Josh Davis, 23-year old Zak Hermans, and 23-year old Michael Wagner.
Minor League Position Analysis
- First Base
- Second Base
- Third Base
- Left Field
- Right Field
- Triple-A Iowa Pitching Staff
- Double-A Tennessee Pitching Staff