Position Analysis – Low-A South Bend 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, Double-A Tennessee, and High-A Myrtle Beach, we now look at the prospects for Low-A South Bend.
Low-A South Bend Starters and Relievers
A third wave of pitching prospects is getting set to arrive at another new affiliate, the South Bend Cubs.
Heading off the rotation should be the Cubs’ second round pick from last June’s draft, right-hander Jake Stinnett. A product of the University of Maryland, Stinnett was treated gingerly by the Cubs after helping the Terrapins reach the Super Regionals in the NCAA Division I baseball tournament. As a member of the Maryland baseball team, Stinnett was 8-6 with a 2.67 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, and his 132 strikeouts ranked third nationally. On March 1 of last year, Stinnett threw a no-hitter.
Upon signing with the Cubs, Stinnett did not see his first action until the beginning of August. After three appearances and 4.2 innings in the rookie league, Stinnett made two starts for Short Season-A Boise where he had a 2.84 ERA and seven strikeouts in 6.1 innings. The 22-year old is reported to have a mid-90s fastball that has been clocked as high as 97 mph. Stinnett throws both a four-seam and two-seam fastball, along with a slider and a change-up that needs further development. With success, it can be expected for Stinnett to show the same developmental arc as Pierce Johnson, starting at Low-A with a mid-season promotion to High-A.
Next up for the Cubs should be another young but talented thrower in Trevor Clifton. The Tennessee high school player was a 12th round selection in the 2013 draft, and has a projectable frame at 6-foot-4, 170 pounds. Clifton pitched a scant 10.1 innings in the rookie league after he signed, so his 2014 assignment with Short Season-A Boise was his true first professional exposure. Clifton did not disappoint, leading the Hawks rotation with 13 starts and finishing seventh in the Northwest League with a 3.69 ERA. For the season, Clifton was 4-2 with a 1.46 WHIP that included 54 strikeouts in 61 innings. The 19-year old throws a low-90s fastball that has been clocked in the upper-90s, along with a mid-80s curve, a slider and a change-up, but he needs to cut down on his free passes.
Just two months older than Clifton, 19-year old Erick Leal is another young and promising pitcher. Acquired in 2013 from the Diamondbacks in exchange for OF Tony Campana, Leal has been remarkably consistent over his three professional seasons. As a member of Short Season-A Boise last year, Leal tied for third in the Northwest League in wins at 6-2, which was also tied for fourth among league starters in winning percentage. Leal was eighth in the league with a 3.73 ERA and had a 1.37 WHIP with 31 strikeouts in 62.2 innings. Control rather than power is Leal’s game, as he has only issued 37 walks in 181.1 innings over three seasons. Leal has an upper-80s/low-90s fastball, along with an advanced curve and change-up. Many believe that Leal’s velocity will increase as he matures. Because of this, the Cubs may take a cautious approach with him, as they have in the past with James Pugliese and Duane Underwood, and hold Leal back, at least for the first part of the season.
Providing veteran leadership while trying to get his own career back on track should be Josh Conway. The Cubs selected Conway in the fourth round of the 2012 draft, but he wasn’t able to pitch after signing, as he was recovering from Tommy John surgery. There was some controversy surrounding Conway as teams broke Spring Training in 2013. Many close observers felt that Conway out-pitched Lendy Castillo, and deserved a spot on Low-A Kane County’s pitching staff. 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. Returning to game action in 2014 with Short Season-A Boise, Conway showed his guile and experience as his stuff was still not up to previous levels. With a strict pitch count, Conway made 13 starts and pitched 36.2 innings, going 0-1 with a 1.96 ERA and a 0.93 WHIP that included 24 strikeouts with nine walks. Prior to the injuries, Conway projected as a starter with a low-90s fastball, a slider, and change-up. Conway will turn 24 shortly after the opening of the 2015 season, and faces an uphill battle to make it all the way to the majors.
To say that Dillon Maples may be getting one of his last chances could be an understatement. Drafted by the Cubs in the 14th round in 2011, many thought that the Cubs would not be able to sign Maples with a scholarship to punt for the University of North Carolina football team in his back pocket. However, the Cubs achieved the seemingly impossible and inked Maples toward the end of the signing period. Given an off-season workout routine by the organization, Maples chose to ignore it and followed his own program, and promptly showed up at his first Spring Training with an arm injury. After a lackluster first season, Maples was held back in extended Spring Training to start 2013 and was eventually assigned to Low-A Kane County. Maples had another unimpressive showing, and he was demoted to Short Season-A Boise.
In 2014 Maples came up with another injury, this time to his rib, and sputtered to a 0-4 record with a 9.00 ERA, a 2.18 WHIP, and 23 strikeouts in 28 innings between the rookie league and Boise. Maples will turn 23 years old a month after the 2015 season begins, and rumors abound that he is unreliable, un-coachable, and injury-prone. Maples sports a mid-90s fastball, a hammer curve and a change-up that needs work. Maples struggles to repeat his delivery, and as a consequence has trouble commanding the strike zone. If he can get his mechanical, injury, and personal issues ironed out and develop a third pitch, Maples has potential to be a top of the rotation starter.
Last season, the Cubs organization used a six-man rotation for a majority of the year at Low-A Kane County, and could do so again next season. There are plenty of other starting options at this level, including James Norwood, Jeremy Null, Ryan McNeil and Alexander Santana.
Drafted by the Cubs in the seventh round last year, James Norwood has limited experience, both in college and the pros. Norwood missed most of his sophomore season at St. Louis University with an elbow strain, but bounced back to go 8-2 with a 2.68 ERA in 84 innings before being selected by the Cubs. With concerns about overworking him, Norwood tossed just 20 innings in ten appearances for both the AZL Cubs and Short Season-A Boise. Norwood was 0-2 with a 7.65 ERA and a 1.40 WHIP that included 20 strikeouts. Turning 21 just a few days ago (December 24), the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Norwood has a mid-90s fastball with decent sink, a slider, an above average curve, and an improving change-up.
Towering Jeremy Null (6-foot-7, 200 pounds) came to the Cubs in the 15th round of last year’s draft and made a swift rise after signing. Following a two-innings warm up in the Rookie League, Null appeared in five games for Short Season-A Boise, in addition to starting one of the Hawks’ playoff games. Null’s totals were 2-0 in seven appearances with a 2.25 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP that included 13 strikeouts in 16 innings. The 21-year old uses his height and throws a sinking fastball, and a slider to pound the bottom of the strike zone.
The 2012 draft was considered pitching-rich, and the Cubs landed several highly touted prospects such as Pierce Johnson, Paul Blackburn, Duane Underwood, and Josh Conway. The pitcher that initially looked better than all of those mentioned was third round selection Ryan McNeil. After signing, McNeil became one of the most dependable pitchers for an AZL Cubs squad that was headed toward the playoffs. With the A-Cubs falling just short of the championship, McNeil looked poise to be named the Opening Day starter for the Short Season-A Boise Hawks in 2013 when he hurt his arm in Spring Training. McNeil needed Tommy John surgery and was shelved for the entire season. McNeil attempted to come back in 2014 and was on a severely limited pitch count. With McNeil still not back at full strength and unable to get in the groove, the results were predictable. The 20-year old was 0-5 in eight appearances with an 8.44 ERA and a 1.88 WHIP that included 12 strikeouts in 16 innings. When injury-free, McNeil has a heavy, sinking low-to-mid 90s fastball, a biting slider, and a change-up. While it took courage for McNeil to get back onto the field when he wasn’t 100 percent, it’s unclear what he will be able to do in 2015.
One of those prospects that have been seemingly in the system “forever,” Alexander Santana will probably get a crack at the South Bend rotation. Signed as an international free agent in 2011, Santana has been fairly consistent since coming to the Cubs as a whippet-thin 17-year old. Now 21 years old, Santana has probably done enough to make the jump straight from the Rookie League, in a similar fashion to Daury Torrez last season. Pitching on a very crowded staff for the AZL Cubs in 2014, Santana was 3-2 in 11 appearances (five starts) with a 2.55 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP that included 36 strikeouts in 42.1 innings. Santana has always had good control, as his 54 walks in 186.2 innings over four seasons can attest. However, Santana could still slap some more muscle on his 6-foot-1, 170 pound frame.
The Cubs organization has shown that they like to have someone with experience working the back of their bullpens at the lower levels, at least at the beginning of a season. South Bend will have a setup/closer combo to fit the bill in Sam Wilson and Jasvir Rakkar. Wilson, a 23-year old left-hander from Lamar University was taken in the eighth round of the 2013 draft. Wilson had a productive season with Short-Season A Boise, going 5-1 with three saves in 16 appearances. Wilson posted a 3.62 ERA with a 1.14 WHIP (40 strikeouts in 32.1 innings). Wilson has a mid-90s fastball and a slider and is also a good athlete, serving as an emergency outfielder. Rakkar was highly valued by the Cubs last season, appearing at every level in the minors except for Double-A Tennessee. The 26th round selection in the 2012 draft was a combined 3-2 in 25 appearances with a 3.83 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP (40 strikeouts in 42.1 innings). Rakkar mixes his pitches well and features a high-80s/low-90s fastball, along with a curve and a slider.
There will be a fight for control of the back of the bullpen by James Farris, Corbin Hoffner, Daniel Lewis, Trey Masek, Brad Renner, and Ryan Williams.
Selected in the ninth and tenth rounds of the 2014 draft respectively, James Farris and Ryan Williams are pitchers that can have futures as starters, but are presently being used out of the bullpen. The 22-year old Farris went straight to Short Season-A Boise after signing and appeared in seven games, finishing two of them. In 14 innings, Farris had a 2.57 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP with 21 strikeouts. Farris’ scouting reports says that he has an upper 80s fastball that he can add or subtract to, along with a curve and his best pitch is a change-up. The 23-year old Williams split time between the AZL Cubs and Boise. In 11 total appearances, Williams went 2-1 with a 1.35 ERA and a 0.90 WHIP that included 29 strikeouts in 26.2 innings.
After a 2013 season in which he was a workhorse out of the pen and was named one of The CCO’s 2013 Short Season Co-Pitchers of the Year, the Cubs 14th round pick in the 2012 draft, Corbin Hoffner had a season he would like to forget. The 6-foot-5, 235-pounder had a rough time moving up to Low-A Kane County, posting a 5.64 ERA and 1.62 WHIP before being demoted to Short Season-A Boise. Things got a little better for the 21-year old, but he still ended up at 3-3 in 22 appearances with a 5.05 ERA and a 1.67 WHIP that included 35 strikeouts in 39 innings. While Hoffner sports only a low-90s fastball to pair with a slider and change, many feel that with his size and leverage he can add up to 10 mph on his heater with more maturity.
If there is a story to be followed as far as pitching prospects, the story of Daniel Lewis ranks as one of the most interesting. A self-described “awful” player in high school, Lewis was signed as an undrafted free agent after wowing scouts in the Cape Cod League by throwing 98 mph. The 23-year old Lewis spent four years in the Air Force, and credited the training and conditioning he received in improving both his mechanics and velocity. After signing, Lewis reported to the Cubs training facility in Arizona for an orientation before being assigned to Short Season-A Boise where he made eight appearances and went 1-0 with a 0.87 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP (13 strikeouts in 10.1 innings). While his stint in the service may have robbed him of a few years, the added maturity along with the motivation to prove himself could help propel Lewis up the ranks.
A couple of 2013 round draft picks will be looking to work their way back from injuries in 2014 are Trey Masek and Brad Renner. Fifth round selection Masek looked poised to become Low-A Kane County’s closer when he came up with arm trouble. Masek allowed four earned runs in 3.2 innings before being shut down. The 22-year old has a starter’s arsenal with a low-mid 90s fastball, a slider, a curve and developing change-up, but has pitched exclusively out of the bullpen since signing. Twenty-eighth round selection Renner is a huge presence at 6-foot-6, 220-pounds, but only pitched in four games after signing and was out all of last season. The 23-year old is a bit of a mystery after coming out of tiny Florida College, but the Cubs saw fit to take a chance on him.
Middle relief is solid with two more 2014 selections, eighth round lefty Tommy Thorpe and 19th round selection Brad Markey. A former starter at the University of Oregon, the 22-year old Thorpe pitched exclusively out of the bullpen after signing with the Cubs. The left-hander put up some good numbers in ten appearances between the rookie league and Short Season-A Boise, going 1-0 with a 3.05 ERA and a 0.97 WHIP (23 strikeouts in 20.2 innings). Thorpe can throw his fastball in the upper-80s/lower 90s range, with his curveball and change-up being considered as plus pitches. A little “thinking outside the box” landed Markey, who at 5-foot-11 and without a big fastball seems out of character for this management team. However, Markey’s curve is considered a plus-pitch, and with some tweaking on his upper-80s/lower 90s fastball and change-up, he could be a real steal. For his part, the 22-year old had some success as he got a fairly heavy workload for a newly drafted player. Markey tossed 29 innings in 15 appearances between the AZL Cubs and Boise, going 1-1 with two saves, a 3.10 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP with 29 strikeouts.
Also showing up in middle relief could be two 2013 selection in Michael Wagner and Scott Frazier. Fifteenth round pick Wagner showed a lot of promise when he pitched 28.2 innings with the AZL Cubs and Short-Season A Boise after signing, but he was unable to make any progress. The 23-year old made 28 appearances for Low-A Kane County last season. Wagner pitched 61.1 innings and was 3-3 with two saves, a 3.23 ERA and a 1.57 WHIP (60 strikeouts). Wagner has a low-90s sinking fastball that has topped out at 97 mph, a plus change-up and a developing breaking pitch. Wagner seemed to wear down as the season progressed, and the coaching staff lost confidence in him toward the end of the season.
Selected in the sixth round, Frazier was a train wreck in 2014 as he simply could not throw a strike. A mountain of a man at 6-foot-7, 215 pounds, Frazier lasted only two games with Kane County before being banished to extended Spring Training. Frazier resurfaced with Short Season-A Boise, where he gave up four earned runs without recording a single out and was returned back to the Cubs training complex in Arizona. Frazier received an inning of work with the AZL Cubs and ended the year with a whopping 94.50 ERA. Frazier’s scouting report said that he had a lot of work to do in smoothing out his mechanics, but has a low-mid 90s fastball with late movement, a change-up, and a curve that needs work, but could be above average. Just what can be done to salvage Frazier at this point is unknown.
There are other pitchers that could also be in the mix, such as 24-year old Josh Davis, 23-year old lefty Alberto Diaz, 22-year old Trey Lang and 22-year old Carlos Llano.
Minor League Position Analysis
- First Base
- Second Base
- Third Base
- Left Field
- Right Field
- Triple-A Iowa Pitching Staff
- Double-A Tennessee Pitching Staff
- High-A Myrtle Beach Pitching Staff