Last Friday, the CCO’s very own Tom U was invited to talk minor league pitching and catching prospects with Rick Carter on WSBT on South Bend’s Sportsbeat program. Here are some excerpts from that interview.
Rick Carter: Let’s talk some baseball. With pitchers and catchers set to report, the earliest clubs on February 18. The Chicago Cubs will report Mesa, Arizona on February 19, coming up in less than a week. And our guest is Tom Usiak of Chicago Cubs Online, he’s the Minor League Correspondent for that website. Tom, good to talk to you, always fun to have Hot Stove League this time of year. It is getting close to that time when not just Chicago Cubs prospects, but of course, the young players that will eventually show up here in South Bend will be going out to Arizona as well. So let’s talk about pitcher and catchers, and specifically pitching prospects in the Cubs organization. It’s not a heavy prospect organization right now when it comes to arms, but it seems to be getting better.
Tom Usiak: Rick, it does seem to be getting better. That’s been one of the things that national scouts have been saying about the organization. We see it improving, but where’s the pitching? And right now, it’s coming. It’s getting closer. Cubs’ fans saw a little taste of it at the end of the season last year when they got to see pitchers like Kyle Hendricks, Eric Jokisch, and Dallas Beeler coming up through their minor league system. But this is the year we are going to start seeing a few more of the pitching prospects that were drafted by this front office making their way toward Wrigley Field.
RC: Tom, I want to divide these into several different sub-groups, and let’s start if there are some injuries in Spring Training, the Cubs need a spot starter in April, who are those guys? Then we will kind of go down to the more legitimate, permanent prospects. Then, look in the distance to maybe some of the kids that will be starting in South Bend and Myrtle Beach. Let’s start first with the Cubs need a fourth of fifth starter, not necessarily someone who they wanted to promote to the Major Leagues early on. Who would we see?
TU: Right now, some of the pitchers that they would be calling on are on the 40-man roster; that they would be bringing up for a spot start or two. It would be pitchers like Eric Jokisch and Dallas Beeler. They came up last year. Jokisch had a few starts. He’s a left-hander who has come up through the system. He actually pitched a no-hitter a couple of years ago at Tennessee. That also was punctuated by a great catch to save it by Javier Baez. He’s somebody that the Cubs are really high on, as they are with Dallas Beeler. He’s more of a control-type of pitcher. He has a good sinker, and will make the other team beat the ball into the ground, frustrate the hitters. Those are two of the pitchers they may rely on early on if they need that extra arm. They also picked up someone in the off-season, a top 20 prospect from the San Diego Padres by the name of Donn Roach. Roach is also very similar to Beeler in that he is a groundball pitcher; sinker, control type of pitcher who will frustrate the other team’s offense.
RC: Tom, let’s move on to the top prospects that could be up as soon as the 2015 season. But certainly, as all things are equal, and their arm stays healthy, they can be a mainstay in the rotation.
TU: The two top prospects we are looking at, they are going to be top 20 prospects on pretty much everybody’s charts are Pierce Johnson and C.J. Edwards. Pierce Johnson was a supplemental first round pick by the Cubs in 2012. He’s worked his way up through the system. Last year, he was supposed to start the season at Tennessee, their Double-A team, but had a problem with his hamstring. So, he had to do a little bit of rehab with that. But once he came back, he was light’s out with Tennessee, going 4-3, 1.66 ERA, 70 strikeouts in 65 innings. He’s the type of guy that, maybe does not have the greatest stuff out there, but has got the make-up that can be a top of the rotation-type of pitcher. He does have a mid-90s fastball, a good slider, a good hard curve. He needs to work a little bit more on his control, though.
RC: Now, we will go to C.J. Edwards, who also had some injury issues. But when he was healthy, he pitched very well.
TU: C.J. Edwards, this guy is going to be a delight for Cubs fans, because he is someone that can be just electric when he’s on the mound. I saw him pitch when he was out in the Arizona Fall League and, it’s just amazing what he does to hitters. They just don’t seem to get a good read on him, even though he has a mid- to low-90s fastball. But the action on his fastball is just something that the hitters can’t pick up. On top of that, he has probably the best curve ball out of all the pitchers who the Cubs have in the minors. Edwards is a little bit slight for being a starting pitcher, which is why there is some concern about his durability. There is some thought that he may eventually end up in the bullpen.
RC: We a talking with Chicago Cubs Online correspondent Tom Usiak, really focusing on starting pitchers and catchers. Now, let’s go, Tom, to those guys that have been drafted in the last couple of years; probably two to three, maybe more years away. But give me the names of a couple guys that the Cubs’ organization is high on that we could see, as I said, maybe not in 2015 or 2016, but can make the rotation some time after that.
TU: Well, these are probably some of the players you will see down in South Bend. They made a lot of draft choices this year as far as pitchers go. But, we start off with Jake Stinnett, who was their second round draft pick this last year. Jake took University of Maryland to the Super-Regionals last year. He had 132 strikeouts with the Maryland Terrapins. Once he signed, the Cubs treated him very carefully. They didn’t want to push him too hard because of the amount of stress he was put through in the NCAA tournament. But, he made three appearances in the rookie league and two starts at Short Season-A Boise. He compiled a 2.84 ERA, seven strikeouts in 6.1 innings. Doesn’t sound like an awful lot, but Baseball America has rated him already with the best slider in the entire system.
RC: Wow! And then, who else can we see in South Bend?
TU: The Cubs have got a few players that they drafted a few years ago that are young players that they are trying to develop. One of them is a young and talented thrower by the name of Trevor Clifton. He was a high school player in Tennessee. He still needs to develop a little more physically at 6-foot-4, 170 pounds. But he pitched extremely well last year in the Northwest League for Boise. He finished seventh in the league with a 3.69 ERA. He had 54 strikeouts in 61 innings. He throws a low-90s fastball, along with a curveball, slider, change-up. But, like all young pitchers, he’s going to have to work on making sure that he hits his spots and doesn’t give up too many walks.
Another pitcher that is young, 19 years old only, the Cubs got him a few years back in a deal that they made with the Diamondbacks for outfielder Tony Campana, his name is Erick Leal. Leal is more of a control pitcher. He was pitching at Boise last year and had a 3.73 ERA, and went 6-2 for them. So, he was pretty successful, pretty reliable. His stuff isn’t as impressive as some of the other pitchers, but he uses it well. He has an upper-80s, low-90s fastball, a good curve, a good change-up. They say he will continue to improve his velocity as he gets older and matures a little bit more.
RC: Tom, if you could if you could give me the name of who you think that top pitching prospect might be that lands in South Bend, at least for a while. Would it be Stinnett, or is there another name?
TU: It will be Stinnett probably. Stinnett will probably open the season with South Bend. But, we will have to see how he does, he only has limited experience. Especially since Advanced-A Myrtle Beach has got just a loaded staff. Most of you guys have seen that from what Kane County had last year. They had seven deep in their starters. So they are going to need a lot of movement throughout the rest of the system before some of their other players move up. So you might see Stinnett here for a little while.
RC: Our guest is Tom Usiak. We have got him for a couple of more minutes. He is the Minor League Correspondent for Chicago Cubs Online. We talked to Jason McLeod, we were lucky to have him in here in the studio along with South Bend Cubs owner Andrew Berlin. I wondered if you have detected some kind of over-riding philosophy when the Cubs in the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer/Jason McLeod regime look at drafting pitchers. Is it there something that that comes to mind? Are they looking for power pitchers? Maybe favor high school or college over one or the other? What have you seen now, I guess they have had three or four drafts?
TU: They definitely like power arms. They like somebody who, first of all when they are looking at a pitcher physically, they want to see a pitcher that has a nice frame that is going to develop, that’s going to be able to take on a lot of innings. They like that power arm, somebody that can have that fastball that they can rely on. That way, they feel that they can develop some of the other pitches with those pitchers. They seem to have relied on a little bit more on college pitchers. I think that they have wanted to try and get the talent level in the system up a little bit more quickly. That is why they have gone with a little more college pitcher than some of the high school pitchers. But some of the high school pitchers that they have gotten are very highly thought of. There is a few that probably won’t make it to South Bend this year, but the national scouts are very encouraged by them. Carson Sands, Dylan Cease, James Norwood; those are all pitchers that can come through the system rather quickly. Right now, though, they are just going to see what they have in the spring.
RC: As we touch on catching for just a moment. We had a chance to get a good, in-depth discussion on Kyle Schwarber with Jason McLeod. We are not even sure if he is going to wind up being a catcher by the time he gets to the Cubs or whoever he is fortunate enough to break in with at the Major League level. Tell me about some of the other catching prospects and who we could see at South Bend.
TU: Schwarber is going to be the key as far as the catching prospects go, because there is some debate as to where he going to start at the beginning of the year; whether it’s going to be at Double-A Tennessee or at Advanced-A Myrtle Beach. The problem that is that Myrtle Beach has already got four catching prospects. So, if Schwarber starts there, somebody is going to end up coming down toward South Bend. Two of the prospects who would possibly be them are a draft choice that they made in 2013 by the name of Cael Brockmeyer. Cael played for the Kane County Cougars last year. He split the games with the other catcher I am looking at in Will Remillard. He did very well offensively, batting .297 with eight home runs, 43 RBI in 77 games. Catching, he did okay at. But you got to remember this too with Brockmeyer, he is a 6-foot-5, 235-pound catcher. A big guy behind the plate, he is going to have to work on his mobility bit. But, he does have some experience at first base also.
With Remillard, he was drafted in by the Cubs also in 2013. Scouts really thought very highly of Remillard’s defense. They named him, as a first year player, the best defensive catcher in the entire Cubs’ system. Remillard came out with Kane County last year and played very hot. He batted .286 and was very good defensively, had a 33% caught stealing rate, and was named a Midwest (League) All-Star. But, he had a bad back and did not play the entire second half. So, when I heard the interview with Jason McLeod the other day. He said that there might be some prospects that have to go a little bit backwards in order to go forward. This might be one of them that he is talking about. Will Remillard come back from that injury, re-establish himself, provide a little bit of experience to a young team that you might have in South Bend.
Rick Carter was able to give the CCO an opportunity to let all the listeners know about the Race to Wrigley, the Cubs’ 5K charity run to benefit Lurie Children’s Hospital. Tom U will be running for the third straight year on April 25 at 8:00am. Donations or joining the Chicago Cubs Online team for the race can be made at: Race to Wrigley – Chicago Cubs Online
Rick said that he looked forward to touching base with Tom U again soon.
To listen to the interview in its entirety, click here: WSBT Radio