Pitching Analysis – Double-A Tennessee
The CCO’s off-season look at the Cubs’ minor league system continues today. After viewing the possible pitching staff for Triple-A, we now turn to where the first pitching prospects of the current front office reside, the staff for Double-A Tennessee.
Double-A Starters and Relievers
There has never been a question as to the ability of Pierce Johnson. The biggest concern has been if he can ever make through a season in one piece. The 24-year old has missed time in every full season since he was the first pitcher selected by the current front office in 2012. What has been just as frustrating is that many of the injuries appeared to be minor in nature (hamstring, oblique), but seemed to linger. When he is ready to take the mound, Johnson has shown to be quite an effective pitcher. Johnson has a career 2.91 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 53 starts through four minor league seasons.
After a prolonged time on the disabled list, Johnson took the field for Double-A Tennessee in early June this past season and showed that he was more than ready to move on from the Southern League. While Johnson’s record was only 5-4 in 18 games (17 starts), he had a 2.55 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, and 91 strikeouts in 91.2 innings. Johnson has some top of the rotation qualities in make-up, along with a 95-plus mph fastball, 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. Just added to the 40-man roster to avoid being eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, Johnson performance in the AFL was not what was desired. Johnson went only 1-2 with a 5.47 ERA and 1.66 WHIP in seven starts.
Once seen as a potential workhorse, Rob Zastryzny will have to show that he can get out of his own way in order to tap into that ability. Selected in the second round in 2013, Zastryzny has missed significant time the past two seasons after getting struck by batted balls. This past season, Zastryzny was out for two months when he was hit on the foot by a comebacker. The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder can shoulder a load, starting 45 games in what amounts to two and a half seasons. Zastryzny is also able to make batters miss, as he recorded 184 strikeouts in 198.2 innings. But Zastryzny can also be hit hard as he has given up 225 hits over that same period.
For the 2015 season, the big lefty went 2-5 in 14 starts with a 6.23 ERA and 1.73 WHIP that included 48 strikeouts in 60.2 innings. Zastryzny has a four seam fastball that he throws in the low-90s, as well as a two seam fastball. Some scouts now believe that Zastryzny’s slider is his best pitch, with his change-up giving him four pitches to work with. Zastryzny showed some incremental improvement in the AFL, going 2-2 with a 5.19 ERA in seven games (six starts), but with a 1.19 WHIP and coming in second in the league with 28 strikeouts. While it is obvious that Zastryzny was in the AFL to pick up innings, it is also hoped that he learned how to field his position, or how to get out of the way.
Enjoying a meteoric rise through the system was 2015 CCO Minor League Pitcher of the Year Ryan Williams. Drafted by the Cubs in the 10th round in 2014 out of East Carolina University, Williams was such an obscure relief pitcher that national scouting services didn’t even have a full report on his pitch repertoire. The 23-year old didn’t even start in his first appearance this season, but that quickly changed.
Taking the mound for South Bend, Williams was virtually untouchable in the Midwest League. Williams began the season 4-1 with a 1.17 ERA (seven earned runs in 53.2 innings) in nine games (eight starts) with South Bend. Williams struck out 37 batters compared to two walks and held the opposition to a .190 batting average and a .461 OPS. His ERA and opponent batting average are both second-lowest in the Midwest League. For this, Williams was named organizational Pitcher of the Month for May. In June, Williams received a surprise promotion to Double-A Tennessee. Williams certainly did not look out of place in the Southern League, going 3-0 with a 2.30 ERA in his first five starts with the Smokies. From there, Williams became a force for Tennessee as he went 10-2 in 17 games (16 starts) with a 2.76 ERA and 1.00 WHIP. For this, Williams was named Southern League Pitcher of the Week (Aug. 10-16). Overall, Williams was 14-3 in 26 games, 24 starts, with a 2.16 ERA and 0.90 WHIP that included 98 strikeouts in 141.2 innings. A student of the game and known as “very tactical,” Williams is very economical and pounds the strike zone. The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder uses his low-90s fastball with downward movement, along with a splitter and slider, to induce plenty of ground balls. Pitching to contact, Williams keeps his pitch counts low and is excellent with both changing speeds and location. Williams also is very good at making in-game adjustments and is not afraid to pitch inside.
One of the surprises of 2015, Felix Pena was the rock in the Smokies’ rotation when others were not able to be depended on. It’s been a slow but steady climb for the 25-year old right-hander, who signed as a 19-year old way back in 2009. Making 25 appearances for Tennessee (23 starts), Pena led the Cubs’ minor league organization and was second in the Southern League with 140 strikeouts. For the season, Pena went 7-8 in 129.2 innings with a 3.75 ERA and 1.23 WHIP. Scouts now have Pena’s fastball clocking in at around 95 mph, and many believe he belongs in the Cubs’ top 30 prospect list, if he remains with the organization. While he has been eligible before, more teams may be interested in Pena in the upcoming Rule 5 Draft due to his success. Pena is on the Double-A reserve roster, which means that teams can only select him in either the Major League or Triple-A phases of the draft. While Pena has worked exclusively as a starter for the past two seasons, he does have experience as a middle reliever/spot starter. There are some who draw comparisons of Pena with Hector Rondon, and feel he could end up as a closer.
The Cubs signed two free agents last season that did a workmanlike job in the spot starter/middle reliever role in Fernando Cruz and Andres Santiago. Both 25 years old, neither were overly impressive as Santiago had seven starts in 24 appearances and went 4-5 with a 4.17 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, and 51 strikeouts in 73.1 innings. A converted infielder/catcher, Cruz split time between the Smokies and High-A Myrtle Beach (along with one game for Triple-A Iowa) in 2015 after spending the past two seasons only playing winter ball. Pitching in affiliated ball for the first time since 2012, Cruz went a combined 3-4 with three saves, a 5.64 ERA and 1.54 WHIP that included 58 strikeouts in 68.2 innings. Cruz is also enjoying a very good winter in the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League.
A pair of former starters, Michael Jensen and Tayler Scott have settled into middle relief roles well. The 24-year old Jensen once again fought injuries all year, but when available was outstanding. In 22 appearances, Jensen was 2-2 with a save, 2.23 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, and 29 strikeouts in 32.1 innings. Jensen rarely had a bad appearance all season. If he can keep himself in one piece, he has equal to better ability than Justin Grimm. Scott, 23 years old, moved up to Tennessee after pitching lights-out with High-A Myrtle Beach. In 23 innings with the Pelicans, Scott had a 1.96 ERA and a 1.043 WHIP. Finding the sledding a little rougher in the Southern League, Scott posted a combined record of 6-3 with three saves, a 3.83 ERA and 1.40 WHIP that included 48 strikeouts in 54 innings. Scott has filled out his frame a little more to 6-foot-3, 185-pounds. Scouts feel with more physical maturity, Scott can become a reliable set-up man due to his good command.
One converted starter that did not fare well is 24-year old Corey Black. Black started nine times at Double-A Tennessee before the move to the bullpen was made permanent, going 2-2 with a 3.09 ERA and 1.072 WHIP. The move did not seem to sit well with Black as he posted a 1-3 record with no saves the rest of the way. Black also had a 7.09 ERA and 1.805 WHIP as a reliever. Overall, Black went 3-5 with a 4.92 ERA and 1.40 WHIP. In the Arizona Fall League, things did not get better for Black. In eight games, Black had an ERA of 11.42 and WHIP of 2.19. With a fastball that can reach 100 mph, Black has always been a good strikeout pitcher, as he fanned 101 in 86 innings this past season. Eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, it is believed that Black’s days with the Cubs are numbered.
Another Rule 5 eligible pitcher that seems relatively safe is lefty Gerardo Concepcion. The main reason the 23-year old will go unselected is that he is still owed more than a million dollars on a contract that runs through 2016. Another reason is that Concepcion simply has not performed well enough. Concepcion had some modest success in 12 innings for High-A Myrtle Beach in the beginning of the season, posting a 3.55 ERA. However, it seems as if Concepcion was pushed up before he was ready, as he went 0-1 in 31 appearances for Tennessee with an 8.24 ERA and 2.33 WHIP that included 25 strikeouts in 31.2 innings. It seems doubtful that any team would take that big of a risk with Concepcion.
Acquired from the Seattle Mariners, it was felt that Matt Brazis would provide the Smokies with a reliable closer. Instead, the 25-year old lost most of his 2015 season to injury. The Cubs started Brazis’ season with Myrtle Beach, where he quickly recorded two saves. Promoted in mid-April, Brazis made only one appearance with Tennessee before going on the disabled list. Brazis would not return to action until late July, with three appearances in the rookie league. Back with the Smokies in the beginning of August, Brazis made 11 appearances to finally go 1-0 with two saves, a 2.74 ERA and 1.52 WHIP and 21 strikeouts in 23 innings for the season. Brazis has a big fastball and usually good control, but the injury seemed to take its toll this past year. Brazis is also Rule 5 eligible, and protected on the Double-A reserve list.
Working his way back from injury, Starling Peralta may be a closer in waiting. At one time a big strikeout pitcher with an upper-90s fastball, the 24-year old has learned to become more of a pitcher than a thrower after having arm trouble. Like several members of the staff, Peralta opened 2015 with Myrtle Beach, and then was promoted after only four innings of work. Peralta was a very good alternative closer for the Smokies, making the second most appearances (39) on the team. With Tennessee, Peralta went 3-1 with six saves, a 1.99 ERA, 1.067 WHIP, and 26 strikeouts in 54.1 innings. Peralta will be in the mix when the competition for closer of Iowa Cubs opens for 2016.
Making another step in his incredible odyssey is closer P.J. Francescon. Beginning his career as a control starting pitcher, the 26-year old has steadily moved from the front of the rotation to the back of the pen. Tennessee actually turned to Francescon in desperation, as anointed closer Zach Cates fell flat and was released. Corey Black was still in the rotation, Matt Brazis and Michael Jensen went on the disabled list and Starling Peralta did not seem ready. After going 11-6 as an effective middle reliever for the Smokies in 2014, Francescon was then given a crack at closing. Francescon responded by going 4-2 with 22 saves and a 1.69 ERA, and was given a late promotion to Triple-A Iowa. For the year, Francescon went 4-2 with 22 saves, a 1.47 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and 57 strikeouts in 61 innings. Lacking overpowering stuff, Francescon is reminiscent of former Smokies closer Frank Batista, relying on control and being able to out-think hitters. Eligible for the Rule 5 draft, Francescon is on the Triple-A reserve roster, which means he can only be selected in the Major League phase. Whether a big league club is willing to risk a roster spot for the season remains to be seen.
Cubs Minor League Position Analysis
- First Base
- Second Base
- Third Base
- Left Field
- Center Field
- Right Field
- Triple-A Iowa Pitching Staff