Pitching Analysis – High-A Myrtle Beach
After reviewing the pitching staffs for Triple-A Iowa and Double-A Tennessee, we now look at the prospects for High-A. With a rotation that goes eight deep, the pitching squad for Myrtle Beach in 2015 may be the best class ever produced by the Chicago Cubs.
High-A Starters and Relievers
Considered to be among the Cubs’ best pitching prospects, Duane Underwood Jr. was the Opening Day starter for the Pelicans. Turning 21 years old in the middle of last season, Underwood was off to a great start until he was put on the disabled list in late June with swelling in his pitching elbow. An MRI showed no structural damage, but Underwood was kept on ice until late August, when he returned for Myrtle Beach’s playoff run. For the season, Underwood had 14 starts and went 6-3 with a 2.58 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 48 strikeouts in 73.1 innings. With a mid- to 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.
Another pitcher that the Cubs are very high on also had some trouble staying on the field, 2013 fourth round pick Tyler Skulina. Skulina had a rough start to the season, but seemed to be rounding into form when he also went on the disabled list at about the same time as Duane Underwood. Bouncing back a little sooner that Underwood, Skulina became one of the pitchers the Pelicans depended on down the stretch. Even with missing that big chunk of time, Skulina made 16 appearances (15 starts) and was a 3-6 with a 3.11 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and 73 strikeouts in 75.1 innings. The 24-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. That is why some scouts see Skulina as a reliever.
On a team with some very high profile pitchers, Daury Torrez is finally beginning to garner some national attention. Torrez was one of the most reliable members of the Pelicans’ staff, leading the team with 23 starts and coming in fifth with 24 appearances. The Dominican was fifth in the Carolina League with a 1.17 WHIP and tied for fifth with 10 wins. Torrez was also 11th in the league with a 3.75 ERA and had 86 strikeouts against 21 walks in 134.1 innings. Scouts like the way the 22-year old throws strikes, but his aggressiveness can lead to Torrez being hit hard on occasion. Torrez had added a little more muscle to his 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame, with his fastball now in the low- to mid-90s. Torrez has a hard slider and a change which he commands well, as noted by his 57 career walks in 435 innings. Torrez is eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, and there have been some rumblings about teams willing to take a chance on him.
With all that pitching firepower, it is understandable that some will overlook Jonathan Martinez. However, underestimating Martinez would be a major mistake. If one word could be used to describe the 21-year olds’ 2015 season, the word would be “dominant.” Martinez led the Carolina League in ERA (2.56), WHIP (0.94), and winning percentage (.818). In most other minor league systems, Martinez easily would have been their minor league pitcher of the year. The total season numbers for Martinez was a 9-2 record in 21 starts with a 2.56 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, and 66 strikeouts against 27 walks in 116 innings. Martinez has a mid-90s two-seam fastball along with a change-up and slider. And Martinez is said to be very good at changing speeds. Like Daury Torrez, Martinez is Rule 5 Draft eligible, and a lot of teams have him on their radar.
A true scouting “find” in the 19th round of the 2014 draft, Brad Markey became one of the fastest risers in the Cubs system this past season. At 5-foot-11 and without a big fastball, the 23-year old seems out of character for this management team. However, Markey’s curve is considered a plus pitch, and his deceptive delivery makes his upper-80s to low-90s fastball and change-up difficult to pick up. The 2015 season started out a little slowly for Markey, who had a little trouble adjusting to bullpen life for Low-A South Bend before getting comfortable. Markey had a 2.48 ERA and two saves for the SB Cubs in 29 innings before he was sent to Myrtle Beach. Used exclusively as a starter for the Pelicans, Markey took the Carolina League by storm, going 7-0 with a 1.15 ERA in 55 innings. Combined, Markey was 7-0 with a 1.61 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, and 63 strikeouts against only 10 walks in 84 innings. Some scouts believe Markey is a sleeper for the Cubs’ 2016 minor league pitcher of the year.
With all those pitchers grabbing headlines, the Cubs’ 2014 Minor League Pitcher of the Year Jen-Ho Tseng became an afterthought. The international free agent out of Taiwan was not as dominant as he was the previous season, but one must remember that he is just turned 21 in October. Tseng still put up excellent numbers in the Carolina League, finishing eighth in both ERA (3.55) and WHIP (1.21). Second only to Daury Torrez on the Pelicans in starts (22), Tseng posted a 7-7 record with 87 strikeouts in 119 innings. As for his stuff, Tseng has a fastball that sits in the low- to mid-90s, 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.
In a 2014 draft that gave the Cubs both Ryan Williams and Brad Markey, big Jeremy Null (6-foot-7, 200 pounds) had his share of the spotlight after coming to the Cubs in the 15th round. Both the starter and MVP of the Midwest League All-Star game, the 22-year old had a 6-2 record with a 2.33 ERA in 65.2 innings for the Low-A South Bend Cubs. There was a bit of a reality check for Null when he was promoted to Myrtle Beach, as he was 2-3 with a 4.70 ERA in 10 appearances. Combined, Null went 8-5 in 22 appearances (21 starts), with a 3.38 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and 82 strikeouts against 11 walks in 117.1 innings. Null uses his height, his sinking fastball, and his slider to pound the bottom of the strike zone.
Injuries have taken some of the luster off of Paul Blackburn’s star, but the 2012 first round sandwich pick still has the look of a solid prospect. A couple of trips to the disabled list limited the 22-year old to only 18 starts in 2015. However, Blackburn still put up very good numbers. Finishing the season with a 7-5 record, Blackburn had a 3.11 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, and 63 strikeouts in 89.2 innings. Blackburn has an arsenal of a low- to 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 help hitters get themselves out.
A big man in the bullpen, in more ways than one, is lefty Michael Heesch. Selected in the eighth round of the 2012 draft, Heesch was third on the team with 33 appearances and led the pen with 64.1 innings pitched. Once pounded by right handed hitting, Heesch lowered his ERA against right-handers to 1.99 as he finished the year with an 8-2 record with three saves. The 25-year old had a 2.24 ERA, a 1.25 WHIP, and 49 strikeouts. Heesch has a low-90s fastball, a slider, and a change-up. And the 6-foot-5, 245 pounder is built to absorb innings. Another Rule 5 Draft eligible pitcher, Heesch could tempt some teams as high as the Major League phase to bring in a left-handed innings-eater.
Providing veteran leadership, while trying to get his own career back on track, was 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. Conway then suffered a stress fracture of his pitching elbow during his comeback attempt from surgery. After getting his feet wet in Short Season-A ball in 2014, the 24-year old was jumped all the way to Myrtle Beach last season. Conway at times still showed some rust, but at others the promise that he had before being drafted. Prior to the injuries, Conway had a low-90s fastball, slider, and change-up. Still working to get his velocity up consistently, Conway was used in the bullpen and went 2-2 with three saves, a 2.92 ERA, 1.52 WHIP, and 49 strikeouts in 52.1 innings. Also on the Rule 5 Draft eligibility list, it’s unknown how many teams might take a chance on Conway’s injury issues being a thing of the past.
Another former starting pitcher thriving in the bullpen is James Pugliese. Selected by the Cubs in the 18th round of the 2011 draft, Pugliese made the conversion two seasons ago. The 22-year old has made the necessary adjustments and appears to be on a faster track, seeing a brief late season appearance with Double-A Tennessee. For the most part, Pugliese was with the Pelicans except for the playoffs, and went 4-2 with five saves in 30 appearances. Pugliese had a 2.62 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and 49 strikeouts in 55 innings. With his over-the-top delivery, Pugliese pounds the bottom of the strike zone with his sinking low-90s fastball, slider, change, and a curve.
It was a tale of two seasons for James Farris in 2015, as he went from the closer for Low-A South Bend to struggling for Myrtle Beach. After the SB Cubs fumbled around early in the season with several closers, they turned to the 23-year old Farris, and he produced results. In 21 appearances, Farris was 2-4 with nine saves, and had 39 strikeouts in 29 innings. Farris was named a Midwest League All-Star and was promoted to the Pelicans at the end of June. However, Farris found the Carolina League to be a little tougher, as he posted a 4.58 ERA in 17 appearances. Between South Bend and Myrtle Beach, Farris was 2-8 with nine saves, a 3.47 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, and 56 strikeouts in 46.2 innings. Farris’ scouting reports says that he has a low-90s fastball that he can add or subtract to, along with a curve and his best pitch is his change-up. It appears that Farris needs to work on his control, as he seems to know how to get batters out.
An unsung hero for the Pelicans in 2015, Jasvir Rakkar is seeing himself being passed up by other relievers. The 24-year old native of Ontario played three games with Low-A South Bend, and then was promoted in mid April to Myrtle Beach and became their closer. Rakkar racked up 16 saves in 38 appearances to go along with a 3-3 record. Rakkar posted a 2.96 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and had 37 strikeouts in 45.2 innings. However, toward the end of the season, batters started to catch up with Rakkar’s high-80s to low-90s fastball, along with a curve and a slider. Because Rakkar could no longer close out teams, the Pelicans turned to a couple of other pitchers in the back of the pen.
One player taking over the closer role was 23-year old David Garner. Drafted in the seventh round in 2013, Garner was a surprise promotion in the beginning of July, as he was only 2-0 with one save and a 5.33 ERA in 16 appearances for Low-A South Bend. But he was a different pitcher with Myrtle Beach, going 2-1 with two saves and a 2.37 ERA in 16 appearances. Garner was practically unhittable in the Carolina League playoffs, and he went on to be very good in the Arizona Fall League. For the Year, Garner was 4-1 with three saves in 32 appearances. Garner had a 3.72 ERA, 1.150 WHIP, and 67 strikeouts in 55.2 innings. In the AFL, Garner made 10 appearances and was 1-0 with a 3.00 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, and 12 strikeouts in 12 innings. Garner has a mid-90s fastball, along with a change-up and a very wicked slider. The biggest problem Garner has 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.
The other player Myrtle Beach relied on down the stretch was David Berg. The sixth round pick in the 2015 draft, Berg had a meteoric rise through the system. After signing, Berg pitched two games for Short Season-A Eugene before he was off to Myrtle Beach. In 16 appearances with the Pelicans, Berg was 1-1 with four saves and a 1.69 ERA. Altogether, Berg was 2-1 with five saves in 18 appearances, a 1.40 ERA, 1.086 WHIP, and 18 strikeouts in 19.1 innings. While the 22-year old has only a mid- to upper-80s fastball, his sidearm delivery produces sinking movement. Add to that a frisbee slider and pinpoint control, and you have a pitcher that will be very tough on right-handed batters.
Cubs Minor League Position Analysis
- First Base
- Second Base
- Third Base
- Left Field
- Center Field
- Right Field
- Triple-A Iowa Pitching Staff
- Double-A Tennessee Pitching Staff