Pitching Analysis – Low-A South Bend
The CCO’s off-season look at the Cubs’ minor league system continues today. After reviewing the pitching staffs for Triple-A Iowa, Double-A Tennessee, and High-A Myrtle Beach, we now look at the pitching prospects from Low-A South Bend.
Low-A Starters and Relievers
With all of the high profile pitching prospects a level above or below him, it is easy for Trevor Clifton to get lost in the shuffle. The Tennessee high school player was the 12th round selection in the 2013 draft, and has a projectable frame at 6-foot-4, 170 pounds. The top of the rotation starter for South Bend last season, Clifton had the misfortune of receiving very little run support. That is why even though he led the team with 103 strikeouts in 108.2 innings, and had a decent ERA of 3.98 and WHIP of 1.27, his record was only 8-10 in 23 appearances (22 starts). The 20-year old throws a low-90s fastball that has hit the upper-90s, along with a mid-80s curve, a slider and a change-up, and has worked hard to cut down on his free passes.
Just two months older than Clifton, 20-year old Erick Leal is another young and promising pitcher. Acquired in 2014 from the Diamondbacks in exchange for OF Tony Campana, Leal has been remarkably consistent over his four professional seasons. A highlight for Leal in 2015 was taking a no-hitter nine innings for South Bend, only to be lifted and watch the SB Cubs ending up losing the game. For the year, Leal led the staff in wins, going 10-8 with a 3.85 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, and 86 strikeouts in 128.2 innings. Control rather than power is Leal’s game, as he has only issued 69 walks in 310 innings over four 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.
Leading the South Bend squad with 23 starts was 23-year old Zach Hedges. The 26th round pick for the Cubs in 2014, Hedges was moved out of the bullpen and into the rotation at the beginning of the season. A sinkerball pitcher, Hedges relies on the other team to beat the ball into the ground rather than making them swing and miss. Hedges went 8-8 in with a 4.16 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, and 80 strikeouts in 132 innings. Movement is the key to Hedges’ arsenal, as his low-90s fastball has both some arm-side run and downward movement. Hedges also utilizes a slider that batters have a hard time handling when he gets on top of it. Developing a third pitch and refining his control will be the key to Hedges staying in the rotation.
Sometimes, things work out against someone’s better judgment. That is just what happened to Tommy Thorpe in 2015. A former starter at the University of Oregon, the 23-year old pitched out of the bullpen early for the South Bend Cubs. The left-hander struggled in 15 appearances, with a 1-4 record and 5.04 ERA. Moved back into the rotation, Thorpe thrived as he went 4-2 with a 2.18 ERA in 12 starts. Altogether, Thorpe was 5-7 with a 3.08 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, and 65 strikeouts in 96.1 innings. The 6-foot, 185-pound Thorpe also showed better command as a starter, with 44 strikeouts against 27 walks in 66 innings. Thorpe can throw his fastball in the upper-80s-low-90s range, with his curveball and change-up considered as plus pitches.
One of the biggest disappointments for last season was the Cubs’ second round pick for 2014, right-hander Jake Stinnett. A product of the University of Maryland, it was thought that Stinnett would only spend a short amount of time with South Bend before moving up the chain. But the 23-year old struggled mightily in his first professional full season. Stinnett had trouble with his command and finding his release point all season, and there were reports that he did not take his preparation seriously. With a short stint on the disabled list, Stinnett finished with a 7-6 record and a 4.46 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, and 91 strikeouts in 117 innings. Stinnett is reported to have a mid-90s fastball that has been clocked as high as 97 mph, throwing both a four-seam and a two-seam fastball. Stinnett also has a slider and a change-up that needs further development.
A tweener the Cubs like, James Norwood has had trouble staying on the field. Drafted by the Cubs in the seventh round in 2014, Norwood missed most of his sophomore season at St. Louis University with an elbow strain before being selected by the Cubs. The Cubs had trouble deciding just what to do with Norwood, opening with him in the bullpen. When South Bend had trouble closing out games early in the season, they gave Norwood a try and he responded with a save. However, Norwood went on the disabled list in mid May, and would not return until late July after a four-game stint in the rookie league. Back in South Bend, Norwood was used as a starter for seven games. Including his time in Arizona, Norwood was 2-6 with a 4.68 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, and 39 strikeouts in 50 innings. Turning 22 in a few days (December 24), the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Norwood has a mid-90s fastball with decent sink, a slider, and above average curve, and an improving change-up.
If there is such a thing as a utility pitcher, lefty Tyler Ihrig would be the pitcher you are looking for. The 24-year old pitched at four different levels in 2015, from Low-A South Bend all the way up to Triple-A Iowa. Ihrig was also used in a variety of roles, starting five games and finishing nine in his 31 appearances. The season totals for Ihrig across the board were a 3-4 record with two saves, a 2.89 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and 67 strikeouts in 90.1 innings. Ihrig’s stuff is reminiscent of former Cubs lefty Sean Marshall in that he has a big, sweeping curve along with an upper-80s-low-90s fastball and change-up. It is not clear as to where the front office will have Ihrig pitch next season, or how they will use him.
The front office still sees a lot of potential in Michael Wagner, the 15th round pick from the 2013 draft. In a similar vein as Tyler Ihrig, the Cubs used Wagner in several roles at many levels. Appearing at Triple-A Iowa and Double-A Tennessee, as well as Low-A South Bend, Wagner started six games and finished 10. Through it all, the 24-year old was 2-4 in 28 appearances, with a 4.06 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, and 57 strikeouts in 75.1 innings. With a low-90s sinking fastball that has topped out at 97 mph, Wagner has a plus change-up as well as a developing breaking pitch.
Making a big comeback this season was 2012 third round selection Ryan McNeil. After a Spring Training in which McNeil looked poised to be named the Opening Day starter for the Short Season-A Boise Hawks in 2013, he hurt his arm and needed Tommy John surgery. McNeil attempted to come back in 2014 and was on a severely limited pitch count. Two years after the surgery in 2015, McNeil was still not at full strength to start, but was capable of providing quality out of the bullpen. The 21-year old was second on the team with 32 appearances, and went 3-3 with a 2.80 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, and 57 strikeouts in 61 innings. When injury-free, McNeil has a heavy, sinking low- to mid-90s fastball, a biting slider, and a change-up. While it has taken courage for McNeil to get back onto the field, it is uncertain whether he will ever be able to start again.
If anyone can be considered a bigger disappointment than Jake Stinnett, it would have to be Dillon Maples. Drafted by the Cubs in the 14th round in 2011, many believe that Maples has top of the rotation stuff. Maples sports a mid-90s fastball and a hammer curve, along with a change-up. However, Maples struggles to repeat his delivery, and as a consequence has trouble commanding the strike zone. Maples will turn 24 years old a month after the 2016 season begins, and rumors abound that he is unreliable, un-coachable, and injury-prone. Starting the year on the disabled list again, Maples began his season in mid June at Short Season-A for the third straight time. Promoted to Low-A South Bend in late June, Maples was underwhelming as he combined to go 1-2 with a save, a 4.58 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, and 27 strikeouts in 35.1 innings (18 appearances). Time is running out on Maples, but if he can get his mechanical, injury, and personal issues ironed out, he still has potential.
A work in progress, the Daniel Lewis experiment looks worthwhile. 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 24-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. Assigned to Low-A South Bend in mid May, Lewis went 0-2 in 24 appearances, with a 3.68 ERA, 1.66 WHIP, and 22 strikeouts in 36.2 innings. In his first full professional season, Lewis showed that while he has a lot of promise, he still has a lot of work to do.
At only 6-foot-1 and a whippet-thin 170 pounds, Alexander Santana packs a lot of punch. Signed as an international free agent in 2011 as a 17-year old, Santana is now 21 years old and ready to explode. Not starting his 2015 season until mid June with seven appearances for Short Season-A Eugene, Santana came to South Bend in mid July and was closing out games by the end of the year. Santana was 2-3 with three saves in 20 appearances and had a 4.25 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and 26 strikeouts in 29.1 innings. Santana has an explosive mid- to upper-90s fastball along with a very nasty slider, drawing some comparisons to former SB Cubs reliever David Garner.
Thirty-fifth round selections are not usually around very long, but lefty Jordan Minch became one of the most dependable relievers for South Bend in 2015, leading the squad with 36 appearances. The 22-year old was drafted in 2014 and experienced his first full professional season, going 0-4 with three saves, a 4.31 ERA, 1.62 WHIP, and 46 strikeouts in 62.2 innings. Scouting reports have Minch with a low-90s fastball and a sweeping curve. However, Minch will have to show better control and cut down on his walks if he wants to continue to rise through the system.
Remaking his delivery, Corbin Hoffner seems to have his career back on track. The 6-foot-5, 235-pounder had a rough time pitching for Low-A Kane County in 2014, so he decided to go in a different direction. Now with a sidearm delivery, the 22-year old has regained the promise he showed two seasons ago when he was named the CCO Short Season Co-Pitcher of the Year. Beginning the year back at Short Season-A, this time with Eugene, Hoffner was promoted to South Bend at the end of June and took over as closer from the promoted James Farris. Hoffner ended up at 1-0 in 22 appearances, with a 1.14 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, and 18 strikeouts in 31.2 innings. Hoffner’s nine saves tied Farris for the club lead. While Hoffner is a big man, he sports only a low-90s fastball to pair with a slider and change, and relies more on batters getting themselves out rather than striking them out.
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
- High-A Myrtle Beach Pitching Staff