On Wednesday, the CCO’s very own Tom U gave the fourth of a five-week series of interviews talking minor league prospects with South Bend Cubs play-by-play man Darin Pritchett and Rick Carter on WSBT in South Bend’s Sportsbeat program. This past Wednesday’s program addressed the pitching prospects in the Cubs’ system. Here are excerpts from that interview.
Darin Pritchett: I’m looking forward to this conversation, because, a lot of people have been saying for some time “when is the pitching coming, now, in the Cubs’ organization. We’ve seen all the hitters, what about the pitching?” Well, I think you’re about to find out that there are really some interesting players that are starting to develop, and a couple of those probably will show up in South Bend this year, but Tom, let’s start with Pierce Johnson. He was a young man that was taken 43rd overall by the Cubs in 2012. The last two years, he got 33 Double-A starts under his belt, and you love the ERA, .231. He’s always been considered a prospect in the Cubs organization. How would you assess his progress, and how close is he to possibly impacting the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field?
Tom Usiak: As far as Pierce Johnson goes, there‘s a lot that you see in him that you like. He’s a big, tall pitcher who throws with a very good downward plane. He gets his fastball up into the mid-90s, along with a slider and change-up combination. He usually is able to mix those pitches pretty well. You see a really good ERA last year with him, 2.08 when he was pitching with Tennessee. The big problem that we have with Pierce Johnson is that he has been dinged up a little bit. There have been injures past two years, with hamstring and lat injuries. They have also seemed to linger a little bit. What concerns you a little about some those things are that those are preventable injuries. Those are injuries that usually come when somebody may be neglecting their training a little bit. So, that’s what the big concern is about Pierce Johnson: whether he has matured enough to be prepared in order to make those next big steps, which are going to be up to Triple-A. And hopefully, he can make some sort of impact toward the end of the season at the Major League level.
Rick Carter: Right-hander Duane Underwood was also drafted in 2012. He’s moved up to number four in the Cubs’ top prospects. Where is he now? He hasn’t pitched past Single-A. Is he in a position where he can rocket through the organization? What does he need to do if that happens?
TU: Rick, one of the old saying is “when pitching is ready, it can be ready in a hurry.” That was the way Duane Underwood was looking last year when he started the season. He started out really hot, but then he got shut down toward the middle of the season. There was a little bit of arm concern with him. So, they were very preventative with Duane Underwood, they shut him down for a while. He came, back and was able to pitch well through the playoffs. He did very well with Myrtle Beach last year; he pitched 14 starts with them and had a 2.58 ERA. He didn’t have as many strikeouts as you would like to see. However, the organization wanted him concentrating on making sure he was attacking the strike zone and not necessarily looking to strike out batters. And there is a big difference between those two. With him getting the ball into the strike zone, it was going to get hit a little bit. But he had one of the best defenses in all of minor league baseball behind him to help pick him up with some of that. So he learned a little bit more about being a pitcher last year, and was less a thrower. Duane Underwood, one of the things you have to say about him and his stuff is “easy heat” is what we have always heard about him. He throws in the mid-90s and maybe in a little bit of the upper-90s, but it doesn’t appear like he is throwing that way. So he can really lull the hitters to sleep with some of his stuff.
DP: We need to start turning our attention to South Bend, because South Bend could be the home of some of the elite prospects in the Cubs’ system this year. Let me start with Oscar De La Cruz. Dominican Republic. Twenty years old. A big kid. I like the strikeout-per-inning at Short Season Eugene. And, I have to admit, I have already done a dynasty baseball Rookie League draft and I took Oscar De La Cruz, because, listening to a lot of people talk about him, and reading about him. He appears to be one of those guys, Tom that could turn out to be a one or a two starter if he continues to mature at the level that he is already at now. How would you assess De La Cruz right now, and what do you believe his upside is?
TU: I believe De La Cruz has got a very large upside as far as, like you said, being a one or a two starter. Last season, when we were finishing our ranking of all the players through the organization, I reached out to and I talked to Matt Dompe, who is the play-by-play man for the Eugene Emeralds, and asked him for a little bit of a scouting report on De La Cruz. And his comp was very reminiscent to Orioles pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez. A very big pitcher with a very nice fastball-curve combination, and we saw that in the Northwest League last year. He was second in the league with 73 strikeouts, but he also led the league with a WHIP of 1.00. So, there is a pitcher who is a big strikeout pitcher, but again to knows enough about pitching so that way he can cut down on his walks and limit the opposition a little bit more. He’s still a little bit aggressive. Jason McLeod, just the other day, was talking about him, and saying that they have to kind of curb his aggressiveness a little bit. But at 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5, and now they are listing him at somewhere near 235 pounds, he has that classic number one or number two starter build.
DP: Let’s move to Justin Steele, another player that could be starting in the South Bend rotation this year. I don’t know as much about this guy. Give me your sense of what Steele could be all about as he continues to grow.
TU: I like Steele an awful lot. There were two left-handers that were picked by the Cubs that year, and Carson Sands got a lot of immediate publicity. But Justin Steele proved to be a little bit more of what the Cubs are looking for as far as a starting pitcher. He came in last year at Eugene and was one of their top pitchers there. But he had to be shut down about two thirds of the way into the season. They were a little concerned about a minor arm issue, but he was able to come back with that. He has all the pitches you are looking for; he has a low-90s fastball, slider, curve, changeup. What Jason McLeod compared him to, at this point, from an athletic standpoint he’s an awful lot like present Cub Travis Wood, a very athletic type of pitcher, very aggressive with going after hitters. We saw that too, with him in Eugene where he was able to get 38 strikeouts in just 40 innings.
DP: Tom, you kind of labeled De La Cruz, Steele, and Carson Sands as the “big three” who can be part of the rotation for the South Bend Cubs on Opening Day. Sands is a fourth round pick in 2014 of the Cubs. I’m just looking at his Eugene numbers, and nothing really stands out. The walks were a little up, and you had a high ERA and a high WHIP. I assume we didn’t see the best of Carson Sands in Eugene.
TU: I don’t think so, as far as Carson Sands goes. But there was a lot of pressure being put on Carson Sands too. He was the Opening Day starter, and he was initially considered the leader of that pitching staff. That’s a lot of pressure to be put on a 20-year old player at that point. He doesn’t have as dominating “stuff” as we have seen from the other two pitchers, both De La Cruz and Steele that we have talked about. But, he’s one of these guys, I liken him to a little bit to somebody you saw last year. He’s almost like a left-handed version of Trevor Clifton. He’s not going to dominate things, but he’s just going to do consistently well over the course of the game and the course of the season too. He’s got a low-90s fastball, and he can get it up to the mid-90s. He’s got a very good, sold curve, and he’s got a changeup too. He induces more ground balls than he does go for the strikeout. So that’s why his numbers aren’t going to be looking as impressive as some of the more power pitchers, like Steele and De La Cruz.
RC: The Cubs drafted four starters early in 2015. Any chance we can see any of them on the South Bend, either on the Opening Day roster or sometime after that?
TU: I believe that one to two of these pitchers could make it to South Bend. Let’s start talking with the first one that was kind of the most impressive out of that, eighth round pick Preston Morrison. He’s a 22-year old, and he’s different than all of the other pitchers in that he is a sidearm pitcher. He doesn’t have the big fastball or anything like that, but he just has a lot of deception with his motion. He has a mid-80s fastball, and what is called a “frisbee” slider, one of those sliders that just seem to duck at the last second, and a changeup. He was able to go into the Short Season-A league and just absolutely dominate. He had a 0.81 ERA, and his WHIP was well below one. He is somebody that could possibly be in the starting rotation for a month or so, kind of like you saw last year with Ryan Williams. Another right-hander that could possibly be with the South Bend Cubs would be 17th rounder Casey Bloomquist. He wasn’t as dominant as Preston Morrison, but he did do very well. The thing is though, he is more of a strikeout pitcher. He struck out 22 batters in 19 innings, and had a 2.29 ERA. He is a little bit more of a sinkerball pitcher, but at that level, he was just well over the heads of the players he was going up against. One pitcher that I do believe that is going to have a good chance of showing up in South Bend will be fifth round pick Ryan Kellogg. He’s another one of these left-handers who is 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5. He made 10 appearances with Eugene. His numbers weren’t as great, his ERA was just below five, and he had 14 strikeouts in 21 innings. So, he made need that extra work that some of the other pitchers drafted last year may not need at this point. He has a 90s fastball with a curve and a changeup. The last pitcher that they drafted last year, which I believe is actually going to probably go up to Advanced-A, but you never know until training camp is over, and that’s 13th rounder Kyle Twomey. He’s also 22 years old and he is out of USC. He is a little bit more in a range of what Morrison and Bloomquist were doing. He had 22 strikeouts in 23 innings, and a 2.35 ERA. And again too, he’s got the low-90s fastball along with a slider, curve, and a changeup.
DP: Tom, we have time for one more question. When your website comes out with the Chicago Cubs minor league system Top Twenty player list, and I see that Dylan Cease is a guy that we haven’t even talked about yet, but he possibly could be the top pitching prospect in your website’s opinion. Offer some thoughts on Dylan Cease.
TU: When Dylan Cease was drafted two years ago, everybody though he would go higher, but he had to go get Tommy John surgery right after the draft. The Cubs still took him in the sixth round anyway, and they let him go through his rehab all through the rest of 2014. Then last year, they eased him back in through the Arizona Rookie League. At that point, even though at 20 years old, and just off of surgery, he was throwing up to 100 mph. He was able to dominate that level. In eight starts he had 25 strikeouts in 24 innings, and had a 2.62 ERA. He may not join South Bend right out of the gate, but once some of these older pitchers move on a little bit, he might be one of the first ones that is called up. But he is going to be something that Midwest League hitters haven’t seen.
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