Ryan Williams, Pierce Johnson expected to headline Triple-A Iowa’s starting staff … Duane Underwood Jr. slated to start the season as the top starter in Double-A Tennessee’s rotation.
Jonathan Mayo was in Cubs camp recently and he pointed out what those that follow the system closely have known for a while, there are “arms on the way to back up the bats.”
There are three starting pitching prospects in big league camp this spring pushing their way to the majors: Ryan Williams, Pierce Johnson and Duane Underwood Jr.
Ryan Williams is the Cubs’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Williams has looked very good in camp and in Cactus League games.
Pierce Johnson is healthy and pitching. While the results have been mixed so far, he’s thrown the ball well this spring. The Cubs think Johnson’s future is of a No. 4 starter in the big leagues, while some feel he will be a reliever in the majors.
Williams and Johnson are expected to be rotation mates in Iowa when the season starts.
Duane Underwood Jr. dealt with injuries last year. He’s healthy this spring and is slated to begin the season as the No. 1 starter in Mark Johnson’s rotation at Double-A Tennessee. Underwood Jr. has a big arm, arguably the best stuff in the system other than possibly Dylan Cease.
Paul Blackburn is one of the young arms in the system that gets very little attention. Jason McLeod told Jonathan Mayo that the 22-year old right-hander is “somewhat forgotten about.”
The Cubs selected Blackburn with the 56th overall pick in the 2012 draft, the comp pick for Carlos Pena re-signing with the Tampa Bay Rays. Blackburn is coming off a solid year with High-A Myrtle Beach despite two stints on the disabled list. Baseball America ranked him the 19th best prospect in the Cubs’ system.
Blackburn made only 18 starts last season but was 7-5 with a 3.11 ERA and 1.23 WHIP. Blackburn allowed 36 runs, 31 earned, on 89 hits with 22 walks and 63 strikeouts in 89 2/3 innings.
Blackburn throws his fastball in the 93-94 mph range with an above average curve and a changeup that sits around 79 mph. Blackburn is one of the best control pitchers in the organization. He keeps the ball down, generates a lot of ground ball outs and keeps the ball in the park (14 homers allowed in 273 1/3 minor league innings).
Paul Blackburn projects as a back of the rotation starter in the big leagues. And he should join Duane Underwood Jr. in Double-A Tennessee’s rotation this season.
Tennessee Smokies Rotation
Duane Underwood Jr. is expected to start the season as the No. 1 starter in what should be a very good rotation at Double-A Tennessee.
Underwood Jr. is in big league camp on a non-roster invite but has not pitched in a Cactus League game yet. Underwood Jr. is healthy, he has been slowed by allergies this spring.
Jen-Ho Tseng, Jonathan Martinez and Paul Blackburn are penciled in the Smokies rotation with Underwood Jr. as the minor league Spring Training games begin.
Jason McLeod thinks Tseng and/or Blackburn will “take a leap forward in 2016.”
South Bend Cubs Rotation
The South Bend Cubs rotation has a chance to be very special, especially if Dylan Cease and Bryan Hudson are added to the staff at some point in the season.
Oscar De La Cruz, Justin Steele and Carson Sands are expected to begin the season with the South Bend Cubs. The front office is very high on all three starters.
De La Cruz is the elder statesman of the trio. De La Cruz turned 21 earlier this month (March 4). Steele is 20 years old and Sands turns 21 at the end of the month (March 28).
McLeod said, “It will be our most talent-laden staff since I’ve been here. That’s a pretty exciting staff.”
Bryan Hudson by all accounts has been extremely impressive in camp this spring. Hudson might not report to South Bend right away but the lefty should spend a lot of time in the Midwest League frustrating hitters this summer.
The Cubs thought Hudson had the best curveball in last year’s draft. Hudson is athletic at 6-foot-8, 220 pounds and he throws a “hard two-seamer with that power curveball.”
The Cubs are converting Ian Happ to a full-time second baseman. While most are skeptical that he can make the move to the dirt, reports from camp this spring have been positive about his play in the infield. The switch-hitting Happ is expected to hit and hit a lot in the majors. And he should be Gleyber Torres’ double play partner in High-A Myrtle Beach when the season starts.
Happ has been a standout at Cubs’ camp so far this spring showing “incremental improvements defensively” while impressing with his bat.
Jonathan Mayo tabbed Eloy Jimenez, along with Oscar De La Cruz, as a breakout candidate.
Jimenez is arguably the top power hitter in the Cubs’ system and he is only 19 years old. Jimenez has been compared to Jorge Soler. And as he matures, “the Cubs think he could become a monster offensively” according to Jonathan Mayo.
Eloy Jimenez is expected start the season in the South Bend Cubs’ outfield along with Donnie Dewees and possibly Eddy Julio Martinez.