Position Analysis – Triple-A Pitchers
It is time to move to the mound as the in-depth look at every position in the Cubs’ system continues. The CCO turns to pitching and the arms in the organization. Today the focus is on the possibilities for the pitching staff at the highest level in the Cubs’ minor league system, Triple-A Iowa.
Triple-A Starters and Relievers
Lacking any Major League ready prospects and concerned about depth for the big league club, the Cubs’ front office assembled a ragamuffin collection of fringe Major League pitchers for Triple-A Iowa in the hopes that one or two would be worth something. What they got was a collection that included Scott Barnes, Stephen Fife, and Brandon Gomes who could not stay off the disabled list, along with Josh Collmenter, Jean Machi, Brian Matusz, Joe Nathan, Joel Peralta, Jordan Pries, C.J. Riefenhauser, Drew Rucinski, Alex Sanabia, Giovanni Soto, and Joe Thatcher that were simply no longer any good.
Moving forward, the Cubs appear to be pinning some of their hopes on two holdovers, Aaron Brooks and Jake Buchanan. Acquired from Oakland last February for OF Chris Coghlan, the 26-year old made five appearances for the I-Cubs in 2016. Brooks went 1-1 with a 7.71 ERA, 1.653 WHIP and 12 strikeouts in 16.1 innings before going on the disabled list with a hip injury. The extent of the injury was much more severe than originally anticipated, which caused Brooks to be moved to the 60-day disabled list. Now back on the 40 man roster, Brooks brings a 93 mph fastball but mainly relies on his changeup along with some sliders mixed in. Brooks had been considered an innings eater prior to the injury.
One of the final cuts of Houston before the 2016 season, Jake Buchanan was signed as a free agent and throughout the course of the season demonstrated why the Astros gave up on him. On any given start, the 27-year old could either be dominant or lit up like a Christmas tree. Part of the reason is Buchanan’s low-90s fastball, which he combines with a cutter, a change, and a curveball. When Buchanan isn’t spotting his fastball, he gets hammered as he was 12-8 with a 4.34 ERA and 1.362 WHIP with 105 strikeouts in 141 innings for Iowa. Buchanan made two September appearances for the Cubs and was 1-0 in six innings.
Hoping to bounce back will be 2015 Minor League Pitcher of the Year Ryan Williams. After a rough first outing, the 25-year old seemed to be getting used to Triple-A last season before going on the disabled list with what was originally reported as a “minor issue.” That issue turning into a season ending injury as reports indicated that Williams had rotator cuff problems. Only pitching through mid-May, Williams was 4-1 with a 3.27 ERA, 1.250 WHIP and had 30 strikeouts in 44 innings. Williams dominated the previous season with a low-90s fastball producing downward movement, along with a splitter and slider, to induce plenty of ground balls. Williams was also known to be very economical, pounding the strike zone, and is excellent with both changing speeds and location. Whether Williams will be sound for the 2017 season remains to be seen.
Joining the rotation will be 2013 second round pick Rob Zastryzny. The left-hander had numbers similar to Buchanan last season, but the hope is that he is just beginning to show more consistency. Starting off in Double-A Tennessee, Zastryzny was only 3-2 with a 4.28 ERA and 1.28 WHIP before being promoted to Iowa, were he went 7-3 with a 4.33 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. In 24 games, 23 starts, combined between the Smokies and I-Cubs, Zastryzny was 10-5 with a 4.31 ERA and 1.238 WHIP. Zastryzny allowed 79 runs, 65 earned, on 117 hits with 51 walks and 119 strikeouts in 135.2 innings. Zastryzny saw action in eight games, including one start, with the parent club and was 1-0 with a 1.12 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in 16 innings. Zastryzny has a four-seam fastball that he throws in the low-90s, as well as a two-seam fastball. Scouts believe that Zastryzny’s slider is his best pitch, and with his change-up it gives him four pitches to work with. Player development believes that a change in grip is what may lead to better control for Zastryzny.
At this point, who is the fifth starter is up for grabs, with Seth Frankoff having the inside track. With almost five times as many relief appearances as minor league starts, the Cubs signed the 28-year old off the streets after having spent 2016 in the Dodgers organization. Spending the bulk of that time with Double-A Tulsa, Frankoff started for the first time since 2012. Over three levels, Frankoff was 4-4 with a 3.98 ERA, 1.351 WHIP and 73 strikeouts in 74 innings (10 starts in 28 appearances) against competition that averaged nearly three years younger than him. Scouting reports on Frankoff state that he has a fastball in the upper-80s/low-90s that he makes look faster with a delivery that has him literally jumping off the mound, along with a curveball.
Just where that leaves Pierce Johnson is uncertain. The first pitcher selected by the current front office in 2012 had a season he would like to forget. Like the previous three years, the 25-year old spent some significant time on the disabled list, but this time it was during the season rather than beginning the year on the shelf. Johnson was a complete mess as a starter for Iowa, with a 7.75 ERA and a 1-6 record in 11 tries before being shipped off to the bullpen. There, Johnson had a little more success, going 3-0 with a 3.32 ERA to end up a 4-6 with a 6.14 ERA, 1.635 WHIP with 75 strikeouts in 63 innings. Johnson has some top of the rotation qualities with a 95-plus mph fastball, a hard curve and a changeup with downward action. However, questions about his durability, preparation and maturity have dogged his career.
Also in the mix for the rotation is arguably the best starter for Double-A Tennessee last season, Brad Markey. A 19th round selection in 2014, the 24-year old was second on the team in starts and led the Smokies’ rotation in innings pitched, wins, ERA, and WHIP. With an ERA of 3.17, Markey was fourth in the Southern League to go with an 8-7 record, a 1.332 WHIP, and 65 strikeouts in 130.2 innings. Markey’s curve is considered a plus-pitch, and his deceptive delivery makes his upper-80s/low-90s fastball and changeup difficult to pick up. Whether that is enough to keep him in the rotation or make Markey a very good option out of the bullpen is uncertain.
Middle relief could be manned by veteran lefty Jack Leathersich, who was placed on the 40-man roster prior to the Rule 5 Draft. Coming off of Tommy John surgery, the 26 year old spent some time in Arizona getting himself ready before making his season debut in late July. Leathersich made 26 appearances between the AZL Cubs, Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa going 1-0 with a 1.93 ERA, 1.200 WHIP and 34 strikeouts in 23.1 innings. When physically sound, Leathersich has a mid-90s fastball that scout say explodes out of his hand, along with a slider/curve.
Also getting shots in middle relief could be James Farris, Stephen Perakslis, Starling Peralta, Juan Paniagua, and lefty Gerardo Concepcion. Farris and Perakslis were members of the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League and had some success.
Neither pitcher allowed an earned run as Farris fanned 12 in 10 innings while Perakslis punched out six in 6.1 innings.
Splitting time between Double-A Tennessee and High-A Myrtle Beach, the 24-year old Farris was a combined 2-5 with 13 saves, a 2.59 ERA, 0.985 WHIP and 74 strikeouts in 66 innings. Farris’ scouting reports says that he has a low-90s fastball with movement and deception that he can add or subtract to, along with a curve and his best pitch, a changeup.
Perakslis divided his time with Tennessee and Iowa, going a combined 2-5 with a 3.60 ERA, 1.227 WHIP and 58 strikeouts in a career high 75 innings. The scouting report on Perakslis varies, with a fastball anywhere from the low-90s to the 97 mph range, along with a curve and a slider. Other reports have the 25-year old using both two- and four-seam fastballs along with a cutter, a split-fingered pitch and a knuckle-curve.
Both Starling Peralta and Juan Paniagua are minor league veterans with upper-90’s fastballs that have had varying degrees of success. A utility pitcher in 2016, Peralta was used in every role going 7-4 with two saves, a 4.08 ERA, 1.358 WHIP and 36 strikeouts in 70.2 innings (three starts) with both Tennessee and Iowa. Paniagua played strictly with the Smokies, going 5-3 with four saves, a 4.04 ERA, 1.361 WHIP and 62 strikeouts in 64.2 innings.
Lefty Gerardo Concepcion was not tendered a contract before the deadline and recently re-signed with the Cubs on a minor league deal. Tossing 2.1 innings in three appearances and posting a 3.86 ERA, the 24-year old saw some time with the parent club this past season. With both Iowa and Tennessee, Concepcion was 3-4 with a 5.13 ERA, 1.508 WHIP and had 52 strikeouts in 59.2 innings.
Vying for the closer’s role will likely be a pair of 40-man roster players in Jose Rosario and Felix Pena, along with Corey Black. All three have fastballs that can reach triple digits, with Pena the only one making it to the big leagues so far.
The 26-year old Pena saw action in 11 Major League games, with 13 strikeouts, a 4.00 ERA and a 0.88 WHIP in nine innings. Part of the closer rotation for Iowa, Pena was 3-4 with three saves, a 3.41 WHIP, 1.089 WHIP and 81 strikeouts in 63.1 innings.
Jose Rosario went through three levels last season as he continued to work his way back from Tommy John surgery. With High-A Myrtle Beach, Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa, the 26-year old was 2-1 with 14 saves, a 2.50 ERA, 1.278 WHIP and 47 strikeouts in 54 innings.
Struggling in his conversion from starter to reliever, Corey Black had a trying season in 2016. Beginning with Tennessee, the 25-year old was 0-3 with a 3.18 ERA and eight saves when moved up to Iowa. As a member of the I-Cubs, Black’s ERA ballooned to 5.04 in 26 appearances. For the year, Black was 0-6 with 14 saves, a 4.25 ERA, 1.585 WHIP and 62 strikeouts in 53 innings. Currently pitching in Puerto Rico, Black seems to have gotten his confidence back as he leads the league with 12 saves and a 0.45 ERA.
Cubs Position Analysis Reports
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