Position Analysis – Double-A Pitchers
The CCO’s off-season look at the Cubs’ minor league system continues today. After viewing the possible pitching staff for Triple-A, we turn to where the first pitching prospects of the current front office mostly reside, the staff for Double-A Tennessee.
Double-A Starters and Relievers
While the Triple-A pitching staff will be a combination of prospects and fringe Major League players, Double-A will see a consolidation of pitching. Some of Tennessee’s pitchers from last season still need more time, with the rest of the staff filled out from High-A Myrtle Beach.
Although 2013 fourth round pick Tyler Skulina led the Smokies’ rotation in starts, all signs point to him returning to Tennessee for 2017. That’s because Skulina was beat up pretty badly in his Double-A debut, averaging a little over 4.2 innings per start. Skulina put up a 5.16 ERA and 1.605 WHIP to go along with a 4-12 record and 91 strikeouts in 129 innings. The 25-year old has a mid-90s fastball and a power slider, but really no third pitch, as his change-up 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 shown in his 71 walks, almost twice as many as his previous career high, along with 16 home runs allowed. From the onset, some scouts have seen Skulina more as a reliever than a starter. This coming season may be time for a change for Skulina.
Analysts considered Duane Underwood Jr. to be among the Cubs’ best pitching prospects, but he spent his second year in a row dealing with injuries. Turning 22 years old in the middle of last season, Underwood Jr. was unable to answer the call at the beginning of the year, as the team stated he was dealing with allergies. Coming to Tennessee at the end of April, it was apparent that something was not right with Underwood Jr., as he went 0-5 with 4.91 ERA. In early July, Underwood Jr. was back on the disabled list with swelling in his pitching elbow. Underwood Jr. did not start pitching again until mid-August, when he had stints with the AZL Cubs and Low-A South Bend before joining High-A Myrtle Beach for the playoffs. For the season, Underwood Jr. had 18 starts and went 0-6 with a 4.32 ERA, a 1.507 WHIP and 62 strikeouts in 73 innings. With a mid- to upper-90s fastball, Underwood Jr. also has a curve and change which scouts feel can develop into plus pitches. Underwood Jr. has the ability to be the first player drafted by the current front office to be a full-time part of the Major League rotation, but will have to answer the injury and durability questions.
An unheralded 26th round pick for the Cubs in 2014, Zach Hedges put together one of the best minor league pitching performances of the 2016 season. A sinkerball pitcher, Hedges relies on the other team to beat the ball into the ground rather than making them swing and miss. Beginning the year with High-A Myrtle Beach, Hedges went 7-8 in with a 2.89 ERA in 16 starts for the Pelicans before moving to Tennessee in mid-July. With the Smokies, Hedges continued his success as he was 3-3 with a 2.47 ERA in another eight starts. All totaled, the 24-year old was 10-11 with a 2.75 ERA, 1.139 WHIP, and 95 strikeouts in 144 innings. Hedges does not get himself into trouble, issuing only 27 walks for the year. 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. Hedges has shown great improvement over the course of his career, and if he is able to maintain that pace it could result in a trip to the majors.
In one of the bigger head-scratchers of the minor league season, the Cubs front office decided to place Jonathan Martinez back at High-A Myrtle Beach to start 2016. If one word could be used to describe the 22-year old’s 2015 season, the word would be dominant. Martinez led the Carolina League in ERA (2.56), WHIP (0.940), and winning percentage (.818). In most other minor league systems, that would have warranted an automatic promotion for Martinez. But Martinez was back with the Pelicans last year and his game suffered notably for it. While leading the league in victories and finishing fourth in WHIP, Martinez posted a 4.19 ERA to go with a 12-6 record. Martinez received a late August promotion to finish by going 13-7 with 4.28 ERA, 1.301 WHIP and 92 strikeouts in 143 innings. Martinez has a mid-90s two-seam fastball along with a change-up and slider, and is said to be very good at changing speeds. For whatever reason it was done for, it is hoped that the humbling experience does not have a negative effect on a promising pitcher.
Just two seasons ago, Jen-Ho Tseng was named the Cubs’ 2014 Minor League Pitcher of the Year. However, the international free agent out of Taiwan has not been the same since then. Suffering injuries in each of his three professional season and ineffectiveness the last two, Tseng was third on the Smokies in starts (22). The 22-year old would go on to post a 6-8 record with a 4.29 ERA, 1.500 WHIP and 69 strikeouts in 113.1 innings. As for his stuff, Tseng has a fastball that sits in the low- to mid-90s range, with a deep release point that makes it look even faster. Tseng also has a curve, but needs to command it better, and possibly the best change-up in the system. Whether this is a downward spiral, a hint for a need to change Tseng’s role, or the possibility that he has been rushed has to be considered.
Emerging this past season, 2016 Minor League Pitcher of the Year Trevor Clifton has vaulted into prominence. While the 21-year old had only a 7-7 record, he dominated the Carolina League, leading in ERA and WHIP and finished third in strikeouts. 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 Myrtle Beach last season, Clifton had the misfortune of receiving little run support at times. Clifton continued to improve after putting up a good season with Low-A South Bend in 2105. In 119 innings, Clifton had an ERA of 2.72 and WHIP of 1.160, with 129 strikeouts against only 41 walks. Clifton throws a low-90s fastball that has sometimes clocked in 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. Clifton will be in the Cubs’ preseason Top 10 prospects, and may even crack the top five on some lists.
One player that has been slower to develop than had been expected is 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 in A-ball before moving up the chain. But the 24-year old struggled mightily with control in his first two professional seasons. Stinnett has had trouble with his command and finding his release point as a pro, but there were no reports that he did not take his preparation seriously like the previous season. Stinnett finished with a 9-4 record and a 4.27 ERA, 1.328 WHIP and 97 strikeouts in 116 innings with High-A Myrtle Beach. Stinnett is reported to have a mid-90s heater 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. However, Stinnett needs to step up his development in order to remain a viable prospect for the major leagues, with other pitchers in the system close on his heels.
With a potentially loaded rotation, just where that leaves Jeremy Null is uncertain. The MVP of the 2015 Midwest League All-Star game had to be held back in extended spring training to build arm strength and never seemed to be in sync. Coming to High-A Myrtle Beach in early June, Null was only 5-6 with a 4.20 ERA, 1.390 WHIP, and 65 strikeouts against 22 walks in 105 innings. Null uses his height (6-foot-7, 200 pounds) to make his sinking fastball look faster than what it clocks, in the low-90s. Null also uses his slider to pound the bottom of the strike zone, but has yet to develop a third pitch.
The bullpen for Tennessee is solid, beginning with Josh Conway. Injuries have curtained the career of the Cubs fourth round pick from the 2012 draft, including last season. After pitching a career high 52.1 innings in 2015, Conway was back on the disabled list for the first time since suffering a stress fracture of his pitching elbow in 2013. Conway had a difficult time with the Smokies, going 1-5 with a 5.40 ERA in 22 appearances before going on the DL in early July. The 25-year old took a long time in recovering, spending nearly a month with the AZL Cubs and Short Season-A Eugene. All totaled, Conway was 1-5 with a 4.91 ERA, 1.970 WHIP, and 31 strikeouts in 33 innings. Prior to the injuries, Conway had a low-90s fastball, slider, and change-up. Time is running out for Conway, particularly since he can’t seem to keep himself in one piece.
A utility pitcher if there ever was one, James Pugliese is a valuable asset to any bullpen. Selected by the Cubs in the 18th round of the 2011 draft, the 23-year old tossed 88.2 innings between Double-A Tennessee and High-A Myrtle Beach. Pugliese went 7-5 in 30 appearances (seven starts), and had a 3.76 ERA, 1.297 WHIP and 84 strikeouts. 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.
Another utility pitcher is lefty Tommy Thorpe. A former starter at the University of Oregon, the 24-year old had 39 appearances for High-A Myrtle Beach, starting five games and finishing 11. Thorpe had a 4-6 record and 3.59 ERA, 1.313 WHIP and 69 strikeouts in 77.2 innings. The 6-foot, 185-pound Thorpe can throw his fastball in the upper-80s/low-90s range, with his curveball and change-up being considered as plus pitches.
Looking for redemption with the Smokies will be David Garner. Drafted in the seventh round in 2013, Garner was practically unhittable in the 2015 Carolina League playoffs, and also was very good in the Arizona Fall League, raising expectations. But the 24-year old stumbled in Double-A, going 1-6 with three saves, a 4.19 ERA, 1.658 WHIP and 56 strikeouts in 53.2 innings. Garner has a mid-90s fastball, along with a change-up and a very wicked slider. The biggest problem Garner has had 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.
A player that disappointed last season was David Berg. The sixth round pick in the 2015 draft, Berg had a meteoric rise through the system that may have been premature. Pushed up to Double-A Tennessee after only nine appearances with High-A Myrtle Beach, Berg showed he was not ready for the level of competition. The 23-year old was 4-4 with eight saves in 43 appearances, with a 5.17 ERA, 1.599 WHIP and 40 strikeouts in 55.2 innings. Berg has only a mid- to upper-80s fastball, but his sidearm delivery produces sinking movement. Add to that a slider. Berg’s supposed pinpoint control escaped him. And Berg needs to rediscover that with the stuff he brings.
Tennessee will have good options to finish out games, as 35th round selection Jordan Minch was one of the more dependable relievers for High-A Myrtle Beach in 2016. The 23-year old, drafted in 2014, was called on for the Pelicans 29 times, going 0-2 with two saves, a 2.88 ERA, 1.515 WHIP and 26 strikeouts in 34.1 innings. However, some of those numbers can be misleading as Minch gave up 34 hits but only 11 earned runs, while nearly halving the amount of free passes from the previous year. Scouting reports have Minch with a low-90s fastball and a sweeping curve. However, Minch will have to continue to show better control and cut down on his hits and walks allowed if he wants to continue to rise through the system.
One of the best pitchers in the Carolina League in 2015, Daury Torrez came back to High-A Myrtle Beach in a new role for 2016. The former starter was being converted into a closer, and like many who have went through this change, Torrez experienced some ups and downs. Liking the way the 23-year old aggressively threw strikes, Player Development thought that Torrez could benefit from the switch. It was a rough first half, as Torrez posted a 4.50 ERA in 20 appearances. But Torrez seemed to adapt in the second half of the year, going 2-1 with a 2.72 ERA and 1.101 WHIP. For the season, Torrez was 2-2 with two saves, a 3.56 ERA, 1.362 WHIP and 69 strikeouts in 68.1 innings. Torrez has added a little more muscle to his 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame, and his fastball is now in the mid-90s, with a hard slider and a change which he commands well, as noted by his low walk totals throughout his career. Torrez can possibly take a big step forward in 2017 and become a feared closer.
Completing a big comeback with style this season was 2012 third round selection Ryan McNeil. After needing Tommy John surgery in 2013, McNeil was still not at full strength going into the 2105 season. After providing quality appearances out of the bullpen for Low-A South Bend, the 22-year old was one of several vying for playing time with Myrtle Beach in 2016. With promotions of David Berg and James Farris, McNeil emerged as the Pelicans’ closer and led the Carolina League with 22 saves. Making 44 appearances, McNeil was 1-1 with a 2.33 ERA, 1.241 WHIP and had 61 strikeouts in 54 innings. McNeil has been able to regain his heavy, sinking low- to mid-90s fastball, a biting slider and a change-up. However, McNeil was hit hard in the Arizona Fall League, giving up 10 earned runs in 11 innings. Whether McNeil was gassed after a long season or if it is a sign of things to come, no one will know until everyone laces them up again for 2017.
Cubs Position Analysis Reports
- First Base
- Second Base
- Third Base
- Left Field
- Center Field
- Right Field
- Triple-A Starters and Relievers
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