Cubs pitching prospects to keep an eye on in 2019

Cubs pitching prospects to keep an eye on in 2019

"It's something that keeps us up at night."

That's how Cubs senior VP Jason McLeod summed up the state of the organization's pitching development while at the fan convention last month.

Rob Zastryzny still stands as the most impactful drafted-and-developed pitcher to come up from the Cubs minor league system under Theo Epstein's front office and the left-hander has just 34.2 career innings in the big leagues.

That lack of success has been the Cubs' Achilles' heel for years and it's come to something of a breaking point given how much money the team has to invest in pitching in 2019.

So the Cubs are changing tactics a bit in their farm system. It's time to dial up a sense of urgency in every aspect of the organization.

"[In the past], I would say that we definitely wanted to err on the side of being cautious and conservative," McLeod said. "If there was anything going on with the pitcher — arm soreness, felt a little tweak with the elbow, certainly with the high school pitchers — [we backed off.] We were trying to put in such a structure progression through Years 3 and 4 that we probably could've pushed guys in our early days. 

"As we sit here five or six years later, not to be egregious about anything, but we'll probably be a little bit more aggressive."

Put simply: The conservative approach hasn't worked for the Cubs and they're going to try to push the limits (within reason) in 2019 and beyond.

"I think there's an overwhelming sense of urgency throughout the organization," McLeod said. "I know Theo brought it up [at Cubs Convention]. When I say that, it's an urgency of doing something to impact the organization. Not being complacent, not being safe, not being conservative. 

"It doesn't mean pushing someone who's not ready for it, but I also think there is gonna be more of a 'let them show themselves' if they're ready to help us, so to speak. We know exactly where we are with that. This is probably the first year I can confidently sit here and feel like we have the guys that can help the team in the major leagues this year if needed."

That's crucial now more than ever. The Cubs had the oldest pitching staff in the National League last season and that collective number is only going to increase as guys like Jon Lester and Cole Hamels inch closer to the twilight of their careers while no young pitchers are coming up to help augment the bullpen or rotation.

"We've gotta be better than what we've been," McLeod said. "We know what we are from the major league standpoint with our club and players that are getting into their arbitration years. It's just on us. We can't keep celebrating Kris Bryant and the 2013 draft. 

"[The lack of impact pitching is] an obvious — it's so obvious it's not even an elephant in the room. It's something that drives us every day. I think we made a great hire in [minor league pitching coordinator] Brendan Sagara last year. He already is really good. I like the players we have in our system. This is the best I've felt after 8 years and I am bullish on some of those guys."

Will 2019 finally be the year that rewrites the narrative of the Cubs' pitching development? 

If so, the impact arms will likely come from the following list:

Adbert Alzolay

Alzolay is no longer the consensus top pitching prospect in the Cubs system, but he still may hold the highest upside and is probably closest to the big leagues. The 23-year-old right-hander was shut down in May last year due to a lat injury, so he'll have a pretty stingy innings limit.

That means the most likely path to Chicago comes via the bullpen. The Cubs still see Alzolay's long-term future as a starter, but they want to protect his arm in 2019 and won't push him too far. Plus, it would take several injuries for a spot to open up in the big-league rotation given the five starters in place plus Mike Montgomery, Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills as starting depth.

The Cubs have been touting Alzolay for a while and 2019 may finally be the year we see him in Chicago.

Duane Underwood Jr.

Roughly seven months after Epstein's regime came into power at Clark and Addison, the Cubs front office drafted Underwood with their second-round pick. That should give you an idea of how long Underwood has been among the Cubs pitching prospects.

We're still waiting for that breakthrough from the right-hander, but he's still young (he doesn't turn 25 until July) and made his long-awaited MLB debut last year, impressing in a 4-inning spot start in Los Angeles.

The Cubs have been cautious with Underwood since they made him the 67th overall player selected in 2012 out of high school, but the training wheels have slowly come off — he threw 125.1 innings in 2018 after accounting for 138 innings in 2017. Still, the results have been underwhelming — 4.53 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 7.9 K/9 in 27 outings (20 starts) with Iowa last season. 

Underwood is on the cusp of cracking the big-league roster, but it's still unknown what his long-term role will be.

"Duane's in this area right now where we're gonna develop him as a starter still," McLeod said. "I think it's really up to him — is he gonna grab on to it? I absolutely believe in his ability to pitch out of the bullpen if needed, which makes you feel good. If Alzolay's healthy and Underwood, then we can go get those types of guys and break them in in the bullpen — pitching 2 innings at a time maybe."

Dakota Mekkes

The 6-foot-7 right-hander is not a household name yet and hasn't been included on any top prospect lists, but he's on the cusp of becoming a legitimate big-league option. Mekkes — a 10th-round pick out of Michigan State University in 2016 — has shot up through the Cubs system and dominated at every stop, including a 0.81 ERA in Double-A and 1.44 ERA in Triple-A last year.

Mekkes doesn't have elite velocity, but the Cubs love how he pitches to his big frame and a deceptive motion that hides the ball from hitters. That's led to a lot of swings-and-misses in the minors — a career 11.6 K/9 rate, with 71 whiffs in 53.2 innings last season.

"He's kind of a big guy with a lower slot with a high-riding heater that guys can't get on for whatever reason," McLeod said.

Duncan Robinson

The 25-year-old righty has flown under the radar since the Cubs selected him in the 9th round of the 2016 draft, but that may be changing in a hurry. During McLeod's "Down on the Farm" panel at Cubs Convention last month, he mentioned Robinson by name more than any other pitcher in the organization, talking up the 6-foot-6 starter.

Robinson is a product of Dartmouth College just like Kyle Hendricks and McLeod was quick to draw a similar parallel between the two pitchers in how they execute a gameplan, throw strikes and consistently get outs without elite "stuff."

Robinson has a career 2.78 ERA and 1.198 WHIP over 288 minor-league innings and turned in a strong showing (8-4, 3.11 ERA, 1.24 WHIP) in 26 starts last season between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa. He'll start the year at the Cubs' top minor-league affiliate — one call away from joining the big-league rotation or bullpen should injuries strike.

It's impossible to predict how the next 7-10 months will play out, but the Cubs would love for a guy like Robinson to force their hand and potentially become a long-term answer in the MLB rotation.

"Who knows what's gonna happen with the club in future years, but I feel good about the depth and I feel like we have guys that can step in and be rotation pieces," McLeod said.

Keegan Thompson

The 23-year-old has been a fast riser in the Cubs system since they made him a 3rd-round selection in 2017. Thompson reached Double-A last year, making 13 starts with a 4.06 ERA and 1.40 WHIP with Tennessee and figures to be a part of the Triple-A rotation at some point early in 2019.

The Cubs love Thompson's competitiveness and the way he pitches off his fastball.

"Whether it's this year or next year, I'd be very surprised if you don't see him in Chicago," McLeod said.

Tyson Miller

Miller is another unknown, but don't expect that to last for long. McLeod couldn't contain his enthusiasm for the 23-year-old righty when speaking about him last month: 

"I'm so excited to see what Tyson does when he shows up because of the year he had last year. ... He got stronger as the year went on and he's a guy I'm really excited to see what he does in Double-A. He finished so strong, the velocity was there at the end of the year, he can pitch off his fastball, it's got that natural cut-life to it and he's just a big, physical monster."

The 2016 4th-round pick spent all of 2018 with Advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach, going 9-9 with a 3.54 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and struck out 126 batters against only 35 walks in 127 innings. 

He's still probably a couple years away from the big leagues but another good season in 2019 could be enough to throw his name in the ring as a potential long-term option for the MLB rotation.

Thomas Hatch

Hatch has been a poster boy for the cautious, conservative approach the Cubs have had with their minor-league pitchers. He was the organization's top draft pick in 2016 (3rd round) but he missed all of 2015 with a sprained ligament in his elbow and the Cubs opted to let him rest and simply watch during his first foray into pro ball after a high workload at Oklahoma State in spring 2016.

However, when he's been on the field, Hatch has turned heads. He started 26 games for Tennessee last season, going 8-6 with a 3.82 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 7.3 K/9. 

He'll likely begin 2019 in the Iowa rotation in his age-24 season.

Justin Steele

The Cubs added the 23-year-old southpaw to their 40-man roster this winter so they wouldn't lose him in the Rule 5 draft. His 2017 season ended early due to Tommy John surgery, but he made a quick recovery — posting a 2.31 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and 10.2 K/9 in 11 starts last year between Rookie ball, Myrtle Beach and Tennessee.

Steele will have an innings limit in 2019 and McLeod said he'd probably start the year in the Double-A rotation again. 

Trevor Clifton

The 23-year-old right-hander was named the Cubs' minor league pitcher of the year in 2016 and made his Triple-A debut last year to solid results (3.89 ERA, 1.36 WHIP). 

Clifton found his name at No. 87 on Baseball Prospectus' top prospect list prior to 2017 before a tough season in Double-A removed some shine from his status. He figures to begin the year as a part of the Iowa rotation.

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As trade rumors swirl around Cubs, Theo Epstein advises to consume with 'mouthful of salt'

As trade rumors swirl around Cubs, Theo Epstein advises to consume with 'mouthful of salt'

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — It's that time of year again.

Almost one year to the day of the Kris Bryant trade rumor that stemmed from a comment Theo Epstein made at the MLB GM Meetings, the Cubs president of baseball operations is once again addressing whispers of potential deals involving Bryant, Willson Contreras and other key players on the roster.

Last fall, Epstein stood in front of a small group of Chicago reporters in Southern California and talked about how the team operates with no players under an "untouchable" tag — including Bryant. That's still the case and it's always been the case throughout Epstein's eight-year reign with the Cubs. 

Of course, the Cubs never traded Bryant last winter and he went on to have a resurgent season while working around a lingering knee injury.

But this winter, they are, admittedly, in a different position. Bryant is only two years away from hitting free agency (and only one year if he actually wins his service time grievance case, though many around the game aren't anticipating that) and the Cubs are coming off a season in which they not only didn't win the division, but they didn't even claim a National League Wild-Card spot. 

Under Epstein, the Cubs have invested a lot in the big-league club, but that has left the farm system rather barren and the future of the franchise in doubt beyond 2021 (when the current window of contention closes given all the contracts expiring at that time). 

So it's not surprising to see several Cubs players linked in trade rumors already and that only figures to increase as the offseason slogs on. The Cubs aren't looking into a full-on rebuild or anything like that, but acquiring young, controllable talent is the best way to set the franchise up for the long-term and that might mean having to let go of impactful players that are approaching free agency.

"The nature of any offseason, there are gonna be rumors about your major-league players and even your best players and that doesn't necessarily mean they're true," Epstein said. "No one knows how this winter's going to evolve. Even us. We have no idea who will be available for us, so I think taking any name that comes up in a trade rumor with a mouthful of salt is appropriate — not just a grain because I think they're usually untrue. 

"Not that [trade rumors] come from a malicious place, but sometimes they can have real-world negative consequences for a player and his family. So we're gonna do everything we can to operate respectfully and these guys whose names keep coming up in trade rumors have done a ton for our franchise and are among the very best players in the world. I don't want to do anything to make their lives more difficult. 

"Most trade rumors out there are not true. We have no idea how this winter's gonna go down, we have a ton of respect for our big-league team and the policy of having no untouchables is something we've had here for eight years. So we'll just see how the winter evolves, what's available to us and take it day-by-day, but we'll try to operate with a lot of respect for our players."

The Cubs have two years of control left on Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez and Kyle Schwarber and Contreras is a free agent after the 2022 season, so the clock is ticking on the roster's core players. A young talent like Nico Hoerner provides hope for the future, but the Cubs need more of that and they don't have waves of top prospects rolling into Wrigley Field like they did in 2015-16. 

This is also a core that won only 84 games in 2019 despite the breadth of talent on the roster. On top of that, the Cubs have plenty of pitching questions that will need to be answered, both in the short-term and long-term future.

Trading away a core member of the team (like Contreras or Bryant) and restocking the organization with young talent while keeping much of the group together could be the best of both worlds, allowing the Cubs to contend in 2020-21 while also building for the future.

"In an ideal world, you can enhance your major-league team and put a really compelling product out there — a team that has a legitimate chance to win the World Series and also take significant steps toward ensuring your future and make sure there's not that big of a dropoff after 2021," Epstein said. "There's probably a series of moves that we could pull off that could bring that about, but it won't be easy and you normally have to make sacrifices one way or the other and operate in a world where there are real tradeoffs.

"So we'll have to see what's available to us. This is the start of that process, really seeing what are realistic paths we can take, not just these sort of idyllic paths that we try to create in our mind."

Of course, the Cubs could also ink any of those aforementioned players to contract extensions and subsequently set the franchise up for a better future, too. The trade market isn't the only avenue to strengthen the organization beyond 2021, but it may be the most likely if players would rather test free agency or the Cubs find another team willing to meet their asking price in a deal.

Contreras, for example, is three years away from free agency, so there's not as much motivation for him to sign a long-term extension right now as there would be for a guy like Bryant or Rizzo. 

With all the change the Cubs are enacting behind the scenes on the coaching staff and in the front office, it makes sense that change would potentially carry over to the roster, too.

Still, Epstein doesn't want things to play out the way they did last winter with the Bryant trade rumor or how it's already gone down early this offseason with Bryant and Contreras whispers.

"We're not gonna contribute to this environment where there's a hysteria about a certain player getting traded on a given day and then it turns out not to happen and then the next day, it's on to the next player who's definitely gonna get moved," Epstein said. "...I don't love the 140-character news cycle and how quick it moves. We try never to be part of that and then this winter in particular, you're talking about some guys who are pretty important parts of the organization and trying to be sensitive to it."

Watch Yu Darvish practice throwing lefty at home

Watch Yu Darvish practice throwing lefty at home

The Winter of Yu continues. If you’re already itching for more baseball this post-season, Yu Darvish’s social media has got you covered.

Darvish uploaded a video to YouTube of him and a friend playing softball in their driveway, with Darvish throwing lefty. You can watch the video below.

In the description, Darvish says the throw types are: four seams, two seams, cuts, sliders, curves and change-ups. He also writes that “the control was bad today,” but it’s always cool to see a pro practicing casually at home during the offseason.

Despite being a right-handed pitcher and batter, Darvish has been known to occasionally throw left-handed in the bullpen or when just playing catch at Wrigley. There have been multiple reports that Darvish may be just as solid with his left as he is pitching right. Maybe this casual offseason practice session is a sign that he’ll want to bring more left-handed pitches in 2020. Regardless, we’re happy to see Wrigley’s resident social media star giving us some baseball content to tide us over until next spring. 

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