Will 2018 be the year Duane Underwood finally breaks out?


Will 2018 be the year Duane Underwood finally breaks out?

Duane Underwood Jr. is all that remains.

That sounds like a tagline to a horror movie and in a way, it is. 

The Cubs have struggled to develop any sort of impact pitching from the MLB Draft under Theo Epstein's tenure in Chicago and Underwood represents the only player left of the top three pitchers selected after Albert Almora in the front office's first Cubs draft back in June 2012.

Pierce Johnson — the first pitcher selected by the Epstein regime (43rd overall) — was released this winter after making one appearance with the big-league club in 2017.

Paul Blackburn — selected 56th overall — was traded away along with Daniel Vogelbach as part of the Mike Montgomery deal and after another trade (from Seattle to Oakland), made 10 quality starts for the A's last year.

Underwood was chosen third of that group — 67th overall in the second round — and he has yet to climb above Double-A, struggling to stay healthy throughout his six-year career.

Underwood was drafted ahead of guys like Alex Wood (85th overall), Edwin Diaz (98th), Chris Taylor (161st) and Jake Lamb (213th), who all played important roles for their big-league clubs in 2017.

Underwood, meanwhile, was in big-league camp last spring and failed to make an impact.

"Last year, he came up a little slow and had soreness in spring training," said Jaron Madison, Cubs director of player development. "He's a guy that has not stayed healthy for a full season yet.

"It's great for him to come out and show well in spring training but for us, it's more important he's ready for the whole season and can get through 140 games. And that way we can continue to build up innings and helping out the big-league level."

The Cubs rolled with Almora in that first draft (No. 6 overall), betting on a position player over the high risk associated with pitching. But they hedged their bets by selecting seven pitchers in a row immediately after Almora and drafted nine arms in the first 10 rounds.

Ryan McNeil was not one of those top three pitchers taken, but he is still in the organization, appearing in 28 games in 2017 as Underwood's teammate in Tennessee. McNeil had a bloated 5.79 ERA and 1.75 WHIP as he struggled with control (20 walks in 28 innings). 

Expanding that 2012 Cubs draft further, the rest of the pitchers taken are now out of the system (or out of baseball altogether):

Josh Conway (4th round) — spent 2017 in Independent League

Anthony Prieto (5th round) — out of baseball after 2013

Trey Lang (6th round) — out of baseball after 2014

Michael Heesch (8th round) — spent 2017 in the Independent League

Chad Martin (10th round) — out of baseball after 2013

It's those top three — Johnson, Blackburn and Underwood — who carried high expectations and as of yet, haven't provided meaningful innings for the Cubs. 

But there still may be some hope for the 23-year-old Underwood, even if he doesn't help out the big-league club as a starter.

Underwood has made all but five of his 100 career minor-league appearances as a starter, posting a 3.72 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 6.8 K/9. He made 24 starts in 2017, his highest total ever in a professional season.

Coming into 2018, the Cubs are hoping Underwood comes into big-league training camp in Arizona, turns heads, goes back down to either Double-A Tennessee or Triple-A Iowa and eventually helps the team in Chicago in some capacity.

"He has major-league weapons," Madison said. "He has matured a lot this past year and he had a very candid conversation with Theo in the middle of the year and kinda stepped it up and took charge of his career.

"He moved to Arizona full-time so he could work out all offseason and be prepared for the year. Assuming he's healthy, I expect him to come to spring training and impress some guys."

Reds pitcher Amir Garrett apparently held a grudge against Javy Baez for a year

Reds pitcher Amir Garrett apparently held a grudge against Javy Baez for a year

Baseball players don't forget grudges. Javy Baez and Reds pitcher Amir Garrett gave an example of that on Saturday.

Garrett struck out Baez in the seventh inning of the first game of the Cubs-Reds doubleheader. Garrett showed some excitement with the strikeout and then said something to Baez. They both started jawing at each other and suddenly the benches cleared.

At first glance, it looked like Garrett was a bit too excited to get a strikeout with no one on base. Turns out Baez had his own bit of swag for Garrett last year (Friday was the one-year anniversary) in the form of a grand slam at Wrigley Field.

This time Garrett got Baez and wanted to even things up a bit.

Things didn't get too feisty despite the benches clearing, but Anthony Rizzo did rush to Baez's side at some speed. This could be a matchup to keep an eye out for in the future.

Cubs Talk Podcast: The greatest Cubs moments at Great American Ballpark


Cubs Talk Podcast: The greatest Cubs moments at Great American Ballpark

Siera Santos, Kelly Crull, and David DeJesus go into the audio archives to break down the biggest games for the Cubs in Cincinnati.

David DeJesus gives us his top 3 ballgames with such gems as The Schwarber Game, The Kris Bryant Game, Starlin Castro’s debut, and Jake Arrieta’s second no hitter.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: