Tyson Miller

19 for '19: Is this the year young pitchers finally come up from farm system to help in Chicago?

19 for '19: Is this the year young pitchers finally come up from farm system to help in Chicago?

We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: Is 2019 the year young pitchers finally come up from farm system to help in Chicago?

We're entering Year 8 of Theo Epstein's regime at Wrigley Field and Rob Zastryzny still has been the most impactful pitcher drafted and developed by this front office.

Zastryzny has 34.2 MLB innings under his belt, which leads the way for any pitcher selected in the seven drafts or signed on the international market by Epstein and Co. (Note: Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr. are not included in this group, as they were both drafted by the Rangers, where they spent the first few years of their respective careers. But obviously both pitchers have been a huge part of the staff the last few years.)

Joe Maddon always says you could call this game "pitching" instead of "baseball" because of how important it is to have enough quality arms. But the Cubs have been forced to throw a bunch of money at their staff to fill holes instead of promoting from within with cost-controlled arms.

So when is that next wave of pitchers finally going to hit Chicago?

2019 looks like a strong bet to be the start of such a wave.

Top pitching prospect Adbert Alzolay was considered as a choice to come up to the majors and start the second game of a doubleheader in Cincinnati, but the Cubs ultimately decided to keep him in the minor leagues. He later went down with a lat injury and didn't throw a pitch after May 29.

The 24-year-old right-hander is off to a slow start already this year as his spring was delayed by a side/back issue suffered in a bullpen right before the beginning of camp. He'll start the year with Triple-A Iowa, but he could potentially be the first arm called up if the Cubs need another guy in the bullpen. 

With last year's injury, the Cubs will undoubtedly be cautious with Alzolay this year, putting an innings limit of some sort in place (maybe around the 75-inning mark). So if he does get called up, a spot as a reliever seems to make the most sense

The ideal scenario for the Cubs might be to have Alzolay prove he can get big-league hitters out in the bullpen in 2019 and then pencil him in as part of the competition for the fifth starter's spot in the 2020 rotation (assuming Cole Hamels leaves after this season).

After Alzolay, the Cubs have a few other options who may make their way to Chicago in 2019.

Dakota Mekkes - a 2016 draft pick - has been dominant as a reliever while soaring up the Cubs system

James Norwood and Duane Underwood Jr. may be another options for the bullpen after each got a cup of coffee in The Show last season.

Dillon Maples wasn't an Epstein draft pick (he was selected in 2011 in Jim Hendry's final year as GM), but if he could become a reliable part of the big-league bullpen, that would obviously be huge for the franchise. He struggled with control again last year and has 2 walks in 4.1 innings this spring, but he's also struck out 9 of the 18 Cactus League hitters he's faced in Arizona to date.

Left-hander Justin Steele - a 5th-round pick in 2014 - may be an option to consider in the bullpen late this year and still could have a future as a starter.

If a bunch of injuries hit the rotation, Duncan Robinson could get the call this year. A host of other arms (Tyson Miller, Keegan Thompson, Thomas Hatch, Trevor Clifton) could follow in late 2019 or after.

Again, the key words in every one of these scenarios are "could" and "may." And who knows how many high-leverage innings this group of young arms would work even if they made it to Chicago. 

At the moment, it doesn't look like any young pitcher will make that jump for the Opening Day roster. But if Pedro Strop is unable to get over this hamstring injury in the next couple weeks, that certainly creates an opening.

The overall state of pitching in the Cubs farm system is probably the best its been since Hendricks and Edwards came up, so better days very well MAY be ahead.

The complete 19 for '19 series:

19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

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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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