As the minor league regular season comes to a close this weekend, we can reflect on a lot of bright spots in the Cubs’ minor league organization. For example, pitcher Ryan Williams and catcher Willson Contreras of AA Tennessee are both sure to win organizational player of the year awards. Williams began the year in South Bend and skipped to AA Tennessee and was 14-2 on the year with a 2.18 ERA in an amazing 140.2 innings after converting from reliever to starter. Contreras, who never hit above .273 before this year, hit the cover off the ball with a .328 average, 8 HR, and 73 RBIs. What first began as a short streak, Contreras turned into a season-long showcase.
In August, the Cubs organization gave us a glimpse into the kind of prospect pitching depth we might see in 2016. The pitching was the driving force for most of the lower level teams to get into the playoffs. After a disastrous first half, South Bend was in playoff contention for most of the second half before being eliminated on Thursday. Arizona made the playoffs and lost in a suspended game to the Mariners. Eugene is holding on to a small lead with 2 games left to play.
While Tennessee was eliminated a week ago, Myrtle Beach has been waiting since June to play for a championship – the second year in a row for most members of the team who were at Kane County in 2014. Earlier this week, pitchers Duane Underwood and Tyler Skulina returned to the Pelicans after a month on the DL. Both were dominant in their starts, going 9 innings combined with 1 earned run and 8 Ks between them.
Here are several of the great prospects in the Cubs system who had dominating Augusts on the mound.
Ryan Williams – 5-0 with a 2.02 ERA, struck out 19 in 35.2 innings
Pierce Johnson – 2.75 ERA with 30 Ks in 39.1 innings
Both of these guys have been dominant all summer for AA Tennessee. Williams dazzled with his command of three pitches down in the zone and his closer’s mentality on the mound. He just comes right at hitters. Johnson used a four-pitch mix to strike out 69 in 88 innings. After a two-month stint on the DL, Johnson showed in his second year at Tennessee why he is one of the top Cubs pitching prospects despite high walk totals (31).
I think both pitchers have put themselves in a position to at least contend for the fifth starter spot next year in spring training. And if they don’t win a spot, then AAA Iowa awaits to develop them even more.
Paul Blackburn – 2.11 ERA, struck out 15 in 22.1 innings (got 9 in 1 game)
Brad Markey – Pitched 24 innings, struck out 16, and had a stellar 1.84 ERA
Jonathan Martinez – He had only three starts but put up a 0.56 ERA with 11 Ks in 15 innings.
The Myrtle Beach is rotation is insane. When looking at the three starting pitchers who made this list, there are five others, including Daury Torrez, Jen-Ho Tseng, and Jeremy Null, who did not. It’s no wonder this team is in position to win a championship again next week in the Carolina league. Last night, Brad Markey was scary good while going 7 innings, striking out 6, and lowering his ERA for the year down to 1.13. With Underwood and Skulina now healthy, the Pelicans have 8 pitchers who could start in the playoffs. That’s some serious depth on just one team.
Trevor Clifton – 2.37 ERA, went 4-1, struck out 24 in 30.1 innings
Jake Stinnett – 2.84 ERA while striking out 28 in 31.2 innings
Tommy Thorpe – 1.88 ERA while striking out 17 in 24 innings
Erick Leal – 2.48 ERA in 5 starts and struck out 22 in 29 innings
Thanks in part to a disastrous road record, the South Bend Cubs limped to a first-half mark of 29-38. The Cubs turned it around in the second half due in large part to some excellent starting pitching from top prospects Jake Stinnett and Trevor Clifton. Erick Leal pitched a nine-inning no-hitter only to see the Cubs lose the game in extra innings. Converted reliever Tommy Thorpe stunned everybody when he was converted to a starter after he struggled early in the year. When injuries and suspensions thinned out the rotation in early June, Thorpe stepped in and never looked back.
Preston Morrison – 0.79 ERA in 11 innings with an amazing 18 Ks
Kyle Twomey – 0.79 ERA in 11.1 innings with 9 Ks
Casey Bloomquist – 1.93 ERA with 16 Ks in 13.2 innings
Oscar De La Cruz – 2.73 ERA, 29.2 innings, 32 Ks, 13 of them in one game
Jose Paulino – in relief – 6 games, 15.1 innings, 18 Ks, and a 2.93 ERA
To me, Eugene has a ton of pitching talent and we didn’t even mention Carson Sands and Justin Steele above. The only problem with most of their rotation is that they are college pitchers who were limited to two- and three-inning starts. It will be interesting to see how Preston Morrison does once the limits are lifted for playoff games. The same is true for Kyle Twomey and Casey Bloomquist, who have both been excellent.
The most promising pitching prospect this summer to develop in the Cubs system is Oscar De La Cruz. The 20-year-old Dominican is currently throwing a mid-90’s fastball and developing his secondary pitches. The Cubs have a big problem with him though: he is still growing and adding to his now six foot six frame. It is scary what he could become very quickly.
The Cubs have a ton of talent moving forward from the Rookie League. Young high school and international pitchers form a collection of solid arms. They include Dylan Cease, Jesus Camargo, Austyn Willis, Gabriel Lima, Perdro Silverio, Enrique De Los Rios, and 2015 third-round pick Bryan Hudson.
As these pitchers progress next year it will be interesting to see where they are assigned. For example, Preston Morrison is an advanced pitcher who has experience in the College World Series. Could he skip South Bend and go to Myrtle Beach? Could De La Cruz be moved quickly in 2016 like Williams and Null were in 2015? If Dylan Cease can develop secondary pitches, how fast can he move?
These are good questions to ask and good problems to have as the Cubs have really stocked up on pitchers in the lower levels. The creation of waves of pitching that Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McLeod talked about in 2012 and 2013 will begin reaching the upper levels of the minors next year. While hitters like Baez, Bryant, Russell, and Schwarber grabbed headlines the past few years, the pitchers are coming.