In Theo Epstein’s end of the year press conference, he commented on the need for the Cubs to add quality pitching this offseason. Although the Cubs aren’t lauded for their pitching prospects, due to their keen eye in the draft they are developing some depth in that department. While they are still lacking a top-of-the-rotation arm in their system, they do have a couple of intriguing prospects in the lower levels with high ceilings who could be potential contributors next season and beyond.
Carl Edwards Jr.
Formerly known as CJ, the slender right-hander was converted to the bullpen at the beginning of the year and ended up accumulating 60 innings across three levels, including five appearances for the Cubs. The big knock on Edwards is his frame, as he stands 6’2” and weighs only 170 pounds, leading many to question his durability. If he is working out of the bullpen full time he should be able to handle a decent workload.
The former 48th round pick has arguably the best pure stuff in the system Edwards has a killer one-two punch with his fastball and curveball, both plus pitches when he’s commanding them. The fastball sits in the low 90’s, but he can get up to 97 when he has to. What makes the pitch special though is its natural cut, as hitters have a hard time squaring it up. The issue here though is that his control of the fastball is still inconsistent, as illustrated by a 6.7 BB/9 in the minors this season.
The curveball is a plus pitch and has big spike to it, and he can drop it in for strikes or throw it as an out pitch. The changeup developed some this season but still remains the laggard of the three, though if he is relieving the development of it is not very important. Edwards should compete for a role in the Cubs bullpen coming out of spring training, and as soon as his fastball command tightens up he’ll slot into the back end of the pen.
A 2nd round draft pick in 2012, Underwood suffered from inflammation in his right elbow which limited him to 78.1 innings this season. At Myrtle Beach his fastball operated in the 93-97 mph range and he continued to show an inconsistent curve that flashed plus when he released it correctly. His changeup is still coming together; at the moment it has enough velocity separation from the fastball but lacks movement to make the pitch a swing-and-miss offering.
Underwood’s numbers weren’t all that impressive this year considering the stuff. He had only a 5.89 K/9, but he was learning to pitch to contact for much of the year, something the new regime has stressed. Next season will be an important one for the North Carolina native as he builds innings on his arm and continues to refine his secondary pitches. He should begin the year at Tennessee, but if everything clicks he could be in the back of the Cubs bullpen come September.
The Missouri State product once again suffered from a variety of injuries this season but still managed to accumulate 95 innings at the AA level and is currently pitching in the AFL. He put up a 2.08 ERA, but that was very much aided by an uncharacteristically low HR rate. His command improved from last year as he limited the number of walks thanks to better consistency in his delivery.
His fastball sits in the low 90’s with movement and he can also throw a two-seamer. His curveball is a sharp hammer in the low 80’s that is a plus pitch. He also throws a changeup with fade, but it is still inconsistent. Next season is all about logging innings for Johnson. He has the stuff and body to succeed in a major league rotation but will need to prove he can stay healthy over a full season.
While scouting Jeff Hoffman last season at East Carolina, the Cubs were also able to see a lot of Ryan Williams, prompting them to select him in the 10th round of the 2014 draft. Williams continued to roll through every level of competition he faced en route to becoming the Cubs minor league pitcher of the year. He ended the year pitching 141.2 innings and had an outstanding 2.76 ERA in AA, by far the toughest competition he has faced in his life.
The former (ECU) Pirate has a large and thick base, the perfect body for a back-end starter. His arsenal features a fastball that sits in the low 90’s and that he uses to really attacks hitters, getting in a lot of favorable counts. He also throws a slider and 12-6 power curveball in the 82-84 mph range, both of which could become average pitchers. His command of the fastball is what makes Williams successful, as he can throw the pitch wherever he wants. That’s a really good baseline to have, and if he is able to go deep into starts and continue to get batters out in the upper minors, he could be in Chicago late next year.
The San Diego native started off strong in the Smokies rotation this season before moving to the bullpen about mid-way through the year. Coming out of the bullpen, however, he just couldn’t control his pitches at all. This lead to a 4.92 BB/9 and 4.92 ERA, though his peripherals are much better. Standing at just 5’10”, Black is able to pump out easy 93-95 mph gas out of the pen to go along with an above-average slider and changeup. In order to succeed, Black is going to have to control his fastball better and to keep it low in the zone.
I had the chance to interview him earlier in the year, and he understands this concept and is willing to work hard. From my experience, Black is a very level-headed ballplayer whose knowledge for the game is impressive. I think the struggles he faced this past season will force him to work even harder in the offseason. If he comes into next season firing on all cylinders, he could be a bullpen piece by mid-season. He’s likely to start the year with the Smokies and will move accordingly to his fastball command. He will be 24 years old going into next season, so if he doesn’t put it together now then he’ll likely need a change of environment. However, I have trust in Black and believe he will succeed next season.
Up next will be volatile pitchers in the low minors with high-ceilings.