Once I calmed down from the Lackey signing Friday evening, I began to focus on the length of the deal – two years. That’s pretty good for a 37-year-old pitcher coming off 200 innings pitched in 2015. But when I considered why Lackey only got a two-year deal, my thoughts began shifting away from his age at the end of the deal (39) to who the Cubs will have ready in 2018.
It’s quite well known throughout the industry that it takes 5-7 years to develop a pitcher. As such, Theo Epstein and Co. have yet to develop either a reliever or a starter at the major league level from among their draft and international free agent acquisitions. That will all change in the next two years.
For the past six weeks, Teddy Eley and I have been breaking down the Cubs organizational depth at both the major and minor league levels. It has been fun to work with a young writer and a keen evaluator of talent in Teddy. We have two posts to write over winter break, when I am not teaching and Teddy is not studying. One post will be on relievers in the organization, and the other will be on starting pitching. But Lackey’s signing got me jumping a little ahead of schedule as far as the starting pitching, specifically who the Cubs could have ready in 2018 that they could just slide in to replace Lackey when his deal expires.
There are two pitchers who could be ready late this year in Ryan Williams and Pierce Johnson. But 2018? That puts us within the 5-7 year developmental timeframe for the earliest of the guys the current regime has acquired. When I survey the Cubs prospect landscape for who could be available, I need look no further than Kodak, Tennessee, where I find 7 starters who could fit that 2018 window. The players in question have been part of championship teams at both Kane County and Myrtle Beach in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
Cubs VP Jason McLeod stated last winter it would be great if one or two members of the Kane County 2014 rotation (who will be at Tennessee in 2016) could make it to Chicago. Not all will make it to Chicago in 2018, and some may never make it, but a few could be pushing for a job along with Johnson and Williams. The first pitching wave Jed Hoyer often speaks of is very close.
The most interesting aspect of the 2018 window is that the Cubs have 2-3 other waves of starters stacked up behind this first group. Teddy and I will be looking at all of them later this month. For now, though, I offer just a sneak peek into one collection of pitchers who will be at Tennessee in 2016 and who could be ready in 2018
- Duane Underwood – Currently with two plus pitches — a 95 mph fastball and 12-7 curve — the Cubs will put in an express lane to Wrigley just for him if Underwood can master the change. He is currently the top-rated pitching prospect in the organization, and deservedly so. He had an elbow scare last summer but came back to pitch later in the year and threw a devastating 7K game in the championship series. He pitched more to contact in 2015, relying on the late movement of his fastball to get a lot of ground-ball outs. In fact, he only struck out more than four batters only 3 times in 2015.
- Jonathan Martinez – He has great command and experience, and this will be in his sixth year of minor league ball despite being only 21. He is on a turtle’s pace, but sometimes slow and steady wins the race when you know where to put the ball. Martinez showed he could do just that in his first full year as a Cub after coming over from the Dodgers in the Darwin Barney trade, posting a 2.56 ERA in 21 starts and 110 innings in 2015. Opponents batted .199 against him and he had an amazing WHIP of 0.90. Like other pitchers in this list, he doesn’t yet have that one out pitch.
- Tyler Skulina – In 2014, Tyler Skulina’s velocity dipped from his college level of 94-96 down to 89-91. Tendonitis is his plant knee was the cause and not divulged until after he went on the DL shortly after being promoted from Kane County. Well, in 2015, Skulina’s college velocity returned and he was one of the pleasant surprises of 2015, putting up 0.90 ERA in June before minor injuries began to derail his season. He has the fastball, he just needs to stay healthy.
- Jen-Ho Tseng – He has a plus curve and a change up that rolls off the table. I saw him several times in 2014 at Kane County and he got a lot of laughable swings with his changeup. In 2015, he struggled in the first half as he tinkered with his fastball and it resulted in an extremely high walk rate for a guy who only issued 15 free passes in 2014. In the second half of 2015, he ditched the 95 mph heater he’d been working on for a more pedestrian 91-93 mph and returned to form with a 2.78 ERA in 11 starts. If that same old Tseng returns in 2106, it’s a good thing. With two plus off-speed pitches, he stands a good shot at making it as a reliever or a starter.
- Daury Torrez – I don’t know how much longer he stays a starter, though I’d think he sticks there at least one more year. His arsenal — a mid 90’s fastball mixed with a hard slider — screams reliever. Torrez could be a two-pitch pitcher out of the pen and be successful doing it.
- Brad Markey – The biggest surprise last summer was Markey going from setup man to closer at South Bend, then to piggyback starter to getting his own rotation spot at Myrtle Beach, where he went 8 starts with a 1.15 ERA and a .186 batting average against. He is not going to develop much more at age 23 and he could move faster than the other young pitchers above. What I like most about him is that he attacks the zone and doesn’t waste pitches. A hitter has to be ready to hit against him when they step in the box because the strikes are coming.
- Paul Blackburn – His first half was not so good in 2015, when he had a 4.66 ERA before going on the DL. Minor injuries were likely the reason for the inflated stats, as a healthy second half yielded much better results. The pitcher many thought Blackburn would be when he was at Boise in 2013 returned with a vengeance, and Blackburn had 8 starts with a 1.31 ERA after coming off the DL in July. He has great command of 3 pitches and even though scouts say he doesn’t have one great pitch, I really like his 12-6 curveball. It catches a lot of hitters looking and induces some ugly swings. Sometimes I think he should throw it more but, on the other hand, he throws it for a strike whenever he wants.
Evaluating minor league pitching is not an exact science. I am sure there will be one SP or another we didn’t see coming who bursts on the scene in the coming season. In 2014, it was Underwood and Torrez; in 2015, it was Oscar De La Cruz down in Eugene.
However, remember this from what Jason McLeod said at the Cubs Convention in 2015: Dominance at one level does not mean you will dominate at the next. Pitching, even in the minors, requires constant adjustment. To get to Chicago by 2018, when Lackey’s deal is over, is going to require several adjustments by these pitchers.
Check back in about three weeks when Teddy and I examine the entire starting pitching depth in the organization.