The Cubs chose Kris Bryant with their first pick in the 2013 draft. With their next pick they selected a left-handed pitcher from the University of Missouri by the name of Rob Zastryzny. When he debuted with the Cubs on August 19, the man known as Rob Z became the first pitcher drafted by the current front office to reach the majors. The southpaw ended up making eight appearances (one start), posting excellent numbers in his short stint: 1.13 ERA, 2.15 FIP in 16 IP with a 3.04 K/BB ratio.
Zastryzny certainly made the most of his small sample in 2016, both as a reliever and starter, which begs the question: What role will he fill in 2017?
The Cubs are still in the process of reshuffling their pitching staff after their 2016 title run. Jason Hammel was let go and Mike Montgomery has been given the inside track to be the fifth starter. Then there are the links to free agent Tyson Ross, who is recovering from shoulder surgery. The two main lefty options from the bullpen, Aroldis Chapman and Travis Wood, have moved on (presumably, in the latter case). If Montgomery indeed remains in the rotation, it creates a need for a left-handed bullpen arm.
There is a case to be made for Zastryzny to become that reliever. All but one of the Canadian native’s major league appearances came from the bullpen and he held left-handed batters to a .138 batting average with 10 strikeouts and one walk in those seven outings. If he could maintain anything close to those numbers over a complete season, he’d approach Andrew Miller levels of dominance.
Durability concerns may play a role as well. Zastryzny battled injuries in 2014 and ’15, which limited his inning totals to 110 and 64.2 those seasons and prompted the Cubs to send him to the Arizona Fall League in 2015 to get extra reps and make up for missed time. So health-wise it may also better for him to remain in a relief role.
On the other hand, there is still a case to be made for the former Missouri Tiger to continue forward as a starter. As John Arguello of Cubs Den pointed out in his recent prospect profile of Zastryzny, the biggest impediment to his performance had been an inconsistent curve ball. This reduced him to a two-pitch (fastball/changeup) pitcher, which made starting a real struggle. Unless those two options are flat-out electric, that’s just not enough to get it done in the majors.
Arguello reported that Zastryzny put in extensive work on his curve in Arizona prior to the 2016 season and it appeared to pay off. Upon reaching the major league level, Zastryzny showed a curve that could be devastating to left-handed hitters. Maintaining that sharp bender gives him a very effective three-pitch repertoire and would make him a much more viable option for the rotation, particularly as the Cubs seek to fill it out beyond the 2017 season.
With the future in mind, it might be worthwhile to give Zastryzny a full season starting at AAA Iowa to see if he can use his three-pitch mix to full effect. Depending on how things shake out, he could even have an outside chance to win the 5th starter job in spring training. Evan noted that he’d prefer Mike Montgomery to stay in the bullpen, particularly if the Ross deal comes to fruition.
Even if they don’t land the former Padre, the Cubs are expected to employ a six-man rotation for at least part(s) of the 2017 season. In that case, Zastryzny could fill that extra spot on at least an as-needed basis while continuing to hone his craft in Iowa.
In the end, I think the southpaw with the hard-to-say name ends up in Cubs bullpen in 2017. The amazing numbers he posted against lefty hitters in 2016 are just too good to ignore and Zastryzny’s suddenly wicked curve is the perfect weapon to use late in the game against a powerful left-handed bat. He may get a chance to start down the road, but he gives the team the most value and the best chance to win by coming out of the pen.