There is always some rite of passage at every level of the minor leagues. Players can make a leap in development to catapult to the next level as small things that have been worked on in side sessions or the batting cage begin to manifest themselves in gameplay.
That was the case for Trevor Clifton, whose early career was less about peaks and valleys and more a slow burn up to AA. But he burst onto the scene in 2016 and was named the Cubs’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Clifton should be at AA Tennessee to begin the year, playing home games only about 45 minutes from his parents’ house.
For most prospects, AA tends to separate the pretenders from the contenders. It is a place where organizations figure out which of their players have a chance to make it in the major leagues. I like to think that the coming season will be less Clifton’s crucible than it could be his launching pad. He will have his good starts and his bad starts, sure, but he can continue what began as far back as late July of 2015, when he began to post consistent outing after consistent outing.
- 6’4” 215
- 21 years old
- Right-handed starting pitcher
- Still relatively young (22 in May)
- Fastball 92-95 consistently – commands well down in the zone
- Spiked curve has always been an out/plus pitch; very good command now
- Changeup was his best pitch by far in 2016
- Can pitch his way out of trouble
- Limited walks in 2016
- Arm action extremely loose when he’s relaxed
- Ball explodes out of his hand and then again about 10 feet from the plate, making it very hard to hit
Areas of Concern
- Getting the leadoff hitter out; he grew by leaps and bounds on this in 2016
- Getting out of the first inning unscathed; after that, he’s usually fine
- Holding runners on; great strides in throwing over to first
- Overthrowing, pulling across his body sometimes
Barring any unforeseen issues, Clifton will be at AA Tennessee to start the season.
What I would like to see
While the team has its own plan laid out for him, I’d say 150-160 IP this year would be a good move up the ladder for Clifton. That would mean he’s working into the 7th inning most starts, which indicates that he’s working through those issues that have plagued him early in games.
Last year’s 119 innings pitched were the most of Clifton’s career (119), so a jump to 150 in 2017 would be significant. Much of that increase will come from being in a more consistent five-man rotation. While large strikeout numbers are nice, I would just like to see him be more efficient and get to deep into games on a consistent basis.
In addition to the numbers we see on paper, I also think Clifton has to display controlled tenacity. If he does what he is capable of, he would be a panther on the mound, just controlling the pace of the game and attacking when he wants with lethal precision. Above all the other Cubs’ pitching prospects, Clifton has the lethality and control needed to really succeed at the highest level. Last year saw him make a big jump in his development with his changeup.
It’s no secret that I love to watch this young man pitch. A lot of that comes from potential, but more comes from the fact that he works hard to improve. He’s always trying to polish some aspect of his game. If it’s good, he wants it to be great.
Clifton could be an excellent third starter or he could relieve. You never know a player’s career arc. With two starters in Lackey and Arrieta supposedly coming off the books after 2017, Clifton could be part of a small contingent of arms ready to compete for one of those spots. Sure, the Cubs would like a veteran, but ultimately they want someone who can get the job done.
By this time next year, he should be on the 40-man roster as he will be Rule 5 eligible this fall. But first…
One level at a time, one level at a time.