Left-handed starters might be the most coveted role in the Cubs organization. Much of that is due to scarcity, as they only have roughly 10 such pitchers. On the bright side, that makes ranking them a lot less difficult. But as has been said too many times to count, development is not linear and you never know what is going to happen from year to year.
I had Rob Zastryzny at No. 1 last year and I thought for sure he was going to be in the bullpen in Chicago all year long. Ryan Kellogg was at No. 2 and he struggled most of the year at Myrtle Beach after a dominating second half at South Bend in 2016. Jose Paulino came in next, followed by South Bend teammate Manny Rondon. Both struggled at low-A, though Paulino rebounding some in the second half.
Then came Bryan Hudson and Justin Steele, both despite struggles at their respective levels in 2016. I really liked the maturation I saw from the 20-year-old Hudson in 2017. He’s not perfect yet, but he became a ground ball machine and was vastly improved from 2016. Steele probably had the best year of any Cubs’ southpaw, but he underwent elbow reconstruction in late August.
What I initially thought would be an easy list this year actually turned into something a bit more daunting. You would think out of 10 arms, I could find five or six that I really like. If only I had a time machine and could jump forward several months. But alas, I’m going to have to make some educated projections.
7. Didier Vargas is a Dominican Summer League player who had some success last year. He doesn’t throw as hard as fellow teenager Danis Correa, but at just 18, Vargas should do well in Mesa after posting a 0.99 ERA in 63.2 IP while missing 55 bats in the DSL last season.
6. Brailyn Marquez would be No. 1 if this list was based purely on raw talent. If it was on command, however, he wouldn’t make the cut at all. Marquez, a part of Mesa’s championship team last year, can throw in the mid 90’s with a killer curve. The problem is that he has not gotten his control and command down yet. He can look like the greatest thing for two or three innings and then turn into a BP machine. He K’d 52 men in 44 innings, but gave up 50 hits.
5. Rob Zastryzny could be a starter, or he could be a reliever. Or the Cubs could just maintain that flexibility with him. It’s challenging when you don’t know how they want you to be used, but my guess is the Cubs will keep him stretched out at Iowa in case of an emergency this year.
4. Jose Paulino went from 75 to 123.2 IP between 2016 and 2017. He struggled in May and June, posting ERAs over 6.00 in both months before being placed on leave for a week and then moved to the bullpen to begin the second half. He got another chance to start in July and put together a nice string of outings with a 2.28 ERA for the month, following up with a 3.34 ERA in six August starts. What I liked most about his year was that he went 6+ or more innings 11 times in 22 starts, seven of which came in the second half. That bodes really well for 2018 at Myrtle Beach.
3. Justin Steele is not going to play in 2018, but he will hopefully carry the approach he began at Myrtle Beach with him to AA Tennessee next year. He credits daily mental routines for his 2017 success and his aggressiveness on the mound was also a key factor. In 20 starts, he had a 2.82 ERA with 82 Ks in 98.2 innings. The other day, Steele tweeted that he has already begun throwing in his rehab. If all goes well, I am beginning to wonder if he might actually pitch some in relief the second half of the year.
2. Bryan Hudson probably should’ve gotten a 1b designation because his future looks mighty bright. It’s easy to get hung up on his ERA last year (3.91), but I liked what I saw in his ability to get hitters out. He figured out he could get guys to beat the ball into the ground with his fastball just as well as he could with his killer curve/slider. He’s going to have the best year performance-wise of this group. There’s a lot to look forward to, as he can still fill out that 6′ 8″ frame, as well as gain a couple ticks on the fastball.
1. Brendon Little didn’t necessarily put up the greatest performance last season. He had some command issues in his debut at Eugene and his velocity was way down from what he displayed in college. But he also showed a devastating curveball at times, and could very easily get back up into that 92-94 range rather than the high-80’s, low 90’s. Little came from a juco program and just turned 21, so he lacks the polish of someone like Lange who spent three years in a major program (LSU) and pitched in the College World Series.
Little is going to be a work in progress, but the end result in three or four years could be substantial. That’s what you have to focus on as a fan, not just the six weeks in Eugene last season. He might be one of those guys the Cubs keep in extended spring training in April and May to work on some things before he goes to South Bend. The Cubs poured a lot of money into Little, and I don’t see them rushing him through the system.
Other names to keep an eye on
I’m not ready to give up on Manny Rondon, who may benefit from the environs of the Carolina League and be a bounceback prospect just like Steele was in 2017. I’m pretty sure Ryan Kellogg will be at Tennessee in 2018, but I’m not so sure what role he is going to have. Daniel Camarena is a recent MiLB free agent signed by the Cubs this offseason from the Yankees. Last year, the 25-year-old made 22 starts with a 3.65 ERA and threw 117.1 innings. He should be at Iowa to start the year.
Andres Bonalde put together a great second half in the DSL in 2016, posting a 2.31 ERA in seven starts that included a 1.29 ERA in four August starts. Still only 20 years old, the 6’6” southpaw missed all of 2017 and will be looking to get back on track this season.
The big question mark is Carson Sands. He underwent surgery last winter for elbow splints and returned in late July. He did some rehab starts in Mesa before joining South Bend, where he struggled to find the plate. After two terrible starts for South Bend, he was sent to Eugene, where he made one start before being shut down for the year. I hope the problem is physical and can be remedied with rest and rehab.
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