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Started From the Bottom, Not Yet Here: The Cubs’ Low-Level Pitching

The Cubs’ system isn’t exactly loaded with top-end pitching talent, especially at the upper levels, but don’t ever let anyone tell you that the Cubs don’t have any potential starting pitchers in the minors. Since Theo Epstein and company took over before the 2012 draft, the Cubs have made it clear that their plan is to load up on arms in rounds two through ten. Add on top of that the results of various splurges on the international market, and the Cubs have quite a few arms that might find their way into the big-league rotation in the coming years. Here are some of the arms that you might see at Wrigley not in 2016, but perhaps in 2019, 2020 or beyond.

The Big Names

Oscar De La Cruz, RHP, Eugene Emeralds
De La Cruz signed with the Cubs out of the Dominican Republic in 2012 for just $85,000. After a great 2014 campaign in the Dominican Summer League, Oscar broke out in a huge way for Eugene in 2015. He struck out exactly one batter per inning (73 Ks in 73 innings) and only walked 2.1 per nine innings. He rocketed up prospect lists in the off-season, but due to an elbow injury he only recently made his debut in Arizona for the Cubs. The injury is obviously worrisome, but De La Cruz has everything you ask for in a starting pitcher. He’s 6’4″ and 200+ pounds, He sits in the mid 90s and can touch 97-98 when he’s going right, to go along with a potential plus curveball and a developing change-up. Monitor the elbow injury, but De La Cruz is probably my favorite arm in this system.

Dylan Cease, RHP, Eugene Emeralds
Cease was a first round talent that slipped to the Cubs in the sixth round because of an elbow injury, and the righty immediately had Tommy John surgery. Cease can bring it in the high 90s and has a plus, but inconsistent curveball. He is skinny, but at 6’2″ he should fill out as he gets older. The strikeout to walk numbers (9.6 and 3.3 per nine, respectively) have been good so far, but the 20 year old still has a ways to go with his command. There is some effort in his delivery, but he repeats it relatively well for a guy his age. While Cease probably has the highest ceiling of any pitcher in the Cubs system, it’s not hard to see him ending up in the pen, especially given the injury history. In addition to the Tommy John surgery in 2014, Cease just left his most recent start and we have yet to hear what the injury is. Cross your fingers that it is nothing major and Cease can get back on the mound this year.

Trevor Clifton, RHP, Myrtle Beach Pelicans
Taken out of the 12th round of the 2013 draft, Clifton signed for well overslot as a high school kid with a low 90s fastball who could touch the mid to upper 90s. Clifton has taken a typical one level per year development schedule and has really broken out in 2016 in High-A. The big difference for Clifton this year is the strikeouts have ticked up, all the way to 9.9 per nine innings. The walks are still enough of an issue at 4.0 per nine that he definitely still has some work to do, but the body, the stuff and the steady improvements in his career so far make it easy to see Clifton becoming a mid-rotation guy or better.

The Young Lefties

Bryan Hudson, LHP, Eugene Emeralds
Bryan Hudson is the type of guy that you can absolutely dream on being in the rotation. At 6’8″ and 220 pounds, Hudson might be better suited for a basketball court, but that height really allows him to get some downward plane on the fastball. To go with that, he has an absolute hammer of a curveball that as he gains consistency should definitely become a plus pitch. While the velocity isn’t anything special, it’s something that definitely should increase as he matures. So far in Eugene, he has walked more batters than he has struck out (15 walks and 11 strikeouts in 21 2/3 innings), but at just 19 years old he’s exactly the type of guy you hope to see in the future Cubs rotation, though it might not be until 2020 or so.

Carson Sands, LHP, South Bend Cubs
Part of the 2014 overslot pitching group, along with Cease and Justin Steele, Carson Sands probably has the lowest ceiling of the group. Sands sits in the high 80s and low 90s and has average secondaries. His reputation was that of a guy who commands the ball pretty well, but he’s really struggled with walks in his first full season. Sands has struck out a very low 5.3 per nine innings while walking 4.7 per nine, a couple numbers that really don’t pair well together. Sands at 6’3″ and 205 pounds has a great body for a starter and he could add some velocity as he strengthens his already thick lower half. Keep an eye on Sands as a potential back of the rotation starter moving forward, but I still would like to see some strides from him in the command department this year.

Justin Steele, LHP, South Bend Cubs
Steele is the third and final member of that 2014 high-end arm group. While he is also a high school lefty, Steele is very different from Sands both in size and athleticism . He has more velocity as he sits in the low 90s and has the makings of a plus curveball. The athleticism should also allow him to repeat his delivery well. While Sands has struggled with both strikeout and walks, Steele has been great in the strikeout department, fanning 10.0 per nine. The problem with Steele has been the combination of walks and a lot of contact against him (11.1 hits per nine and a .318 tAV against). Steele has more of a mid-rotation ceiling, but he’ll really have to refine the command to help him get there.

The College Arms

Jake Stinnett, RHP, Myrtle Beach Pelicans
Consider me the President of the Jake Stinnett fan club. Jake was taken in the 2nd round of the 2014 draft as a college starter who didn’t have much mileage on his arm thanks to being a position player earlier in his career at Maryland. The 24 year old has good size at 6’4″ and 202 pounds, as well as some really quality stuff. He’s pretty raw for a 24 year old, but he usually sits in the low 90s with his fastball and has a plus slider. The mechanics get out of whack sometime, but given the lack of experience on the mound that is completely understandable. The numbers haven’t been great this year, but strikeouts are up a bit to 7.3 per nine and the walks are down to 3.0 per nine. He also gets a good number of ground balls with the downward movement on the fastball (56 percent in 2015, 50 percent in 2016). Stinnett is a guy that I (maybe irrationally) expect to continue to get better and ultimately end up in the rotation, although the fastball/slider combo would also work well in the pen.

Ryan Kellogg, LHP, South Bend Cubs
Ryan Kellogg was a highly touted prospect out of both high school and early in his career at Arizona State, but his stock dropped a bit later in college and the Cubs took him in the 5th round of the 2015 draft. Kellogg is a big kid at 6’6″ and 230 pounds, but the velocity isn’t anything to write home about. He does, however, command the ball well and has average secondaries across the board. So far in South Bend this year he has struck out 7.3 per nine while walking just 2.1 per nine. As he continues to move through the Cubs’ system I do expect Kellogg to add a bit more velocity, which could move his projection more towards a mid-rotation starter instead of a back of the rotation guy. Either way, I think there is a good shot that Kellogg becomes a major league starter at some point. He has the pedigree, he has the stuff and he has the makeup to eventually get there, even if the ceiling is somewhat limited.

Preston Morrison, RHP, South Bend Cubs
I’m not sure what to make of Preston Morrison so far in his career. The velocity is far from overwhelming as he typically sits in the mid to upper 80s, but he continues to get outs and has even racked up a good number of strikeouts in his pro career. In 108 2/3 innings across Eugene and South Bend, Morrison has struck out just about a batter per inning and has only walked 2.1 per nine innings. Given that he is a pretty advanced college arm in A ball we might be able to simply chalk up the good numbers to being too good for his level, but I wanted to give him the credit he has earned so far. Ultimately Morrison probably profiles best as a swing/up-and-down type starter, but he will be interesting to monitor as he moves through the Cubs system. I expect him to get to Myrtle Beach before the season is over.

The Dreamer

Jose Paulino, LHP, Eugene Emeralds
Paulino might be the most fun name on this list. Although he is just 21, this is his fifth season in the Cubs organization and man is he breaking out in Eugene so far. Paulino sit in the mid 90s, can touch 96-97 with the fastball and has a really good slider. I’m not sure if it’s mechanical or mental, but something clicked heading into this season. In 28 innings across five starts so far, Paulino has put up some absolute video game numbers. He has struck out 30 in those 28 innings while walking just two. To go along with that he’s given up just 17 hits, giving him a minuscule WHIP of 0.68.

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