With just one week left in spring training, the rotation for the South Bend Cubs is pretty well set. It is mostly a collection of arms who pitched for the 2016 Northwest League champion Eugene Emeralds. Most Cubs fans might focus only on top prospect Dylan Cease, but there are other arms who are equally exciting and just as young, if not younger, than Cease.
Just three months ago at the Cubs Convention, Jason McLeod waxed poetic about who might be in South Bend. Cease, for sure, and top 2016 draft pick, Thomas Hatch, was expected there as well. Things do change in a short period of time. As of this past weekend, Oscar de la Cruz had not started throwing for Myrtle Beach and Ryan Kellogg finally returned from being a reliever for Team Canada in the WBC, and Kellogg will need to be stretched out. As a result, it looks as though Hatch and his four-pitch mix might be in Myrtle Beach to start the year rather than South Bend.
When it comes right down to it, Dylan Cease is the one everyone wants to see pitch. Ranked as the #7 prospect in the Cubs system by Baseball Prospectus, Cease is a power arm in a system almost devoid of power arms. BP said of Cease:
Cease has a big fastball. Of that there can be no doubt. It’s a high-90s howitzer and a potential plus-plus pitch with command refinement. His 12-6 hammer curve will flash plus, and it did that more often as the season went on. He was healthy. That’s good in this case! The delivery doesn’t have any obvious red flags, unless you count elite arm speed as a red flag, which, well…
Last season saw Cease put up excellent numbers in Eugene and fixed a hitch in his curveball delivery. Do not be fooled by the glitz and the glamor of the triple digit fastball, however. Cease is still learning. Early in 2016, Cease often tried to get hitters to chase a fastball or curve out of the zone for strike three. After a forearm strain caused him to miss two starts, Cease began to just go after hitters. His strike totals ballooned, his walks shrank, and he pitched deeper into games a result. Cease still needs to work on his change this year. He needs that pitch as he moves higher in the system.
While Cease had a very good year at Eugene, it was Manuel (Manny) Rondon who won the award as the Northwest League Pitcher of the Year. Rondon throws his fastball around 92-93 most days and sometimes tops out in the mid-90s occasionally. The 22-year-old lefty also has a wipeout slider/curve that attributed to his striking out 49 batters in 57.1 IP with an ERA of 1.10. In the second half, his ERA shrank as his confidence grew. In six second half starts, his ERA was a minuscule 0.59.
While Cease and Rondon were essential to the Emeralds’ staff last summer, so too was the then 19-year-old Erling Moreno. After missing the better part of two summers, the young righty flashed his devastating 12-6 curve often along with a low to mid 90s fastball. Combined, the two pitched produced an ERA of 0.90 for the Emeralds and a stultifying WHIP of 0.70 as hitters only hit .150 against him. It will be interesting to see how Moreno adjusts to pitching for a full season at South Bend against more mature hitters.
Tyson Miller was the Cubs fourth round draft pick out of the pitching factory known as Cal-Baptist. Miller struggled in short starts after pitching a full season in college (107 IP). It had to be difficult to stop pitching for a month. Now that he is beginning a season fresh, reports from spring training have been good. The athletic 6’5” pitcher can throw in the low-to-mid 90s and has a good changeup. He, like many other young pitchers, needs that third pitch. Miller also gets high marks for his makeup, attitude, and desire to compete on the mound.
Two starting pitchers who have been limited this spring who could have started for South Bend are Bailey Clark and Bryan Hudson. Both will probably get going in extended spring training. Clark can bring his fastball between 95 and 97 but struggles with command a bit. He made only four short starts after being drafted but struck out 13 in 11.2 innings.
For Hudson, he is being held back a bit this year. The 6’8” 2015 3rd round pick struggled to find the strike zone for Eugene last year. The tall lefty has an amazing curve to go along with an upper 80s-to-low 90s fastball. Last spring, he was touching 93-94 at times. He is still only 19 and there’s a lot of time to work out the kinks of his delivery, command, and adding a third pitch.
As a result of holding some pitchers back, it appears as though 6’6” right-hander Duncan Robinson will be joining the rotation in South Bend. The 9th round selection out of Dartmouth hummed along as a reliever last year, with the exception of just one poor appearance, and pitched six innings without an earned run in the playoff run for the Emeralds. Nate Greabe compared him to Ryan Williams as a pitcher who throws more to contact than trying to get strikeouts. I still see Robinson more as a reliever. Should Clark and/or Hudson return by mid-May, Robinson will fit snugly in the bullpen.
If Hatch does stay in South Bend to begin the year, the South Bend Cubs rotation would be one of the best in the minors. If Hatch goes to Myrtle Beach, a rotation of Cease, Rondon, Moreno, Miller, and Robinson still will do very well in the Midwest League. It is a nice mixture of arms and arsenals who complement each other. Aging from 19 to 22, they have a lot of life on their pitches and athleticism to stick as long-term prospects. While Cease maybe the only one who is now considered a top prospect in the organization, 3-4 more (Rondon, Moreno, Hudson, and Clark) could be by the end of the year if they continue to develop properly over the course of this summer.