Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the season ahead. Some are competing for jobs in big league camp, others are prepping for the season as they vie for spots at Minor League affiliates up and down a team's system.
Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the season ahead. Some are competing for jobs in big league camp, others are prepping for the season as they vie for spots at Minor League affiliates up and down a team's system. MLBPipeline.com will be visiting all 30 camps this spring. Today, we check in on the Chicago Cubs.
MESA, Ariz. -- The Cubs have a reputation for developing hitters, and for good reason. Or reasons: Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler, even Addison Russell, who was technically acquired in a trade as a Minor Leaguer, but helps make the label stick.
Don't look now, but there are some arms on the way to back up all those bats. Sure, there are hitters still, like No. 1 prospect Gleyber Torres, and they still went with a college bat in the first round of the 2015 Draft with Ian Happ, but the Cubs are excited about evening things out a bit.
"We've taken the volume approach," said Jason McLeod, the Cubs' senior vice president for player development and amateur scouting. "We've drafted hitters No. 1, but we have tried to go volume with our pitching."
The pitching is coming throughout the system. Pierce Johnson has moved slowly, as non-throwing related injuries have hampered his development. But he'll be in Triple-A and the Cubs feel he can be a No. 4-type starter. He'll be joined in Triple-A by 2014 senior money-saving sign Ryan Williams, who surprised many by winning Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors last year. Both are in big league camp and each have put up a scoreless inning during early Cactus League action.
Duane Underwood, also in Major League camp, steps up to Double-A for the first time this season, and outside of perhaps Dylan Cease, he sustains his velocity as a starter better than anyone in the system. The pitching wave could also include Jen-Ho Tseng and somewhat forgotten Paul Blackburn, with McLeod thinking at least one of those two will take a leap forward in 2016.
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The pride and joy might be in the Midwest League. The South Bend rotation could include Justin Steele and Carson Sands, two high school pitchers the Cubs paid aggressively to sign in the 2014 Draft, Oscar De La Cruz (more on him later), the aforementioned Cease at some point in the season and perhaps even 2015 third-rounder Bryan Hudson later in the year.
"It will be our most talent-laden staff since I've been here," McLeod said. "That's a pretty exciting staff."
It also shows that while there's an understandable dip in the system after all those high-impact graduations, the farm system is far from barren.
"It doesn't happen that often where three or four young guys hit the Major League team and impact it like they did, all in one year," McLeod said. "You expect somewhat of a dropoff in terms of the overall talent, but we feel really good. There might be a gap in terms of when that next wave hits up there, but as I walk around the fields on the Minor League side, I find myself getting really excited."
While he might not go straight to South Bend, seeing Hudson at some point on that staff doesn't seem unrealistic, especially with how well he's thrown in the early going this spring. The 6-foot-8 lefty may not be the tallest graduate of Alton High School in Illinois -- that record belongs to Robert Wadlow, who grew to 8-foot-11 before his death in 1940 -- but he uses his height extremely well and has had Cubs' Minor League hitters shaking their heads after facing him during live batting practice.
"We thought he had the best curve in the Draft, and now you're watching him throw his live BP," McLeod said. "There aren't many guys where you say 'wow' when you see the rotation and the late power spin on that breaking ball. We're hearing guys in the cage saying, 'That is nasty.' He's 6-8, athletic and he's throwing a hard two-seamer with that power curveball coming off of it. Those types of things just get you so excited."
All this talk about pitching doesn't mean there aren't hitters who have stood out. Torres got to start in a big league game on Saturday and constantly gets praised for his maturity. So does Happ, the University of Cincinnati product who is trying his hand at second base while also impressing with the bat.
"He's done a lot of work at second since instructional league," McLeod said. "It continues to be a work in progress, but he's making those incremental improvements day by day. He's very serious about his work, he's very serious about getting better.
"He's looked very good in live BPs early. He was facing Corey Black, who throws in the mid-90s, and taking him off the batter's eye. Then he's staying on offspeed stuff, lacing it to center field. It's been fun watching him."
Eloy Jimenez will play all of the 2016 season at age 19. At 6-foot-4, he's already a physical specimen with a fairly good approach at the plate. As he continues to mature, the Cubs think he could become a monster offensively.
"You see the size of that kid and he really controls the bat really well, for a young power hitter," McLeod said. "He doesn't swing and miss that much. He has a good idea of the type of hitter he wants to be for a young age. And in the next two years, you're going to see some serious man strength come in."
Joining Jimnez in South Bend should be another breakout candidate in De La Cruz, who skipped a level in 2015, then excelled in the short-season Northwest League.
"Physically he has all the stuff you look for," McLeod said. "He has the size, the ability to pitch with his fastball, the competitiveness."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow @JonathanMayo on Twitter.