Feature Photo: Duane Underwood, RHP, Cubs
Over the past few years, the Chicago Cubs have been widely regarded as having one of the best farm systems in baseball. The team has produced major league starters with long-term impact potential such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler, Addison Russell, Javier Baez, and soon, Willson Contreras. Yet there has been something missing. Where are the pitchers?
Thus far, the Cubs have had to acquire their pitching from outside the organization, but that may be about to change. While the Cubs haven’t invested a first-round pick on a pitcher in the Theo Epstein era, they’ve been resourceful, reallocating bonus money to take chances on overslot picks later in the MLB First-Year Player Draft. Three of those recent overslots: Dylan Cease (6th round, 2014), Duane Underwood (2nd round, 2012), and Bryan Hudson (3rd round, 2015), are beginning to create a lot of buzz in the organization, and their development may soon lead the Cubs’ transformation from a farm system known for its bats to one known for its arms.
While they are arguably the three best pitching prospects in the Cubs’ system right now, there is no cookie-cutter formula to guarantee their successful ascension to the major leagues. They are very different pitchers with different styles, builds, strengths, and weaknesses. It makes for an interesting contrast and comparison, and it also creates the basis for this segment of 2080’s series ‘Who ya Got?’
Duane Underwood, RHP (High A, Myrtle Beach)
Ht/Wt: 6’2″/205 | B/T: R/R| Age (as of 4/18/2016): 21y, 8m
Underwood is the most advanced of the three pitchers, and should start the year in Double-A Tennessee after a short rehab stint in Arizona. He has the potential to have three plus pitches. His fastball was at 92-to-95 mph with good arm-side run in his last start, and it has reached as high as 97 mph when fully healthy. He flashes a plus curveball. It was a pitch that tended to get loopy early in his career but he has tightened it up and has been consistently in the 76-to-78 mph range this spring. The third offering is his changeup, which is the pitch that has made the most progress since he was drafted in 2014. I now consider it to be his second-best pitch because he is more consistent with it, though the curve still has the potential to be better long term. He throws the change with good arm speed, and it has good tail and sink when he keeps it low in the zone.
While Underwood has worked hard to improve his control (cutting his walk rate below 9% in his last two seasons), he can still be inconsistent with his command, and he gets hurt when he leaves pitches up in the zone. I’d also like to see him consistently go after hitters, get ahead in the count, and then put hitters away with either the curve or change.
Underwood is the most well-rounded hurler in the group, and he has matured a great deal since being drafted. If there is one more thing to worry about, it’s the elbow, which kept him out at the beginning of the spring, and his thick build, which he will have to continue to monitor over the years. The combination of stuff, control. and athleticism give him the potential to be at least a mid-rotation and quite possibly a #2 starter.
Dylan Cease, RHP (Rookie AZL)
Ht/Wt: 6’1″/175 | B/T: R/R| Age (as of 4/18/2016): 20y, 3m
The Cubs took a huge gamble on Cease, selecting him in the 2014 draft despite knowing he would need Tommy John surgery. Cease was considered by many to be a top-10 level prospect prior to the injury, so the Cubs must have figured the ceiling made it worth the risk, and backing the decision with a well above-slot $1.5 million signing bonus. So far, it looks like it’s paying off. Cease worked hard to get himself back in shape and on the mound in 2015. He doesn’t have ideal size but is athletic and Spanish-speaking teammates have dubbed him, “La Piedra” (“the Rock”) because of his solid, sturdy build. I am willing to bet he is closer to 190 pounds vs. his listed 175. While he was on a strict pitch count in his 2015 debut, he lacked command, and did not yet regain a feel for his curveball, the Cubs had to be encouraged that the arm strength had come all the way back. Cease hit as high as 100 mph last summer.
Just as everyone wanted to see, Cease has already built on that foundation. He has often pitched at 97-to-99 mph again this spring, including one intrasquad game that I wrote about last month, and he does so without max effort. Even more encouragingly, he has regained a feel for his curveball this year, which flashes plus (some say better) and is among the best in the organization. He’s also added a changeup that has seemingly improved with each outing in terms of arm speed and location. It doesn’t have a ton of movement, and it may only project as average, but considering the plus-plus fastball, and what is at least a potential plus curve, that will be more than good enough. He used it in his last outing a handful of times and managed to generate two weak-contact ground ball outs with it.
On top of his physical prowess, Cease lives and breathes baseball. He has excellent mental makeup, wants to get better, and does whatever he is asked to do to improve. There’s some leadership potential there, and it isn’t hard to envision Cease somewhere at or near the top of the rotation as long as his health holds up, and he continues to refine his command and secondary pitches.
Bryan Hudson, LHP (Rookie AZL)
Ht/Wt: 6’8″/220 | B/T: L/L| Age (as of 4/18/2016): 18y, 11m
While Underwood and Cease have become more known nationally, Bryan Hudson remains relatively anonymous. At Cubs’ camp, however, there has been plenty of buzz. Some Cubs officials say he had the best curveball they’d ever seen from an amateur, but he was considered something of a project as a skinny, tall kid from a rural Illinois high school. The Cubs rolled the dice and gave Hudson a $1.1 million signing bonus after drafting him in the third round. He signed late (7/2/15), and didn’t get to pitch much last year, but when he did, he surprised many first-time observers, including myself, with his athleticism and coordination — something you don’t always expect to see from a 6’8″, gangly 18-year-old. Then again, Hudson was reportedly a pretty good prep basketball player, so perhaps we should not have been so surprised.
This year he came into camp in excellent shape, Hudson added some lean muscle, though he still has a lot of room to fill out. It wasn’t just his physical appearance, however. Hudson came in ready to pitch. He’ll throw his two-seamer at 89-to-92 (T94) with good downward plane. He commands it surprisingly well, keeping it low in the zone and causing hitters to pound it into the ground with frustrating regularity. When they don’t make contact and fall behind, he can drop a filthy curveball on the outside corner for strike three. For now, they are the only two pitches Hudson throws with any kind of consistency, but he commands them both well, especially considering his stage of development. The curve is a plus pitch and the FB could also get there considering it’s plane, movement, and the fact that he is still extremely projectable. He may yet add a tick or three as he matures physically. We probably won’t see him seriously work in a changeup in games until late 2016 at the earliest.
Hudson is the least known and youngest of the three pitchers in this comparison, but his advanced command, rare size, athleticism, potentially elite curve, a fastball that is tough to square up, and with plenty of room for physical projection, make him a dark horse in the long-term view.
So you’ve got good stuff and athleticism with all three pitchers: One is the most well rounded and advanced. Another is overpowering, with two potential plus to plus-plus pitches and the makeup and approach to match, and a third oozes unique skills, size, and projection. And between the three, it also begs the question – if you had to choose the best overall prospect profile to be in the rotation at Wrigley Field by 2018…Who ya Got?
Cast your vote, and let us know how you feel in the comments section below![yop_poll id=”6″]