Jordan Wicks – Picture by Todd Johnson
Yesterday, we put out the first of three articles that are going to examine the state of the Cubs minor league system. It looked specifically at hitting. Today, let’s shift gears to starting pitching.
2022 was a strange year because the Cubs were still dealing with injuries to a few well-known prospects that were starters. Some of them would return and pitch all year while others went back on the injured list. We never got to see Brailyn Marquez nor did we get to see Jack Patterson throw in a game this year along with Derek Casey. Kohl Franklin returned and pitched all year while Chris Kachmar got in a couple cups of coffee with South Bend at the end of the year. 2021 draft pick Drew Gray had TJS right before spring training and was playing long toss by the end of this year and he might be ready to go by opening day 2023.
As for the healthy players, it was an uneven year but there were several highlights that we need to discuss.
When it came to pitching, the Myrtle Beach starters wound up having the best rotation in the system in the first half. Most of them moved to South Bend in the second half who subsequently had the best rotation in the second half. Go figure! Luis Devers, Porter Hodge, Luke Little, Tyler Schlaffer, and Richard Gallardo were all part of the Pelican’s first half wonder team and also South Bend’s run to a title!
Hayden Wesneski is going to be my number three ranked prospect when we drop our next lists! He’s shown he’s ready for Chicago with his arsenal in his somewhat brief but very successful audition.
2021 first rounder Jordan Wicks had a pretty decent year and was almost unhittable in June and July. Caleb Kilian is still working on some things but is pretty close to being major league ready as he got in a few . I love new guy Ben Brown and I am curious to see how much the Cubs try to get him to incorporate his lower half into his delivery. If they can, we could see 95 turn into 99.
The Cubs added 15-16 pitchers this summer in the draft including Cade Horton, Brandon Birdsell, and Jackson Ferris – three very good arms in the first five rounds – and two-way player (hence the hyphen earlier) Nazier Mule who can bring it to the plate.
DJ Herz had a pretty good first half of the year at South Bend and was promoted at the end of July to Tennessee along with Wicks. Former teammate Daniel Palencia finished the year strong and was one of the best pitchers in all of minor league baseball the last six weeks of the year. That rotation at Tennessee next April is going to be straight up fire with Herz, Brown, Palencia, and possibly Devers, Kohl Franklin, or Hodge. Then again, South Bend will be lit with Horton, Tyler Santana, possibly Birdsell, Luke Little, and whoever doesn’t make it to Tennessee. Myrtle Beach’s rotation could be a free-for-all with guys returning from injury, draft picks, and a couple rookie league guys.
The big concern is getting starting pitchers to make the jump from South Bend to Tennessee to Iowa successfully. It did not go smooth this year with only Chris Clarke, Walker Powell, and Riley Thompson looking like they will be heading to Des Moines in the spring. Ryan Jensen struggled mightily. Jordan Wicks turned into a Jekyll and Hyde pitcher in Tennessee while DJ Herz had woes when it came to throwing strikes.
Double-A hitters just lay off stuff that’s not in the strike zone. For these pitchers to be successful in 2023, they need to fill up the zone and probably add a fourth pitch. Herz mainly went changeup, slider, and four-seam fastball up zone this year. I would not mind seeing him throw a curve more or a cutter or even by moving his thumb on the side of the ball to different places to affect the spin of his current pitchers.
Wicks probably will get to Iowa first as he really doesn’t need much tinkering. He looked close to being ready and had some injury concerns down the stretch. As for Jensen, we shall see where he is at to begin next year after spending nearly two months on the Development List this year retooling his delivery.
Another concern is the risk in selecting high powered arms is they are more likely to be injured than players who don’t throw as hard. We’ve seen that a lot the past couple of years and we saw it again this year. It might just be something that comes with the territory in taking power arms. The Cubs took 15 pitchers in the draft because they needed 15 pitchers. That attrition, basically, took a bite out of the Cubs’ pitching depth. Basically, the Cubs are going by the old adage of it’s better to have too much of something than not enough.
Rookie League and Lack of Depth Concerns
One of my favorite things to do this summer was writing the Rookie League Recap lead every Sunday afternoon about what was happening in the Dominican and Arizona rookie leagues. I enjoyed doing it the most because I learned so much about the system and who the Cubs youngest players are. All summer long I talked about the struggles of pitching across both levels of rookie ball. Developing starting pitching for Myrtle Beach next summer was not happening very well in Arizona. The Cubs needed to buy themselves some time and they went all-in with 15-16 draft picks. That’ll give some of those young kids in Mesa another year of development to get ready for Myrtle Beach.
Overall, there’s a lot of talent in the system.
But can the Cubs get guys to make the proper adjustments to get from Tennessee to Iowa to get to Chicago?
That will be the biggest question answered next summer. If the Cubs pitching development program can, then we will have a flood of starting pitchers ready in late 2023 with Wicks, Herz, Brown, and Jensen and maybe more. 2024 could be just as busy with a lot of live arms waiting for an opportunity as Horton, Palencia, Hodge, Devers, and more coming. That was really fun to type that last sentence.
The Cubs starting pitching talent is all right there on the cusp of taking the next big step. The Cubs need to get them over that hump.