Some of you may remember lefty pitcher John Tudor. His career spanned the 1980s, with a little activity in the 70s and 90s. Never a big strikeout guy, he was a big part of three playoff teams, including the World Series Champion Dodgers in 1988. Radar guns weren't the big thing in Tudor's arsenal; location and command were. Tudor rarely pitched anything near the heart of the plate. Hitters rarely 'squared him up'. In the days before discussions of WHIP, his WHIP ratio in 1985 was under one. For me, the third-rounder in 1976 from Georgia Southern is as good of an example of 'crafty pitcher' as I can remember.
In a recent article on this week's draft (It's so fun saying that), Carrie Muskat noted the importance of adding pitching. While every team wishes to do that, the Cubs seem to be a bit further behind in pitching than in hitting. As much as the bullpen in Wrigley has been a revolving door, the bullpens in the minor leagues haven't been markedly better. What that translates to, come the draft, is that any quality pitcher signed from actions this week will have a chance to move rapidly through the team's talent pipeline.
Two starters from Triple-A Iowa that Cubs fans may remember from last year's nightmare scenario are Chris Rusin and Brooks Raley. Both profile more as relievers than starters at the major league level, but are getting valuable consistent work in the Pacific Coast League this year, perfecting their command.
Compounding the bullpen rebuilding problem, last year's draft went very heavy on prep arms. The only college pitching draftee from last June that has seen significant full-season action so far is compensation first-rounder Pierce Johnson, from Missouri State. Josh Conway was about to start pitching in Kane County or Daytona before an injury ended his season. Many of the rest of the early pitching selections last year are lobbying for rotation spots in Boise, Idaho, seemingly hopelessly far away from the vines of Wrigley.
Fixing a bullpen comes, mainly, in three different flavors. Free agent signings (which can include the maddening roster Jenga variation), internal development (often keyed by the draft), and trades (which costs the team other assets). All have their advantages and disadvantages, and all are needed in the long term for sustained success.
Just before the trade deadline last season, the Cubs traded Ryan Dempster to Texas for minor leaguers Kyle Hendricks, a righthanded pitcher, and third baseman Christian Villanueva. Both came highly regarded and both have done well this season. Villanueva took advantage of some bonus playing time in spring training in Mesa (with the parent club due to injuries to Ian Stewart and Josh Vitters) to display a solid glove and occasional power. Both have remained on display in Double-A Tennessee this year.
Hendricks has been Tennessee's best pitcher. He sports a WHIP under 1.1, recently outdueled mega-prospect Taijuan Walker (Mariners) in a complete game shutout, was named Cubs minor league pitcher of the month for May, and is really close to the top in regards to Cubs pitching prospects. What's funny to me is, when I watch him pitch, I start multi-tasking. Reading the mail, checking on BCB, or another task keeps me from watching him fully. When a pitcher starts getting ground balls to third, flies to right, and pop-ups to second, sometimes his eight-pitch innings seem like they are an out too short.
Hendricks was drafted in the eighth round by Texas from that noted center of baseball pitching, Dartmouth College. Yeah, that Dartmouth. With Hendricks, just as with Tudor, you can turn off the radar gun. Hendricks will throw strikes. Just not the ones hitters want to swing at. Hendricks has walked 38 hitters as a pro pitcher. Since 2011. He has fanned 216, and most of those have been due to a hitter being fooled, or overswinging. "I really want to strike out two guys this inning" is rarely on his mind as he takes the mound. This is part of his effectiveness.
Since Hendricks was drafted in 2011, it won't be necessary to 'protect him' from the Rule 5 draft this off-season. While that should never be the primary determining factor in roster moves, if he remains in the minors all season long, he can be a quality add next season (whether to the bullpen, or in an emergency, as a starter) as a quality minor league call-up, without tying up a 40-man roster spot. Those are always useful to have. As to whether Hendricks has enough ability to be a starter or not in a few years, I don't claim to know. However, a few more additions, by any means, like Hendricks would speed up the bullpen rebuild quite a bit.
Over the weekend, I was zoning back to my days as a fantasy football owner. My memory tends to work better when I write things down, then edit and re-edit them. I have a list of prospects written down for later this week that looks eerily similar to a Baseball America prospect list. As I was writing, I was wondering with each of the pitchers, far and near, major conference or very obscure, is this the next Kyle Hendricks?
Baseball teams usually draft quite a few pitchers. Each team has room for about a dozen, and baseball organizations are usually running at least six teams from June through August. While no position should be ignored in a draft, the Cubs have 'a few' arms in the system at every level that could use being challenged in the future. Interestingly, the team's strategy (that I wholly agree with) to bring in waiver wire pitchers as often as they bring in the mail has temporarily trapped some pitchers at the Double-A level. (If you're going to sign a Quadruple-A pitcher, you might as well pitch him in Iowa, with the other seven.) So pitchers like Hendricks and Alberto Cabrera are in a bit of a holding pattern with the Tennessee Smokies. This pattern will start to clear in July, when a few pitchers might get traded. Presumably, for pitchers like Hendricks that were successful in college, and have a few years before being Rule 5 draft-eligible.
A few guys that I noticed on the above list that might qualify as starters with relative upside in rounds three and beyond, with potential round of selection, are noted below.
3rd Round: Trevor Williams, Arizona State; AJ Vanegas, Stanford; Dace Kime, Louisville
4th Round: Jimmy Sherfy, Oregon; Colby Suggs, Arkansas; Buck Farmer, Georgia Tech; Aaron Brown, Pepperdine
5th Round: Kyle Crockett, Virginia; Austin Kubitza, Rice; Barrett Astin, Arkansas; Ben Lively, Central Florida
6th Round: Dylan Covey, San Diego; DJ Snelton, Minnesota; Nick Vander Tuig, UCLA; Taylor Williams, Kent State
7th Round: Dan Slania, Notre Dame; Jeff Thompson, Louisville; Cody Dickson, Sam Houston State; Trevor Gott, Kentucky; Scott Frazier, Pepperdine
8th Round: Matt Boyd, Oregon State; Ricky Knapp, Florida Gulf Coast; Michael Wagner, San Diego; Pat Young, Villanova; Ryan Cordell, Liberty
9th Round: David Ledbetter, Cedarville; Kyle McGowin, Savannah State; Aaron Slegers, Indiana; CK Irby, Samford
10th Round: Brandon Peterson, Wichita State; Harrison Cooney, Florida Gulf Coast; Ben Wetzler, Oregon State; David Garner, Michigan State; Nick Petree, Missouri State; Austin Voth, Washington; Chad Green, Louisville; Kyle Finnegan, Texas State
And, obviously, the list could continue for at least 40 rounds. All positions are important. I'm almost tempted to run a similar list on catchers, but the list above allows you to create a cheat sheet on whatever you want. I have a hunch that a pitcher taken in the eighth round has a better likelihood at making a solid run through the system than some random outfielder from the list. That said, I doubt the current Cubs scouts will opt for some random guy in any round.
I'll see you on Thursday.