Much is made during minor-league discussions on piggy-backing starters. The term refers to having two pitchers go roughly four innings apiece in a minor league game. In some cases, involving injury rehab, it's perfectly sensible. However, the Astros have taken to using piggy-backs throughout their minor league system, and that seems awfully foolish. If you want to monitor pitcher innings, and believe me, I do, I much prefer a six-man rotation at the Low-A level.
Not all pitchers are the same, nor should they be treated so. Just this week, the Cubs called up two pitchers from Mesa to High-A Daytona. Yes, that is skipping two levels entirely. That said, both were college pitchers that were used to throwing multiple innings in extended spring training games. Tyler Ihrig was selected in the 23rd round in 2013 out of that baseball powerhouse, College of Marin in Kentfield, California. He was backed up by 2013 11th-rounder Trevor Graham from Franklin Pierce College. As both were college signees, and neither were used to long pro outings, a piggy-back makes sense there.
However, a team isn't likely to craft a deep roster of pitching prospects on guys selected in smaller college guys outside of the top 10 rounds of the draft. The guys that are to be minded carefully are the early picks, or the international free agents. And, to look at those types developing, Cubs fans ought to be looking at Kane County for the next, ohhhhhhh, 10 years or so.
A team should always be looking to develop its own pitching, whether they expect those guys to bubble all the way through the system, get traded for veterans, or, in many cases, wash out entirely. Having five to eight intriguing arms in Low-A Ball, be it the Midwest or South Atlantic League, ought to be a prerequisite for any team that's planning on having a solid, lengthy run. Without having a plethora of quality arms to develop, improve, trade, and, of course, get bitter when their health and skills fail them before reaching the upper-most levels, you're probably looking at a mediocre team.
Because most arms will fail to fully flourish, the wise team needs to have eight, to hope that three succeed.
What the Cubs have now is a mix of college arms, prep arms, and international arms in Kane County. This is a healthy sign. From the prep ranks, Paul Blackburn and Duane Underwood were two of Team Theo's first four selections. As is standard practice, they did little but clinicals in their first pro season. In their first full pro seasons in 2013, they started in Boise (after pitching in extended spring training in Mesa) and pitched around 50 innings each. Blackburn was a bit under, and Underwood a bit over.
In a season of full-season ball, 110-120 innings seems about spot on for both this year, monitoring their pitch counts each outing. With the shorter season, a six-man rotation would get each starter would be in line for about 22 or 23 starts, which ought to put them right about where you want them. Whereas, if you go with a piggy-back set-up, it's tough to manufacture over 100 innings per pitcher. By the time you reach High-A Ball, the starter ought to be able to go 140 or so to get their arm ready for the rigors of upper minors baseball.
The college arms, like no-hitter starter Tyler Skulina, ought to be able to go full speed by their first full pro season. Their arm has likely been (over?-)extended by college schedules, and pitching six or seven innings every five or six days shouldn't be a problem. When crafting a modified six-man rotation, older arms can get moved up as needed, if they are healthy. Skulina and recent Kane County add Michael Wagner (who played with Kris Bryant at San Diego) can start as in either a five- or six-man rotation, but the younger and international types need more care.
Regardless of whether you like or dislike the international production from previous Cubs regimes (which also applies equally to the prep and college avenues, as well) from the Cubs, how the Dominican and Venezuelan League veterans produce stateside will go a ways to determining future Cubs successes, or lack thereof. When IFA types come to the states, they are generally quite unrefined. Though they have been professionals sometimes since they were 16 years old, the levels of instruction and competition have been, shall I say, uneven.
The Cougars have three starting pitchers from the IFA field. Daury Torrez has ever pitched more than 75 innings in any season. He turns 21 in June. It would be nice to get him to the 110-inning plateau, but he might falter a bit as he approaches it. Five inning starts would seem to be optimal for Torrez, but he pulled perfect games into the sixth and fifth inning in recent starts. Limiting his appearances to four innings via piggy-back would seem a bit too conservative, even for me. However, a few stints on the seven-day disabled list might not be bad to slow him down in accumulating innings either. With some sim innings thrown in for good measure.
Juan Paniagua continues to struggle, but with his solid velocity, the team might as well send him out every six days in the hope he grasps command along the way. The huge surprise so far: Jen-Ho Tseng. Signed internationally last July, the teen has a 1.3 WHIP, and a 6:1 K/W ratio. His innings will need to be minded, and he is presently on the DL with a hopefully minor injury. At the end of the year, you'd like to see Tseng, Blackburn, Underwood, and Torrez around 110-120 or slightly more innings. It seems that might be best accomplished with a modified six-man rotation. We shall see.
The downside of a six-man habit in Kane County would be that the scouting and development have to provide 10 or so legitimate arms to account for the 140 games per season. And, yeah, I fully expect that -- with major contributions from the college, prep, and international wings of the system. Each of them have to be handled properly to pull off the six-man rotation in Low-A. And I expect nothing less than plenty of solid options for the next decade.
Three Up/Three Down
Justin Amlung has pitched for Kane County in 10 games this year. In seven of them, he has pitched in at least three innings. He has allowed runs in two games. A 2012 12th-round pick (if you're starting to see a trend that both 12th-round picks under this CBA have been college pitchers that were college starters, you're not the only one noticing that), Amlung has been the 'sixth man' for the Cougars staff. He will start as needed, and has been the lock-down reliever when needed there. His key outing of the year was this week.
In the nightcap of a twinbill, the Cougars had lost the opener, and were looking like a team that could go into a losing skid. He had Jeff Samardzija-style offensive support, and had to keep throwing up zeroes, which he did. he allowed three hits and no walks over seven, but didn't get the win in a 1-0 Cougars victory. Amlung doesn't figure to ever pitch in Wrigley, but if he's reading this, he might put the whole article on his inspiration bulletin board. He is better than the Midwest League, and should be in High-A Daytona in a month.
Javier Baez, shortstop, Triple-A Iowa. Since May 17, Baez has at least one hit in each game. He's hitting .439 with an OPS of 1.371. He has five games in the stretch with an OPS of 1.5 or higher.
Logan Watkins, utility player, Iowa. Since May 12, Watkins is hitting .353 with an OPS of .905.
Dan Vogelbach, first base, High-A Daytona. In his last 10 games, Vogelbach is hitting .297 with an OPS of .891, much more like what we had hoped for all season.
New Smokies pitchers Joe Gardner and Julio Rodriguez were signed recently. In part, this was because of mounting pitching injuries. In part, it might be because they are good pitchers to have at the Double-A level. Both started, went fiv and a third, and gave up a run apiece. And their names are easier to spell than Austin Bibens-Dirkx.
Rock Shoulders, first base, High-A Daytona. In his last ten games, Shoulders is hitting .161 with an OPS of .509.
Ben Wells, pitcher, Mesa Cubs. That's a tell. Wells was sent back to Mesa, as his ERA for the year is 6.55, and he has more hits and walks than innings pitched. Yes, "and."
Pierce Johnson, pitcher, Double-A Tennessee. Johnson has pitched 26.2 innings, walking 24.