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On Placing Pitchers In The Cubs Farm System

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The Cubs recently added some pitchers in the June draft. What can we expect from them, and when?

Cubs prospect Carson Sands (second from right) celebrates with teammates at the 2012 18U Baseball World Championship in South Korea.
Cubs prospect Carson Sands (second from right) celebrates with teammates at the 2012 18U Baseball World Championship in South Korea.
Chung Sung-Jun

A few weeks back, I had a Clearwater Threshers game on my computer. It started at 5:30 (which is a time when games often haven't started yet), and I enjoy listening to Kirsten Karbach call a ballgame. As it happened, Aaron Nola was making his professional debut. Nola is from LSU, and was the preference by many for the Cubs first choice in the June draft, which ended up being Indiana's Kyle Schwarber.

Nola pitched well, but the story isn't how well he's done. It's how much he's pitched already. His next outing will put him over the 32-inning mark for the season, after a full load of work in college, including a deep post-season run. The Phillies are pushing Nola rather aggressively, and putting him solidly in line for a promotion in April to Double-A. This article isn't about Nola, so much as pitching development strategies. The Phillies are being very aggressive with Nola. Is that a wise strategy?

The Cubs have generally, though I don't have a spreadsheet ready from the last few seasons, kept their college arms at under 20 innings after they get drafted. The premise is, they were likely pushed rather hard by their college coaches. With their consent, mind you. (Players want to win, every single time.) They often started on Friday night, and may have even pitched some in relief on Sunday to help win the series.

College tournaments are worse. A kid who usually gets the ball once a week might come back to start the NCAA clinching game on three days rest. Or even less. The winning is that important. As the Cubs understand that, the goal after the draft for college arms is to get them some looks in games. Perhaps in Mesa. Possibly in Boise. None have hit Geneva yet. The plan appears to be to give them a chance to face some players they don't have a full scouting report on.

Some of them will be lefties, and some right handed. As long as they give up some base runners, they get to work on holding runners on first. Probably they will give up a grounder to first, which means they will get to cover the base, which is good practice. Throw some two-seam fastballs, some four-seamers, upgrade the change-up, and some sinkers and sliders as well.

As long as all the basics are on film, you have a 'before' for a before and after if an injury occurs. (I'm still not sure what they have on video for Dylan Cease, who underwent Tommy John surgery shortly after signing.) Always contingencies.

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There are three general types of pitchers, from a draft scenario. The most valued is a starter. If a pitcher shows in July and August that he has the repertoire and durability to be a starting pitcher, that gives him positive marks -- even if (in the case of a few college picks from the 2013 class) they are only good enough to jump to short-season ball the next year.

Tyler Ihrig, for one, has been a starting pitching option in Boise this season. His numbers have been a bit pedestrian, as might be expected from a 23rd-round selection. However, by taking the ball every time through the rotation, and going almost six innings per start, he's provided value by keeping the bullpen's innings in line.

Any pitcher from the 2014 draft who will be able to perform as an effective starting pitcher, be it from Boise to Daytona, and perhaps even in Mesa, provides value by doing so. The Cubs don't want their younger arms to get over-extended. Which is why they are employing an eight-man bullpen, and sent Neil Ramirez to the disabled list, even though he was healthy and pitching well. Resting valued arms is important in the Cubs system. So far, even at the cost of a win here or there.

The second category of pitchers in the swing-man. Justin Amlung is a reliever, largely. A 12th-rounder in the 2012 draft, Amlung started six games for Boise later that season, averaging two innings per start. After all, somebody has to start the game on the mound. Last season, he was one of Kane County's better relievers. This season, he was a very important member of the Cougars first half pitching staff. He pitched for them 12 times, starting four and going 4-0. He then jumped to High-A Daytona, and has started five of his nine appearances there. He also has a save.

Whether Amlung ever reaches the majors, or even Double-A, he has been very productive for a 12th-round selection. Some will judge a player on being successful or not on whether they reach the majors or not. They are, of course, welcomed to use any yardstick they want. However, Amlung and Ihrig have already earned their signing bonuses on what they've done since being drafted.

The third option is, of course, relievers. These are the types that really don't have a usable third (or second) pitch. They are what they are, often, and many disappear rather quickly. Again, though, they serve a purpose, especially at the lower levels. In Mesa, the roster is 35. Which sounds unfathomably large, but it really isn't. Some prep signings are around to get their 10 or so innings in (not 20). They remain on the roster until shut down, and take up a roster spot even between two inning outings.

When you look at a Mesa box score, you might well see a name you don't recognize at all. He may have a rather high ERA. And you might wonder, why is he on the team? He might well be on the team, serving at the highest level in the system that he ever will, to take a simulated beating for three innings. Because he goes out and give up four runs in a bit over two innings on occasion, Carson Sands can do his side work without being rushed into a game.

The minors are about development, remember.

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Aaaaah, the prep arms. Sands, who was the Cubs fourth selection in June out of a high school in Florida, will be babied this season. Next season, if all goes well, he will start in Short-Season ball in Boise. Sands, along with two other prep pitching selections Justin Steele and Austyn Willis, is off to a good start.

Whether they have earth-shattering numbers in Mesa this year, or Boise in 2015, isn't particularly telling. Test cases Paul Blackburn and Duane Underwood have gotten better every step of the way, even as the competition improved. That is more important than a homer or a bloop double in Mesa or Boise. And how they do up the ladder trumps what they've done now.

The Cubs could go the aggressive route with their prep arms. Kohl Stewart was the fourth selection in the 2013 draft, and Minnesota put him in the Midwest League this season. Which worked really well. Until they put him on the DL with a 'shoulder impingement'. That sounds like it hurts.

The Cubs rotations up-the-ladder still have some spots that could use some improvement. However, they continue to sign a nice combination of upside arms, college veterans able to fill in where needed and provide value in the process, and other guys more than willing to take innings from Mesa to Daytona and beyond to help with the development of the bigger names. Things are sorting themselves out rather well.

In case you were curious about the Cubs top pitching selection in this year's draft, Jake Stinnett: While Nola has fashioned over 31 innings this season as a pro, Stinnett was entirely shut down as far as game action. Stinnett figures to be a starter in April, either in Kane County or Daytona. Two reasons have me thinking Kane County. He is rather inexperienced as a pitcher. And the Cubs tend to be very patient with their pitching.