Now it's time to vote for the BCB Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year! This award is meant to be an award for performance over the season and not prospect status, but as I wrote in the Player of the Year award, it's harder to separate the two when you are talking about performance over an entire season.
I'm breaking my own rule for this vote. Normally I try to have one representative from each team. For the hitters, this was easy because the best of them were promoted during the season and therefore could represent more than one team. But the Cubs were much more cautious about promoting their pitchers. On top of that, some teams had several excellent candidates whereas a couple other affiliates' best candidate was clearly inferior to the second-best candidate on another team. In fact, the Kane County Cougars had an embarrassment of riches on the mound whereas Daytona cobbled together a pitching staff that was decent but didn't have anyone that would have drawn many votes in this election. And in Boise, the Cubs limit the innings so much that no one had enough playing time to be a credible candidate.
So instead of picking one pitcher from each team, I'm just picking five candidates from throughout the system. Because of that, I'm going to list them in alphabetical order rather than by level in the system.
With that said, the candidates are:
Tennessee Smokies right-hander Pierce Johnson: There was some debate at the start of the season whether or not Johnson was the top pitching prospect in the Cubs system, but he did nothing to hurt his status this season. Johnson battled leg injuries in the early part of the season. He didn't take the mound until April 22 and he pitched poorly for a month before going back on the disabled list with another leg injury.
But after Johnson got back to Tennessee at the beginning of July, he was outstanding the rest of the way. In his twelve starts after getting off the DL, he never gave up more than three runs. In six of those twelve starts, he didn't allow any runs. In the second half of the season, he went 4-3 with a 1.80 ERA. In 65 innings, he struck out 69 and walked 30.
But this is a whole season award, and when you combine Johnson's 18 appearances with Tennessee along with two rehab starts in Kane County, Johnson's final season stats were 5-5 with a 2.54 ERA. Over 102.2 innings, Johnson struck out 99 and walked 57. (You can do the math and see that Johnson had control issues in the first half, probably because of his leg problems) He held opposing hitters to a .187 batting average. One of my big issues is pitchers who don't pitch as well as their ERA indicates because they give up a lot of unearned runs. Well, Johnson allowed only one unearned run all season.
Iowa Cubs left-hander Eric Jokisch: Jokisch is a central Illinois kid who the Cubs drafted in the 11th round out of Northwestern in 2010. Since that time, he's wowed more people with his results than his stuff. He threw a no-hitter in Tennessee in 2013. Despite consistently putting up good numbers, he's never made Baseball America's Top 30 Cubs prospects list.
This season, Jokisch cut his walk totals down, increased his strikeouts slightly and turned in his best season yet. A mainstay of the I-Cubs lineup all year long, Jokisch made 26 starts and went 9-10 with a 3.58 ERA. Over 158.1 innings, Jokisch struck out 143 and walked just 31 batters. As noted in the Pitcher of the Month article, he only walked one batter in five starts in August. As a result of Jokisch's strong season, he was rewarded with a September call up to the majors.
Kane County Cougars right-hander Jen-Ho Tseng: The Cubs made a big splash in the international market in 2013 and one of the biggest prizes was the Taiwanese Tseng. Making his professional debut as a 19 year-old in Kane County this season, Tseng was the ace of the team that finished with the best overall record in baseball. In 19 appearances with the Cougars, Tseng was 6-1 with a 2.40 ERA. He was consistent through the year as his ERA was 2.48 and it was 2.35 in the second half.
Tseng pitched a total of 105 innings this year and he struck out 85 and walked an amazingly low total of only 15. He held opposing hitters to a .204 average. Like Johnson, he only allowed one unearned run all season.
Kane County Cougars right-hander Duane Underwood: If Tseng was the ace of the Cougars, Underwood was, at minimum, the Curt Schilling to Tseng's Randy Johnson. (That's a metaphor, not a comp.) Underwood was a second-round pick out of high school in 2012 and while he showed flashes of his talent in Boise last season, it was this year in Kane County that he finally showed why the Cubs took him so high. In 22 appearances with the Cougars, Underwood went 6-4 with a 2.50 ERA. Over 100.2 innings, Underwood struck out 84 and walked 36 while holding hitters to a .231 average. He did allow nine unearned runs, which is a consideration but shouldn't detract from his strong season.
Consistency had always been Underwood's big problem, and this season he seems to have solved that problem by allowing more than two earned runs in only one start all season. (He did allow four runs in his only relief appearance of the year, when he came in to relieve a rehabbing Johnson in the fifth inning.)
Iowa Cubs left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada: Yes, he's 33 years old with a long career in Japan. Yes, he was the 2003 Pacific League Rookie of the Year and he signed a two-year, $8.1 million contract with Baltimore. But he had never pitched in the majors before this season so he's eligible for this award.
Wada, as you probably know, signed with Baltimore in 2012 and promptly needed Tommy John surgery. He missed pretty much all of 2012 and spent 2013 coming back from the surgery by pitching poorly with the Orioles International League club in Norfolk. His contract with Baltimore expired, so he signed a minor league contract with the Cubs this past off-season.
In Iowa, Wada showed the kind of promise that he had shown in Japan. In 18 starts and one relief appearance, Wada was 10-6 with a 2.77 ERA. Once again, Wada only gave up one unearned run on top of that strong ERA. Over 113.2 innings, Wada struck out 120 batters and walked only 28. He held opposing hitters to a .241 average. Wada was named to the All-PCL Team at the end of the minor league season. Of course, Wada made his major league debut pitching in a doubleheader on July 8 and joined the major-league rotation for good on July 23.