It's time to honor the best in Cubs minor league pitching in 2015. Unlike the minor league hitters, none of the top pitching prospects made the majors this season, at least not until September. The Cubs pitching prospects have always been considered to be behind the hitters and while that's still true, this group of players took a step forward in 2015. They weren't the only ones either, as several pitchers had very good seasons in the minor leagues and it was very difficult for me to pick a nominee from among the many worthy candidates. Brad Markey, you got robbed.
All of the players nominated today could have big major league futures ahead of them, but this award is for the player who had the best overall season regardless of prospect status. So vote for the player you think had the best overall season. You can take into account whatever statistics you want, as long as it pertains to what the player did in 2015 and not what you think that player will do in 2016 and beyond. If you're an old school wins, losses and ERA guy, that's your right. If you want to get into xFIP and babip, that's cool too. Personally, I'm somewhere in the middle.
With that said, the candidates are:
Iowa Cubs right-hander Carlos Pimentel: Pimentel was not only the best pitcher on the Iowa Cubs this past season, he was the best pitcher in the entire Pacific Coast League, winning Pitcher of the Year honors. The 25-year-old Dominican spent seven years in the Rangers organization and was signed by the Cubs as a minor league free agent to eat up innings in Iowa. And that's what he did in 2014, pitching 101 innings and posting a 5.35 ERA.
But this year, something clicked for Pimentel. He credits an improved attitude and more video room work that allowed him to maintain consistency, focus on what worked and not letting what didn't work bother him. Whatever it was, it worked. Pimentel made 26 starts and one relief appearance that added up to 143.1 innings. In that time, he went 12-6 with a 2.95 ERA in the hitter-happy PCL. That's second in the league in wins and second in the league in ERA. A big difference in Pimentel this season was that he kept the ball in the park, giving up just 12 home runs this year after allowing 17 in 42 fewer innings in 2014. (And after Iowa was placed in a division with Colorado Springs this season as well.)
Pimentel struck out 118 batters, the third-highest total in the PCL this year while walking 68. That walk number is higher than you'd like, but he kept it from being a problem by holding opposing hitters to a .229 batting average over the season.
Despite his excellent season, Pimentel did not get a callup to the majors this year and he's not on the 40-man roster. He's a free agent at the end of the season and while he says he'd like to stay with the Cubs, he'll be looking for a team that will give him a shot to pitch in the majors after the most successful season of his nine-year minor league career.
Tennessee Smokies right-hander Pierce Johnson: Johnson was arguably the Cubs top pitching prospect coming into 2015 (he was in the mix for that honor at least) and big things were expected of him out of spring training. What wasn't expected was that the 24-year-old Coloradan would suffer a strained lat muscle in spring training and not pitch until June 11. But when he joined the Smokies two months late, he hit the ground running and would stay strong (and healthy) all season.
Johnson made 16 starts for Tennessee this season. In 12 of them, he would allow one earned run or fewer. He allowed two earned runs once, three twice and only once did he allow as many as four runs in a start. That's consistency. And if you know me, you know the distinction between earned and unearned runs bugs me. Johnson was strong there too as he allowed only two unearned runs all season.
Johnson finished the season with a 6-2 record and a 2.08 ERA over 95 innings. He struck out 72 batters and walked 32 while allowing just four home runs. Johnson held opposing hitters to a .223 average.
Myrtle Beach Pelicans right-hander Jonathan Martinez: It was brutal trying to pick just one pitcher from the Pelicans, who dominated the Carolina League with a league-best team ERA of 3.01. But Martinez posted the requisite number of innings and ERA to take home the Carolina League ERA crown with a mark of 2.56 over 116 innings. So he gets the honor here. And since I've already made a big deal out of it, only two of the 35 runs Martinez allowed this season were unearned.
Martinez made 21 starts and two relief appearances and finished with a record of 9-2. In 15 of those 21 starts, Martinez went at least five innings and allowed two runs or fewer. Martinez isn't a real strikeout pitcher as he struck out only 66 batters this season, but he was also stingy with free passes, issuing only 27. He held opposing hitters to a .199 average. When Martinez did get into trouble, it almost always was because of home runs. Martinez is a fly ball pitcher and he was tagged for ten home runs this season, which honestly, isn't that bad a number, even in the pitcher-friendly Carolina League.
South Bend Cubs/Tennessee Smokies Ryan Williams: Picking a candidate from the South Bend Cubs was just as hard as picking one from Myrtle Beach, only for the opposite reason. For some reason, any pitcher who did well in South Bend was quickly promoted, whereas starting pitchers in Eugene mostly stayed in Eugene, so South Bend never got any reinforcements from there. It's little wonder South Bend was the only Cubs affiliate to finish with a losing record.
There were a couple worthy candidates who spent the whole season in South Bend, like Trevor Clifton and Erick Leal, but overall, Williams deserves to be a candidate even though he made only nine appearances for South Bend and 17 for Tennessee. Just making a successful jump from Low-A to Double-A should be worth something.
For South Bend, Williams made eight starts and one relief appearance and went 4-1 with a 1.17 ERA. He only walked two batters in 53.2 innings. So let's just take it as a given that the 23-year-old Californian was dominant in Low-A. Looking at his numbers as a whole between South Bend and Tennessee, Williams went 14-3 with a 2.16 ERA. He is an extreme ground ball pitcher with a ground out/air out ratio of 1.62, which held opposing hitters to a .214 average. That also meant Williams gave up just two home runs.
Williams greatest asset is his control, as he walked only 18 batters over 141.2 innings. And while he's not a strikeout pitcher, his strikeout total of 98 is respectable, at least. Williams did give up seven unearned runs, although five of those came early in South Bend.
Eugene Emeralds pitcher Oscar De La Cruz: The big 20-year-old De La Cruz was a shortstop before the Cubs immediately converted him to pitching after signing him in the Dominican Republic in 2012. He stayed in the Dominican for two years learning how to pitch and then the Cubs had him skip rookie ball and unleashed him directly upon the Northwest League. De La Cruz made 13 starts for the Ems and went at least five innings in 11 of them. You may say "big deal, he went five innings" but in the Northwest League, it is a big deal. And one of the two starts he didn't last five was opening night when everyone was just being eased back into the game.
In those 13 starts with Eugene, De La Cruz went 6-3 with a 2.84 ERA, which was the third-best in the league. De La Cruz pitched 73 innings and he struck out 73, second-most in the NWL, and walked only 17. De La Cruz held opposing hitters to a .211 average and allowed just four home runs.
De La Cruz's most impressive outing was on August 26 against Spokane, when he went seven innings and allowed just one hit and one unearned run. De La Cruz walked just one batter that night and he struck out 13.