With their first amateur draft selection after taking control of the Chicago Cubs front office, the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer/Jason McLeod regime chose prep outfielder Albert Almora as the No. 6 overall choice in 2012. Almora has received and will continue to receive plenty of coverage in these parts.
With their second pick, the regime chose Missouri State right-hander Pierce Johnson, another prospect who receives plenty of coverage, especially following his superb start on Saturday in which he matched up against 2014 American League Cy Young winner Corey Kluber. Johnson figures to make his Major League debut at some point during the 2016 season, so he's firmly on the radar.
However, this post looks to the next pick. With the 56th overall pick in that 2012 draft, the Cubs drafted California prep righty Paul Blackburn, an athletic pitcher in need of some additional weight on his relatively thin frame (as seen in this video from high school).
Blackburn routinely worked in the high 80s and even into the low 90s coming out of high school in addition to showing a solid grasp of three pitches, but the hope was that his body would fill out, enabling him to (1) stick in a starting rotation over the long haul, and (2) develop some additional velocity on his heater.
As you can see in this Myrtle Beach Pelicans game recap from August 2015, Blackburn has filled out his frame nicely and it appears to be largely with productive weight. Blackburn certainly appears to have the body to stick in a rotation.
However, the velocity hasn't really arrived due in large part to the fact that Blackburn works primarily with a hard sinking two-seam fastball instead of a traditional zooming four-seamer. While there's plenty of benefit to throwing a sinker with consistency, it has had one truly negative effect on Blackburn's projection: he has been almost entirely unable of striking out minor league hitters thus far in his professional career.
And that puts Blackburn squarely at a crossroads in his development. There are numerous signs of encouragement thus far but two primary factors stand out. First, Blackburn has excellent control of his three-pitch arsenal with his two-seamer, 11-5 curveball, and copycat changeup (it mimics his fastball beautifully), something that has enabled him to significantly cut his walk rate as he has climbed the organizational ladder, from 5.67 BB/9 during half a season at Boise in 2013 down to 2.21 BB/9 during his season at Myrtle Beach in 2015. Second, the serious downward motion on all three of his offerings has enabled Blackburn to very effectively keep the ball inside the ballpark with a 0.43 HR/9 rate since graduating from rookie ball.
Ah, but those pesky strikeouts. Since posting a highly encouraging 7.43 K/9 at Boise, Blackburn's strikeout rate completely cratered to 5.77 K/9 in the Midwest League in 2014 before recovering a tiny bit to just 6.32 K/9 at Myrtle Beach last year. It goes without saying: such a strikeout rate in the low minor leagues almost never yields a Major League arm.
It's decidedly much too soon to write Blackburn off. He just turned 22 in December, and his ERAs has fallen upon every promotion of his minor league career, from 3.48 in rookie ball to a sparkling 3.11 last year. Perhaps even more encouragingly, his FIP has dropped in a much more significant manner from a wobbly 5.39 in rookie ball all the way down to a shimmering 3.22 figure this year.
Blackburn is a good minor league pitcher at this point in his development. However, in order to take the next step to reignite his prospect star, he needs to find a way to strike out way more batters.
For those of you who have seen Blackburn pitch in person, do you have hope that he can take another step (or two)? And for those of you who have followed his career, do you think he might have some more in the tank?
I'll certainly be hoping for that next step this year. Without it, Blackburn may fade into the background. With it, we'll be having a significantly different conversation this time next year.