EDITOR'S NOTE: You've probably read some of the FanPosts Russell Hodges has written in the last few weeks on various Cubs-related topics. I've added Russell to the front-page staff to continue his writing about any and all things Cubs. Please welcome him!
With the late arrival of top pitching prospect Duane Underwood Jr. to Tennessee just under a month ago, you would think the powerful young righthander would be the man stealing the show for the Cubs' Double-A affiliate.
Instead, it's been 22-year-old righty Paul Blackburn who's made a mockery of AA hitters through the first two months of the 2016 season. In nine starts, Blackburn has a 3-1 record with a 0.96 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and .202 opponent batting average with 30 strikeouts and 11 walks in 56 innings pitched. While he hasn't logged any complete games or shutouts, he's allowed one run or less in eight of his nine starts this season, with the exception coming on May 11 where he surrendered four runs on seven hits in six innings against the Montgomery Biscuits.
Selected in 2012 as a compensatory pick along with Triple-A prospect Pierce Johnson, Blackburn has risen steadily through the Cubs' farm system, moving up one level each year he's been with the team. While he doesn't possess any overpowering stuff, his 2.73 K/BB ratio is solid and much improved from his career mark (2.19) and his 1.21 career WHIP is comparable to Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks (1.13). Drafted out of Heritage High School in Brentwood, California, Blackburn is eligible for the Rule 5 Draft at the end of 2016, as this is his fifth minor-league season since being selected as an 18-year-old.
Barring an injury or a complete collapse, Blackburn looks primed to be one of the first Cubs prospects promoted, as he's clearly demonstrated the ability to get Double-A hitters out. The Iowa Cubs, Chicago's Triple-A affiliate, have a serious need for starting pitching, as Johnson and Ryan Williams are currently on the disabled list and newly-acquired Mexican League pitcher Alex Sanabia has been brutal in his first few starts with the team.
It also makes sense for the Cubs to add Blackburn to the 40-man roster at season's end to prevent another team from selecting him in the Rule 5 Draft, much like they did with Johnson at the end of 2015. While Blackburn projects as a backend starter in the majors, he still possesses value due to his age, his stats and his career progression.
Where Blackburn's 2016 season will go remains to be seen, but right now the young righthander has proven Double-A hitters are no match for him.