Since Theo Epstein took over the baseball operations department of the Cubs in late 2011, he’s focused on acquiring hitters through the draft. Pitching has been somewhat of an afterthought in his draft strategy; pitching, for the most part, has been obtained by trades or free agency by Theo & Co.
Nevertheless, tonight Duane Underwood Jr., the fourth player chosen in Theo’s first draft in 2012, will make his major-league debut by starting against the Dodgers in Los Angeles.
Six previous pitchers have done the same under Theo, made their MLB debuts as starters. (Other Cubs have made their debuts in relief in this time frame, but only these six made MLB debuts as starters.) Here’s what happened with all six. The first three were pitchers acquired or drafted by Jim Hendry when he was Cubs general manager; the last three were acquired or signed by Theo.
Brooks Raley, August 7, 2012 at San Diego
Raley was the Cubs’ sixth-round pick in 2009, and had put together 22 decent starts split between Double-A and Triple-A in 2012 before he was summoned to start this game against the Padres.
It did not go well. The Padres, nearly as bad as the Cubs that year, pounded Raley for seven runs in four innings, including a three-run homer by Carlos Quentin.
Raley made four more starts that year and nine relief appearances for the Cubs in 2013 before he was claimed on waivers by the Twins in 2014. He later spent three years pitching in Korea, finishing up in 2017.
Chris Rusin, August 21, 2012 at Milwaukee
Just two weeks after Raley’s start, another lefty was summoned from Iowa to make a start. Rusin did quite a bit better than Raley, throwing five innings and allowing the Brewers just one hit, two walks and one run. He also hit a triple in his first big-league at-bat.
He made six more starts that year and most of them were pretty bad. He also made 13 starts for the Cubs in 2013 and actually posted positive bWAR (0.7). He spent most of 2014 at Iowa, apart from four big-league relief appearances, and then was claimed on waivers by the Rockies, for whom he was actually an effective reliever for a couple of years (though he’s been pretty bad in 2018).
Dallas Beeler, June 28, 2014 (first game) vs. Nationals at Wrigley Field
Beeler was added to the roster as the 26th man for the first game of this doubleheader, and he had an outstanding outing, throwing six innings and allowing just four hits and an unearned run. Gio Gonzalez and two Nats relievers three-hit the Cubs for a 1-0 win.
Beeler made one more start that year and three the following year for the Cubs, and looked like he might have a chance to catch on as a reliever, but he was released after spring training in 2017. He didn’t pitch at all that year, but is currently throwing for the independent league Sugar Land Skeeters.
Here’s some video from Beeler’s debut:
Tsuyoshi Wada, July 8, 2014 at Cincinnati
Wada, of course, had nine years’ experience in Japan’s NBP before making his debut with the Cubs. This, again, was a doubleheader game, the second of a pair. Wada was effective, throwing five innings, allowing five hits and an unearned run. The Cubs had a 5-0 lead going into the bottom of the fifth and... you don’t really want to hear the end of this story.
Kyle Hendricks, July 10, 2014 at Cincinnati
For the second time in one series, the Cubs had a pitcher make a MLB debut. Hendricks was shaky in the first inning of this game. Five of the first six batters he faced reached base, with three runs scoring. But after that he settled down and completed six innings, with just one more run scoring. He struck out seven, and the Cubs won the game in extra innings.
I don’t have to tell you that Hendricks is by far the most successful of any of these pitchers, and four years later continues to be one of the best pitchers on the staff.
Here’s some video from Hendricks’ debut, of the seven strikeouts. You’ll note that WGN’s pitch-speed meter has him at 91 and 92 miles per hour for a couple of those.
Jen-Ho Tseng, September 14, 2017 vs. Mets at Wrigley Field
Tseng was summoned to Wrigley Field for what he thought was going to be a ceremony honoring him as the Cubs’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Then he was told, “Oh, yeah. You’re starting tomorrow.”
Tseng, who hadn’t pitched in 12 days, was understandably nervous. He got hit pretty hard, allowing five runs in three innings. The Cubs eventually won the game 14-6.
He’s still a prospect for the rotation, though he’s had a rough time at Iowa this year (7.88 ERA, 1.751 WHIP in 14 starts, with 11 home runs allowed in 69⅔ innings).
Here’s hoping for a strong debut performance from Underwood tonight.