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On Blake Whitney and promotions through the Cubs system

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Whitney was chosen in the 24th round this year. What’s his path to success?

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Those of us who mainline prospects will occasionally pick a player to write an article on. Perhaps he’s on a prospect list, or had a nice couple of games. Perhaps, he’s showing an unexpected degree of versatility. Today, I’m looking at pitcher Blake Whitney, because he’s an outlier.

A 24th-round pick this year from South Carolina-Upstate (Spartanburg, SC), Whitney put up good numbers for a team that, otherwise, struggled to pitch. Their second-best ERA was 3.96. Their team mark was 4.68. Whitney’s was 2.81, with a strikeouts-to-walk ratio of just under 4-to-1.

In recent seasons, the Cubs would pull the plug on a pitcher at or around the 20-inning mark in their draft year. The reason for that is he was usually “revved hard” in college, and didn’t need the added stress. The limits have been reduced, within reason. Whitney is an ideal test case.

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Unlike years gone by, when the goal was to sprint top round arms to the majors, Whitney’s usage is an entirely different premise. The Cubs used to use top prospect arms as high as Double-A or higher in their draft season. Those days have gone by the boards. Whitney is a different scenario.

“The draft” in general should have a different representation now. Under Theo Epstein, the Cubs are getting quality trade returns from apparently insignificant players. Honestly, did you know Ricky Tyler Thomas (who brought back Jesse Chavez) or Jhon Romero (Brandon Kintzler) even existed? If the Cubs can “extract value” from Whitney, the draft is more useful. Without parting with a major piece, even.

How is Whitney turned into something valued in the future, in real terms or in proxy? By him being developed more effectively than most middle-third day selections are developed. That likelihood is improved if he can start in the Midwest League in 2019.

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I take a mild detour, now. Instead of talking about Whitney further, I switch gears to the 2018 Myrtle Beach Pelicans. As a team that has under-performed a bit, you might expect that as the path I take. However, it isn’t. The last few seasons, even with success, the Birds have had rotation/bullpen troubles about this time the last few seasons. The current campaign is no different.

That Rollie Lacy was traded, and Ricky Tyler Thomas isn’t available for call-up, don’t help in the available options.

A few of you are likely taking that as waffling. “What? Do you like the trades or not?”

I absolutely love the trades. However, I can have equal and opposing thoughts going at the same time. The Pelicans have had a few games where pitchers continued “past their expiration date.” Some of this is due to the insistence on the six-man rotation, which swipes a bullpen spot. The reality is, while “a guy” can be advanced farther than desired to “play out a schedule,” that ends up being less than ideal.

The Pelicans have lost two players by trade from their pitching staff, and a third that would have fit in nicely as a replacement. From an organizational depth perspective, it’s really important to remember how hard it is to have “too much pitching depth” in a system. Eight or nine games today. Eight or nine tomorrow. Each of those figure to need three to six pitchers per, whether the team is “all-in” to win the game or not.

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Back to Whitney. Per his Baseball Cube page (If you care about the draft or pipeline, you should be able to navigate that and BBRef rather deftly.), Whitney is a bit of an odd duck. A senior sign, he pitched rather consistently (innings-wise) at SC-Upstate all four seasons.

Many pitchers toss eight innings as a freshman, 20-something as a sophomore, and 85.2 as a junior. These types ought to be tightly monitored in their innings use as first-year pros. Whitney was between 54 and 73⅔ for four successive seasons. It’s safe to say his second straight 73⅔-inning campaign didn’t over-extend his arm.

As such, the Cubs can feel a bit bold in using Whitney aggressively as a professional. Within reason. I have no idea what Whitney “velos” at. Let’s say 89-92. Seems nice and conservative, but it might miss either way. The Cubs are running Trackman data on every game in the pipeline. If a pitcher goes 92, 91, 92, 90, 91, 89, 91, 92, he should be okay, unless any other lights flash. However, if he reaches for something extra, and only gets 87, he’s done for the night. Especially in a league with nine relievers good to go.

I’m not a Beach Boys fan (feel free to chime in with your favorite Beach Boys songs below), but “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” would be a usable term regarding Whitney as a piece in the future. Drafted in the afterthought range from a school you might not have known existed, Whitney has had a curious degree of success in Mesa so far. His last three outings have been four, 4⅔, and five innings. With an ERA of 1.40, there may be a there there.

My guess is that Whitney takes a flex role in South Bend in 2019, a bit similar to Duncan Robinson’s when in Indiana, or even Lacy’s from this year. A fringe round pick, he won’t be pushed into a rotation spot in 2019, but might be able to take it if it becomes available. A bit Brad Markey from a few years ago.

If Whitney pitches well enough in South Bend to get a call to Myrtle Beach, that’s an outstanding value from a 24th-round senior selection. Phrased differently, with an added affiliate in the pipeline, Whitney is getting the starting nod that Zack Godley never had the chance at. What he does with it is up to him.

Aside from a night where he walked too many guys, the returns are rather good, so far. As the Eugene Emeralds season continues to squat in a bog, I’d be unsurprised if Whitney gets a shot at starting a game in the Northwest League before being shut down. Especially since players are being advanced beyond their levels, because of depth concerns in Myrtle Beach.

The big picture view. It makes sense, when you realize that the organization wants all the players (hitters or pitchers) to be challenged. A degree of success and failure in a season keeps the player grinding in the off-season. Which is standard. Whitney’s expanded innings role, though, remains an outlier to follow.

Poll

What is your favorite Beach Boys song?

This poll is closed

  • 13%
    Wouldn’t It Be Nice
    (19 votes)
  • 28%
    Good Vibrations
    (39 votes)
  • 15%
    Surfin’ USA
    (22 votes)
  • 17%
    I Get Around
    (24 votes)
  • 19%
    Other (include below)
    (27 votes)
  • 5%
    Who are they?
    (7 votes)
138 votes total Vote Now