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A look at the surging South Bend Cubs rotation

The Midwest League affiliate has some very good starting pitchers.

Faustino Carrera
Faustino Carrera is among a string of legitimate arms in South Bend.
Rebecca Snyder

Baseball progress isn’t necessarily in a straight line. Players bounce inexplicably from hot streak to cold streak and back. At the Midwest League level, if a team has five or six useful starting pitchers paired with a reasonable offense, they can be a fun follow. As the South Bend Cubs are winning games without as much of a whisper of power, how is the South Bend rotation?

Before I get full-fledged into the current rotation in northern Indiana, having a quality rotation in the Midwest League should be appreciated by Cubs fans who don’t give a whit about the prospect pool. Last season, South Bend rotation arms helped to add Cole Hamels and Jesse Chavez. Having enough arms that have a degree of upside on any full-season affiliate should always be a goal in the minor leagues, for the betterment of the future.

South Bend rolls with a six-man rotation. The seventh pitcher who started for them was rehabbing Mike Montgomery. All of the other six have started to put together a degree of a resume. Here’s a look at the six in no specific order.

Brailyn Marquez. Left-handed pitcher. Signed as an international free agent (signing bonus $600,000)

For a few starts at the start of the season, Marquez was a rather tough follow. He wasn’t getting hit very hard very often, Though, in only one of his first five starts did he record an out in the fifth. Strikeouts and walks were aplenty, and he was getting pitch-counted early. 97 MPH is fun, but it tended to be a tedious follow.

Facing a quality Bowling Green squad, Marquez had his first five inning start of the season, and second at the full-season level. Marquez will be Rule 5-eligible this off-season, and might well require a 40-man roster spot. He wouldn’t be ready for MLB in 2020, but some teams rarely care anymore.

Faustino Carrera. Left-handed pitcher. Signed as an international free agent (signing bonus $250,000)

Carrera has allowed less than a hit per inning, and has fanned three times as many as he’s walked. Rule 5-eligible, it’s doubtful he would get poached this off-season. Advancing talent a level a season at a time at the lower levels is perfectly acceptable, and that’s where Carrera is now.

On Saturday, Carrera was touched for three runs (two earned) in the first, and he was nails through seven innings the rest of the way. Carrera is one of the Mexican recruits that the Cubs were effective in adding, until the rules were changed.

Eury Ramos. Right-handed pitcher. Signed as an international free agent (signing bonus undisclosed)

Ramos’ numbers so far look very uneven. His ERA is almost eight. However, at the lower levels of the minor leagues, the “development angle” is quite strong. Ramos had trouble early-on getting in as many as four innings completed, much less five or six. Over three successive starts, Ramos couldn’t pitch into the fifth.

His last two starts have seen him record fifteen and seventeen outs. At 21 from Guananico, Dominican Republic, the 6-3 pitcher starts to represent someone that might be better than an opponent’s worst rotation option. No, Ramos won’t be the key piece in a major July move, but could be a second- or third-piece. Rule 5-eligible, it’s rather doubtful he gets plucked, but another few good months in South Bend justifies a move to Myrtle Beach in 2020.

Cam Sanders. Right-handed pitcher. 2018 12th round pick, LSU ($125,000 signing bonus)

Sanders has been dancing around the raindrops, as you might guess from 21 walks in 33 innings. However, he’s been rather successful at it so far, with a 2.45 ERA. Development isn’t linear. A pitcher finding a way to get outs has a tendency to impress other front offices. Along with Casey and Thompson, Sanders won’t need Rule 5 protection until 2021.

All three can be slow-played through the pipeline, hurried, or dealt. After all, none were early selections. Pitchers selected in this range are fantastic to try as starters the next season at full-season ball, because they should be able to useful, somehow.

Derek Casey. Right-handed pitcher. 2018 ninth round pick, Virginia ($130,000 signing bonus)

Casey tossed seven perfect innings in a no-hitter. That ought to be a draw when teams are looking for B or B-plus trade additions, because it’s tough to pitch 21 up and 21 down at the Midwest League level with something.

Casey had struggled early, failing to go over five innings in his first five starts, only reaching the mark once. He’s gotten seven and six in his last two starts. Along with Marquez’ and Ramos’ improvement, Casey’s has helped to normalize bullpen usage. If the five-plus inning outings continue across the board, all six should remain somewhat interesting from an advancement/trade perspective.

Riley Thompson. Right-handed pitcher. 2018 11th round pick, Louisville ($200,000 signing bonus)

Thompson has been the ace of the staff with an ERA below two, and a WHIP below 1.2. As razzed as the Cubs get for “low-hanging fruit” on the mound in the draft, a third day pick that pitches better than the Midwest League is a very solid investment. What this turns into is up for debate, but the Cubs 11th-round choice in 2017 helped bring Cole Hamels.

Thirty strikeouts and eight walks ought to catch the attention of people with a long leash of development. It’s not one or the other, it’s the bulk of the five (other than the likely untouchable Marquez) that ought to be of value in July.

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Along with the rotation doing well, the bullpen has largely kept up with the starters. Jeff Passantino, Peyton Remy, and Ethan Roberts have provided a manifold supply of leverage options. Six South Bend relievers have saves. More quality pitching numbers provide a depth of trade options. Lefty reliever Ryan Lawlor has already been promoted to the Carolina League. Watch for a few more in about three weeks, once the first half ends.

Does that mean the Cubs should necessarily avoid high-end pitching options? Goodness, no. However, it doesn’t appear the Cubs pitching situation is nearly as broken as it used to be a few years ago. If two of the six starting pitchers end up as trade pieces, and one ends up getting some valid outs in Wrigley, that’s an awfully good use of secondary and tertiary draft and international selections.

It’s entirely possible that some of the six could backslide, which is a valid part of properly assessing talent on a bit of a real-time perspective. If the Cubs lead toward trading more lower level options than fewer top-shelf names, South Bend pitchers might be heading elsewhere come July. Particularly if their production keeps going in the positive direction.