Relief, Please: Potential Prospects to Save the Cubs Bullpen
The Cubs are on a winning streak! Albeit, a two-gamer against the only team they can probably beat in the National League, the Padres. But hey, after losing a dozen straight ballgames, you take what you can get. The issues with this team are old hat by now: can’t get on base, can’t score runs, can’t close. The only real bright spot has been the front end of the starting rotation, with Jeff Samardzija finally looking like he’s put it all together, and Ryan Dempster, whose 2.14 ERA in eight starts should have secured him at least four wins by now. Instead, Demp has as many wins as you, me and Ronnie Woo Woo combined. After those two, Matt Garza has underachieved surrendering eight homers in nine starts with an ERA in the 4.2’s, Paul Maholm has been inconsistent (5+ ER three times; 2 ER or less five times) and opening day 5th starter Chris Volstad is in Iowa after going 0-6 with a 7.46 ERA in eight starts.
And then there’s the bullpen. There are a lot of areas we could start at to dissect this team like you would a frog in 7th grade biology, only both experiments will probably make you squeamish after a while. The Cubs bullpen is the most nauseating. Chicago’s pen has lost 12 games this season, most in the NL, while saving just seven, fewest in the Senior Circuit. With no dependable closer and few reliable arms in the set-up roles, any lead (which is rare in itself) the Cubs grab going into the late innings always seems shaky.
With this season clearly going nowhere fast, I decided to graze the farm and see if there’s any bullpen remedies in the minors that can help stabilize the pen going into next season. Unfortunately, the Cubs’ top minor league prospects are mainly position players. Baseball America ranked four Cubs in its top 100 prospect list prior to the season, and all four are hitters (Anthony Rizzo, Brett Jackson, Javier Baez, and Matt Szczur). Chicago needs pitching depth in its system, and Theo Epstein has made that clear since he took the job. Arms will surely be the key priority in next week’s draft. For now though, let’s take a look at what the Cubs have stockpiled.
McNutt’s On Clark
Trey McNutt is the highest rated Cubs pitching prospect according to Baseball America. McNutt has been in the Cubs system for four seasons now, drafted in 2009 in the 32nd round out of Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa. He turns 23 in August, and the 6’4”, 220 pound righty has pitched well in Double A this season, but whether or not he’s ready for a jump to the Big Leagues in the next year or two remains to be seen. In nine starts in Tennessee, McNutt is 2-4, but sports a 2.88 ERA and .218 BAA. He has just a 1.38-to-1 K/BB, and has already surrendered 5 homers in 34.1 innings. Perhaps most worrisome is his workload; McNutt has averaged just 3.79 innings pitched per start, only going five innings in two of his nine starts (his only two wins of the season, in the only two starts he qualified). Are the Cubs just easing McNutt into the season after a rocky 2011 campaign (22 starts, 5-6, 4.55 ERA, .319 BAA, 1.67 WHIP)? Or is the bulky righty just not fit to be a starter in the long run?
Still, Chicago loves it some McNutt: when the Cubs traded for Matt Garza, they sent top pitching prospect Chris Archer to Tampa Bay because they did not want to part with McNutt.
Maple(s) Tree of Hope
Others view the best arm in the Cubs system belonging to Dillon Maples, the team’s 14th round pick last summer. Why such hype for the 429th overall pick? Well, because he could have just as easily gone in the top 32, if not for concerns he would chose to play football and baseball at North Carolina instead (Jeff Samardzija, anyone?). The Cubs wanted him to choose baseball so bad, they paid him a $2.5 Million signing bonus, the most money ever coughed up for a player taken past the second round. The 20-year-old’s high school numbers were ridiculous:
2010: 8-1, 0.53 ERA, 0.68 WHIP, 102 K/23 BB, 52.2 innings, .076 BAA, 17.5K/9
2011: 9-1, 0.92 ERA, 0.70 WHIP, 143 K/27 BB, 68.2 innings, .093 BAA, 18.8K/9
Maples is set to make his short season debut in June after dealing with a minor injury earlier this year.
Not Quite Ready
The Rafael Dolis experiment at closer lasted all of 23 days. Dolis started strong in his new role, picking up two saves and a win in his first three outings while not surrendering a run. But than the 6’4” Dominican came down with a case of the Marmol’s. In his last seven appearances, Dolis has walked nine batters in just six innings, allowing 10 runs during that spin as his ERA jumped from 2.79 to 5.68.
The hard-throwing righty was handed the closing reigns more out of attrition than his own talent. Carlos Marmol couldn’t hit the strike zone if it was the size of Lake Michigan, and Kerry Wood retired because he also couldn’t get anyone out. The closer options at that point for Sveum and the Cubs were a 24-year-old with exactly one game of major league experience prior to this season or the team’s only lefty reliever who has zero saves in two plus major league seasons.
Dolis came into the season as one of the Cubs top three or four pitching prospects, and while his major league sample size is still too small to make any rash judgements, it seems clear he was in over his head jumping headfirst into the cesspool that is the back end of Chicago’s bullpen. Dolis’ 145 walks (1.49 K/BB ratio) in his last three full minor league seasons was clearly a red flag, but a mid-90’s sinker and young arm after returning from Tommy John surgery in 2008 gave Cubs’ brass hope. I still think Dolis can be a serviceable, if not formidable reliever for the Cubbies in the future. Again, he’s only 24 and jumped straight from Double-A to the majors; now he can get a fresh start in Triple-A, a level he’s probable best suited for at this point anyway.
Best of the Rest
A guy who has quietly produced solid numbers in relief during his five-year minor league career is Jeff Beliveau (BELL-eh-voh). A former 18th round pick in 2008 by the Cubs, Beliveau was a primary reliever in High-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee the past two seasons, sporting a 1.57 ERA in 53 appearances in 2011, with an outstanding 4.68-to-1 K/BB rate. Those numbers earned him the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year. In 17 appearances this seasons in Iowa, opponents are hitting just .190 against him. While his strikeouts are still where you want them (23 in 22 innings), his control has been more of an issue, issuing 10 walks. His fastball only reaches in the high 80’s, but he does a nice job hiding the ball with his delivery, helping him produce a lot of swings and misses. Don’t be surprised if Beliveau is on the big league roster in the next few months.
Another guy to like is Kevin Rhoderick in Double-A. The Cubs 8th-round pick in 2010 has an ERA less than one in 16 appearances (21.2 IP) this season, coupled with 6 saves and a 3-to-1 K/BB ratio. Oh, and opposing batters are hitting a very numerical .123 against him. In his first full professional season, Rhoderick went 9-0 with a 3.03 ERA in 52 relief appearances between Daytona and Tennessee, with a 9.75 K/9 rate. His control was the only concern (43 walks), but the 23 year old has shown some serious promise.
Frankie De La Cruz could see some big league action this season. The 28-year-old Dominican is now in his 7th minor league season, having spent time in the majors in four of the past five seasons (he missed all of 2010 with an injury). He’s probably most famous for who he was traded for in 2007. De La Cruz was part of the package Detroit sent to Florida for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle WIllis. This season in Iowa, De Le Cruz has been a stud in relief, but shaky as a starter. His numbers as a reliever: 17.1 IP, 2 ER, 1.04 ERA, 7 BB, 6 K’s, .194 BAA. In five starts: 23.2 IP, 11 ER, 4.18 ERA, 14 BB ,12 K, .233 BAA.
Clearly his control, like so many of the Cubs’ minor leaguers, is the main issue (20 BBs to 17 Ks). But lefties are hitting just .149 off the 5’11” righty, whose real name is Eulogio. If he can keep the free passes down, I expect him to get a call-up to the Cubs bullpen in by mid-summer.
Most of the other big name pitching prospects in the Cubs’ system are still in the lower levels like righties Zach Cates, Ben Wells and Tony Zych, so don’t look for them to make any sort of major league impact until probably 2014.