While the top of the Cubs’ farm system is loaded primarily with position players, and the majority of the most exciting Cubs’ pitching prospects will be in High A or below next season, the system does have a couple of legitimate starting rotation prospects who should pitch in Triple A Iowa as the season starts, and could contribute to the MLB team later this season: C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson.
C.J. Edwards (RHP, 23 years old)
Tennessee (Double A): 10 GS, 48 IP, 2.44 ERA, 2.92 FIP, 8.63 K/9, 3.94 BB/9, .234 BABIP
Among Cubs pitching prospects in the upper levels of the Cubs’ farm system, C.J. Edwards has the highest ceiling. Edwards’ fastball sits 91-95 with solid movement, and he also throws a curveball that could be plus consistently with continued work to go along with an average change up. Two plus pitches and an average third pitch is solid middle of the rotation stuff, and if Edwards can get the change up to even a fringe plus pitch you’re looking at number 2 in a rotation type of stuff.
The big question with Edwards is his durability. He’s listed at 155 pounds, which means he weighs the same amount as me despite being five inches taller. And I do not exactly have a build you’d look at and say “that’s a MLB pitching prospect”. With Edwards, this isn’t a young Tim Lincecum who is throwing 180-plus innings a year with analysts saying the wheels are going to fall off because he’s too small to maintain this type of performance for more than a handful of seasons. Edwards has never thrown more than 116.1 innings in a professional season, which he did in 2013, and was limited to 68.2 innings (20.2 of which were rehabbing a shoulder injury that kept him out much of the season) in 2014.
This has led to a big disparity in prospect gurus rankings of Edwards. While both MLB.com and Baseball America continue to view Edwards as a potential starter and rank him as a top 50 starter, Baseball Prospectus and ESPN’s Keith Law see Edwards as a reliever only, and as such don’t have him in their top 100 lists.
Edwards was quite good when he pitched in 2014, but 2015 will likely be a year for him to prove he can hold up to a starter’s workload, or a year where he’ll show his long term future is in the bullpen. If Edwards cannot start, I’d be curious if he could fit into a role similar to the role Dellin Betances filled with the Yankees in 2014: a high leverage, multi-inning reliever. But there would even be questions if Edwards could hold up to that workload. At worst, though, Edwards should slot in as a solid late inning reliever along with Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, and Neil Ramirez by 2016.
Likely 2015 Starting Spot: Iowa (Triple A)
Likely MLB Debut: Mid-2015 to early 2016
Pierce Johnson (RHP, 23 years old)
Kane County (Single A): 2 GS, 11 IP, 2.45 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 6.55 K/9, 2.45 BB/9, .115 BABIP
Tennessee: 18 G, 17 GS, 91.2 IP, 2.55 ERA, 4.27 FIP, 8.93 K/9, 5.30 BB/9, .242 BABIP
When the Cubs picked Pierce Johnson with their sandwich pick they received in free agent compensation for Aramis Ramirez in 2012, many thought the Cubs could have gotten a steal. Johnson’s draft stock dropped from a mid-first round grade primarily due to a forearm strain in his final college season, combined with arm action that led scouts to believe more arm injuries could be in his future. The stuff, though, was considered solidly mid-rotation, and many thought the Missouri State product could be a fast riser.
Johnson hasn’t exactly been a disappointment, but he hasn’t exactly lived up to expectations either. He’s generally pitched pretty well, but he hasn’t moved as quickly as hoped and the arm action remains troubling to some, both from health and control standpoints.
In regards to Johnson’s 2014 statistics in Double A, I do think he needs to be looked at pre-injury and post injury. Prior to hitting the DL with a hamstring injury in mid-May, Johnson put up a 4.39 ERA and posted a BB/9 rate of 8.10. When he returned, Johnson posted a 1.80 ERA and a 4.15 BB/9. That walk rate is still too high, but it’s at least not epically terrible and indicates to me that Johnson wasn’t right in his first stretch of 2014.
While Johnson doesn’t have quite the same durability questions as Edwards, this is a big year for him to prove that he deserves a spot in the Cubs’ long term rotation plans as well. To do so, he’ll have to stay healthy and limit walks in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League.
Likely 2015 Starting Spot: Iowa
Likely MLB Debut: Mid-2015 to mid-2016.
As a final note, the Cubs have another pitching prospect, Armando Rivero, in Iowa who could be a big time contributor to the bullpen. As a bullpen only guy, he’s not considered a big time prospect, but he could be the first guy up if one of Rondon/Strop/Ramirez/Grimm/Motte struggle or get hurt, and I’d suggest checking out his stat line on your website of choice.