A couple of years ago, right-handed starting pitching was the Cubs’ greatest organizational strength. Unfortunately, things have not materialized as people would’ve hoped in spite of Keegan Thompson and Adbert Alzolay making it to Chicago. Injuries have taken their toll, development has stalled for some, and one pitcher from last year’s group of hopefuls even retired.
Still, there is hope for big improvement as the Cubs began to draft a different kind of pitcher the past four summers. A new group of arms is quickly moving up the system and, though injuries have taken their toll, should have an impact soon. With another full schedule and better health, we could see things finally come around in a big way for homegrown Cubs pitchers.
The biggest storylines to follow next year will be the returns of Riley Thompson, Michael McAvene, Koen Moreno, Josh Burgmann, and Kohl Franklin. None of them have thrown in any kind of competitive game since 2019 and they didn’t have much collective experience even before that. It is also unclear when Derek Casey and Sam Thoresen are going to be back.
The when is much more important than the where at this point because these pitchers simply need to build up competitive innings. That said, we are still going to break this down in terms of who will likely be at which affiliate in ’22.
Cory Abbott and Matt Swarmer would both probably like to forget the first half of the year at Iowa. Saying that it didn’t go well would be an understatement. Abbott might post double-digit strikeouts in one game and give up six or seven runs the next, or maybe he’d do both in the same game. Swarmer was likewise inconsistent.
Something clicked in the second half, though, as they both posted ERAs under 3.50 in August. Abbott made seven MLB appearances in 2021 and the Cubs will have some opportunities to start at several points, so a strong start in April could mean a lot for both of these righties.
The big story in Des Moines this spring should be how Caleb Kilian does in his first shot at Triple-A. Fresh off a six inning perfecto in the Arizona Fall League championship game, Kilian has revamped a couple of grips — particularly the curveball — and was sitting mid-90s while touching 98 mph. He has moved himself right to the front of the line and is arguably the top right-handed pitching prospect in the organization.
Armed with a four-seam, cutter, changeup, and curve, we should be seeing Kilian in Chicago at some point in 2022. With a solid 6-foot-4 frame and elite control, he looks like he can be a nice middle of the rotation guy for years to come.
Six. Perfect. Innings.
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) November 21, 2021
After Killian and Abbott, the next pitcher in line is probably Anderson Espinoza. The former No. 1 overall prospect in the Padres’ system missed four years of baseball with assorted arm injuries and the pandemic, then returned last spring and was outstanding in South Bend and Tennessee after the Cubs acquired him from the Padres. He already has three plus pitches, so it’s just a matter of getting his command back after all that time off.
After winning the system’s Pitcher of the Month honors in July with a 1.99 ERA, Ryan Jensen was promoted to Tennessee. He looked great in four starts and the Cubs sent him to the Arizona Fall League to work on his slider. It did not go well. There’s a genuine curiosity about that pitch as Jensen used to throw one but ditched it for a change and a curve to better compliment his two-seam fastball.
Watched Ryan Jensen’s outing from yesterday: 4 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 5 K. Sat 96, touched 98. Showed curve (83-85), slider (86-88), changeup (90-92). Only 4 swinging strikes but cruised nonetheless. My favorite sequence: 97 at knees then a 85 plus curve starting to same tunnel. pic.twitter.com/NdkwRd7i8h
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) August 15, 2021
Max Bain had an interesting first year in affiliated baseball after making the jump from independent ball. The talent level and routine were different and he struggled at times, especially in the first half. After a very rough July, the Cubs basically stripped him down and rebuilt the pitches he threw on a regular basis. Like Jensen, the good old curve/change combo was very effective as he was named the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Month in August. There are some who think they might start the year back at South Bend, but knowing his work ethic, I don’t think he’s gonna let that happen.
A hip injury kept Chris Clarke out for the first half of 2021 and he finally debuted with South Bend in July. I got to see him pitch several times in Appleton, the Quad Cities, and Beloit and really liked the ease with which he throws. Like many starting pitchers in the minors, avoiding the big inning is going to be his greatest task in 2022.
Chris Clarke looking nasty. This is his best outing for South Bend; he’s given up one hit over five innings and no runs while striking out for. pic.twitter.com/tzfHhmUfuF
— Todd ⚾️🐻🦌 (@CubsCentral08) September 6, 2021
This young rotation is going to be lit to begin the year, with righties Daniel Palencia, Richard Gallardo, and Manuel Espinoza likely backing up lefties Jordan Wicks and DJ Herz. I’m really excited to see what Gallardo can do at High-A after shedding some weight last summer. He pitched much better in the second half, especially in July and August, and could really make noise if he carries that over.
Former A’s farmhand Palencia wowed with a fastball that approached triple digits on a regular basis the last month of the year in Myrtle Beach. I’m stoked to see what he can do to start next season.
Daniel Palencia’s best start of the season tonight. 5 IP, 1 BB, 1 hit, 7 Ks, no runs. Was at 98 as late as the 4th. pic.twitter.com/WZ2slF2R0L
— Brad (@ballskwok) September 19, 2021
Thoresen was on pace for a great month of June before requiring Tommy John surgery, so I am hoping he can be ready at some point next year. He was really improving from start to start for Myrtle Beach and I thought he was going to be the breakout pitcher of the year after signing as an undrafted free agent out of Minnesota.
Quite a few young arms should wow in Myrtle Beach next summer. I love what I saw from Tyler Schlaffer when he got a cup of coffee with Myrtle Beach the last month of the year. He should be joined by 2019 draft pick Porter Hodge as well as Luis Devers, who stood out in fall instructs after making a couple outings with Myrtle Beach last September. We may also see Benjamin Rodriguez make his full-season debut after missing all of last year rehabbing and building strength in his shoulder and arm.
The biggest draw in Myrtle Beach is probably going Moreno making his full-season debut after missing most of 2021. We may even see the comeback and first full-season appearance of Burgmann as well.
Getting down to the rookie level, Dominic Hambley and Erian Rodriguez should be really fun to watch as we get a chance to see how electric their arms are.
As you can see, there is no issue with depth in the system as the Cubs have plenty of power arms. What’s going to set the position apart is those pitchers making good on potential and continuing to improve at higher levels. The competition to get to Chicago by 2023 should be fierce and those who do make it could set the stage for the next great Cubs team.