Three (other) Pitchers to Watch in 2016

CJ EdwardsLast week, I had the opportunity to catch a few minutes of the Cubs’ thorough spring training beatdown of the crosstown rival White Sox. Aside from enjoying my first few minutes of televised Cubs baseball since October, one thing about the broadcast really struck me.

It was a comment made by Steve Stone, who was somewhat begrudgingly touting the high hopes and generous level of talent on the current roster. He mentioned that while offensively, and in the bullpen, the Cubs are very strong (true), the one real concern was a lack of depth in the starting rotation. Though that’s a point I can argue somewhat vehemently, I think there’s some truth to the notion that the top of the Cubs rotation is pretty top-heavy, especially when it comes to name recognition.

 

While I’ve already written this spring about my guess as to who fills the final two spots in the rotation behind the Big Three of Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey, what I wanted to focus on in this article was more related to depth. Specifically – three pitchers currently in the Cubs organization who have the ability to make a major impact before 2016 comes to an end.

  1. Kyle Hendricks

Before I start to make my case here, let’s play a game. Below are two sets of stats. Have a gander:

Player 1
Year 1: 2.91 ERA/1.074 WHIP/7.4 H9/2.3 BB9 in 68 IP (12 Starts)
Year2: 3.16 ERA/1.155 WHIP/7.7 H9/2.7 BB9 in 159.1 IP (28 Starts)

Player 2
Year 1: 2.46 ERA/1.083 WHIP/8.1 H9/1.7 BB9 in 80.1 IP (13 Starts)
Year 2: 3.95 ERA/1.161 WHIP/8.3 H9/2.2 BB9 in 180 IP (32 Starts)

Those are stats for the first two full* seasons of the careers of two National League starting pitchers. One of them is Kyle Hendricks. The other is Stephen Strasburg. The asterisk next to full, by the way, is there because “Year 1” for Strasburg is 2010, while “Year 2” is actually 2012, because Strasburg made only five starts in 2011. I thought it more relevant to compare a full season’s stats.

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Anyway, hopefully the point I’m driving home here is that Hendricks has been severely underrated to this point in his career. Strasburg came into the league throwing darts and put up a supremely impressive stat line through 12 starts in his rookie season. Understandably, people were touting him as the next big thing. And to some extent, he’s been that.

Meanwhile, Hendricks – in his first year – put up a better ERA, very similar WHIP, slightly higher H/9 and slightly lower BB/9 in a similar number of starts and people are skeptical. He came back last year and put up numbers that are – again – pretty damn similar to Strasburg’s second full season (Higher ERA, lower BB/9, very similar WHIP), and people seem to be generally writing him off.

Perhaps it’s because Strasburg throws 99+ MPH with ease, and Hendricks can consider it a good day if he touches the low 90s, but people need to wake up to what’s in front of them with Hendricks. This man is putting up numbers at 24 and 25 years old in his first two years in the league that – for other pitchers – are considered well above average, to say the least. Yet, for whatever reason, Cubs fans seem to have a general feeling of “meh” when it comes to the young hurler.

If I’m making a list of pitchers likely to surprise in 2016, Hendricks has to be at the top. He’s showed plenty of signs in his first two years in the league that he has the ability to be a solid top-of-the-rotation starter, but you wouldn’t know it if you listened to most fans.

  1. Pierce Johnson

Though he’ll start the year in the minor leagues, Johnson has been on most Cubs fans’ radars for some time now. Last year in AA Tennessee, Johnson put up a 2.08 ERA in 16 starts while posting a career-minor-league-best WHIP of 1.137. This follows a 2014 season in which he made a total of 19 starts between A and AA ball, recording an ERA of 1.54 with a 1.179 WHIP.

He’ll undoubtedly start the year in AAA, but if he’s successful and the Cubs rotation suffers an injury at any point this season, he may get his chance. At the very least, I would expect to see Johnson in September, when he could provide valuable rest to the Cubs’ top starters in preparation for a potential playoff appearance.

At only 24 years old (he turns 25 in May), Johnson has a bright future ahead of him, and may even be an option to slide into the rotation right out of spring training next year.

  1. Carl Edwards Jr.

He got his first taste of the big leagues as a result of September call-ups last season, and he didn’t disappoint. In five relief appearances (4.2 IP) Edwards faced 19 batters and gave up only three hits and two earned runs to go along with three walks and four strikeouts. Staying true to his form, he didn’t give up a home run – something he’s made a career of doing so far in the minor leagues.

Since coming over from the Rangers in 2013 as part of the Matt Garza trade, Edwards has given up a whopping three home runs. In fact, those are the only three home runs he’s given up his entire professional career. Not to buy too much into a relatively oddball stat, but it does go to show that hitters don’t make great contact against Edwards, a fact that is further supported by his gaudy strikeout numbers. He’s currently averaging 11.4 K/9 over the course of four minor league seasons.

Edwards was almost exclusively a starter prior to joining the Cubs, but he hasn’t started a minor league game since 2014, implying that the Cubs might see his penchant for missing bats as a valuable resource at the end of games. That theory is further supported by the fact that he picked up four AA and 2 AAA saves in 2015.

While Hector Rondon is almost surely going to be the closer come opening day (I’m trying hard here not to go on a rant about the idiocy of a full-time closer…but I digress), and Edwards may very well start the year in AAA, I think there’s a strong chance he finds his way back to the big league bullpen this season. And based on his performance to this point in his minor league career, any stumbles at the back end of the bullpen by guys like Pedro Strop or Justin Grimm (or even Rondon) might open the door to some seventh, eighth and even ninth-inning appearances.

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