The Cubs are good. REALLY good. And they’re probably going to be good for a while. But that doesn’t mean that the Cardinals are going anywhere any time soon. Just like the resurgent Yankees/Red Sox rivalry of the 2000’s, both franchises are positioned to duke it out for the foreseeable future. Right now, the Cubs are undeniably the better team. But what does the future of each franchise look like? How healthy are the talent pipelines? Let’s take a look, beginning with starting pitching prospects.
Top Tier Arms
Alex Reyes – RHP – 6’3"/175lbs*/22yrs
Any Cardinals fan, hell, any baseball fan who pays even a small amount of attention to prospect lists knows Reyes’s profile. He’s a big bodied starter whose arsenal begins with a 70 grade fastball that sits in the upper 90’s and bumped as high as 101mph in relief. The fastball is backed up by a true 12-6, waterfall curve that flashed as much as a plus-plus grade in the minors but now looks to be a comfortable 60. The changeup didn’t garner much hype during his climb through the system but opened eyes in the majors with impressive sink and arm-side run, giving Reyes another plus off-speed offering. During his debut season he began tinkering with a slider that projects to average and provides intriguing pitch tunneling opportunities, as if his FB/CB/CH mix wasn’t enough to deal with.
His command has been a work in progress as he’s progressed through the minors, but has steadily improved. At best it projects as average but the most likely scenario is that he’s an "effectively wild" 45 (which may make batters even more uncomfortable in the box). The biggest negative (and bummer), obviously, is that he’ll miss all of 2017 with Tommy John surgery. Reyes has ace upside.
Sandy Alcantara – RHP – 6’4"/170lbs/21yrs
The Alcantara hype train picked up serious steam in Spring Training. The willowy fireballer took a considerable step forward developmentally in the past year and it showed in Jupiter. Like Reyes, his repertoire starts with a high octane, high-90’s fastball. The pitch comes from a slingy, 3/4 arm slot and with a bit of life and is an easy 70 grade. He’s always had the ability to spin a breaking ball but the pitch really didn’t come into shape until last season, where it was flashing plus at times. The changeup, too, has taken a big step forward. It has late tumble with good arm speed and also has the potential to become plus with reps.
His mechanics vary, with inconsistent stride length and release point at times, but have improved as he’s added strength. Current command is probably a 30 but is making strides towards average. The ceiling here is a #2 starter if the secondaries solidify as plus and the command develops. Worst case, he should still have the stuff to fit somewhere in a big league rotation or at the back end of a bullpen.
Dylan Cease – RHP – 6’2"/190lbs/21yrs
Cease has the most upside but also the most risk of any pitcher in the Cubs system. The extreme risk has been hanging over his head since he was drafted in 2014. Cease was on track to be a first round pick out of high school before undergoing Tommy John his senior year. The Cubs took a chance on him in the 6th round and signed him using money they saved going underslot with Kyle Schwarber.
The scouting report hasn’t changed much since being drafted. His fastball sits in the mid to upper 90’s with good life and his main off-speed pitch is a powerful, hammer of a curveball. His changeup is still in it’s nascent stages, but the requisite athleticism and arm speed to develop an average offering with reps is there. Command is the next piece of the puzzle. In high school his mechanics were out of control, resembling something like a helicopter with the wrong number of blades. His hips flew out from under him early and the ball remained pointed at centerfield way too long, putting the stress on his elbow that eventually lead to the tear. Fast forward to 2017, and the mechanics have been cleaned up considerably. I’m bullish on his ability to develop average command.
Unfortunately, injuries have persisted and Cease has only pitched 68.2 innings in 2 season of pro-ball. The cleaned up mechanics create optimism that chronic injuries are behind him, but there’s always the possibility that he’s the fragile sort of athlete that always seems to break (see Garcia, Jaime). The upside of a #2 starter is there, but he’s purely a wait-and-see prospect.
Mid Rotation Arms
Luke Weaver – RHP – 6’2"/170lbs/23yrs
I shouldn’t need to write too much about Weaver here, what with him debuting in 2016 and having been on the radar for years. Weaver features a low to mid 90’s fastball that earns an above average 55 grade. He locates the pitch well to all areas of the zone. His moneymaker will forever be his plus-plus changeup that features outstanding late movement and deception. He’s never made much progress spinning a curveball, trying both a slider and a curve at times, and the breaker will never grade out at more than a 45. He’s begun tinkering with a cutter, which looks to be around average and could help induce more weak contact. His command is above average and could be plus one day. The realistic profile here is a low-end #3/high-end #4 starter.
Jack Flaherty – RHP – 6’4"/205lbs/21yrs
The industry stock on Flaherty is down this year, and for no other reason than that he’s steadily put up very good-not-great numbers instead of lighting the world on fire. Go figure. Flaherty is another very familiar profile. He was a two-way player in high school, and even though he only began pitching full-time after being drafted, he’s shown an advanced feel for pitching.
The fastball sits 90-94mph, but plays up to a 55 grade due to his ability to locate it to both edges of the zone. The primary off-speed pitch here is a changeup, which is consistently average but flashes plus often enough to make me comfortable projecting it as plus at maturity. He’s worked with two breaking balls, a slider and a curve. In the past the two have run together at times, with the slider appearing above-average and ahead of the curveball. This spring, however, the curve has taken a step forward. It’s featured better depth and bite that in years past, and now appears to be another above average offering. Couple all that together with command and pitchability that could become plus one day, and you have yourself the makings of a #3 starter.
Dakota Hudson – RHP – 6’5"/215lbs/22yrs
Hudson will be one of the more interesting prospects to watch in 2017. With his stuff (60 grade fastball and 60, possibly 70 grade slider) he could move very quickly and find time in the big league pen. While possible, I hope it doesn’t happen because it’ll cost Hudson valuable development time.
The fastball/slider combo is a damn impressive place to start, but there’s room to round out his repertoire. He also features a curveball of the frisbee variety that he can backdoor to lefties or use to steal early count strikes. The changeup is the farthest behind of the bunch, and he has a bad habit of slowing his arm, but if there’s one pitch I have confidence in the Cardinals minor league system developing it’s the changeup.
Out of all the players mentioned so far, Hudson’s delivery is my least favorite. The arm swing is long in the back and stiff coming through, and the foot stride closes off the third base side pretty often. When he struggles to find his release point he yanks the fastball and slider pretty hard to the glove side. The command took strides in the season before the draft, which is promising. If the command develops, he’s a #3 starter. Worst case, he’s a high-end bullpen arm or possible closer.
Oscar De La Cruz – RHP – 6’4"/200lbs/22yrs
De La Cruz possesses the prototypical power-pitcher starter pack. He’s big bodied, with a 93-96mph fastball that features late life and a power curveball that he can bury in front of the plate. He has feel to move his changeup but hasn’t been able to consistently repeat his arm speed yet. He was a shortstop when he was signed out the Dominican Republic and only began pitching 4 years ago, so there’s more projection left here than in the typical 22 year old.
When he’s on he attacks hitters up and in relentlessly. The delivery is sound and with reps the command will continue to improve. With a future 60 FB and 60 CB, De La Cruz is a #3 starter if the changeup and command continue progressing.
Jose Albertos – RHP – 6’1"/185lbs/18yrs
I’ll start by saying that I’ve never seen Albertos pitch in person or on tape. His stateside debut in the AZL lasted only 4 innings before he was shut down due to vague "elbow concerns". All I know about Albertos is through reports from people who have either seen Albertos or talked to people who have.
Reports have him sitting in the mid-90’s and hitting 96 in his final inning of work. His command of the fastball is advanced for an 18 year old. The curveball is slurvy, currently varying between a slider and a standard curve. The big draw here is his changeup. Reports have it flashing plus already with the potential upside to be plus-plus. He apparently locates it fairly well already. The ingredients are there for a plus-FB/plus-plus-CH/plus-CM profile, which makes for a wicked good #3.
Austin Gomber – LHP – 6’5"/240lbs/23yrs
I have a hard time getting excited about Austin Gomber. It’s not a knock on Gomber, per say, but it’s a product of the fact that his rise is results driven instead of pure stuff driven. He’s a big body, obviously, capable of racking up a ton of inning in a season. His fastball is in the low 90’s and located well, paired with an above average overhand curve and an average changeup. His mechnics are funky to say the least, but don’t hinder his command. Gomber actually features 55 grade command on most days. The funk, combined with command and the fact that he’s coming from the left side, let his fringe-average repertoire profile as a solid back-end starter.
Marco Gonzales – LHP – 6’1"/195lbs/25yrs
If you don’t know the book on Marco Gonzales yet, you haven’t been paying any attention to the Cardinals. He flew through the minors after being drafted out of Gonzaga, fueled by a dominant changeup and plus command. Since that intriguing run, life has been a string of injuries that includes Tommy John. No one knows quite what to expect, but the door isn’t closed quite yet.
John Gant – RHP – 6’3"/200lbs/24yrs
You either profile as a back-end starter if you have good stuff but fail to command it or command fringey stuff very well. Gant commands fringey stuff very well. The delivery is very funky, with a double leg kick that leads first time viewers crying balk, which adds good deception. The fastball is of the low 90’s variety, and the curve is average but thrown for strikes. The changeup, since it’s of the Vulcan-change variety, really intrigues me. When he’s on, the pitch has splitter-esque action and could potentially be deadly.
Trevor Clifton – RHP – 6’1"/170lbs/21yrs
Clifton pounds the bottom of the zone with a low-90s sinker endlessly. The approach let him rack up plenty of weak contact and grounders in the Carolina league last year. The curveball sits in the mid-70’s with varying depth, but most have it pegged as an above average offering down the line. I’m not confident that the changeup will ever miss bats at a high rate, but it should still be serviceable. He profiles as a back-end sinkerballer if everything breaks correctly for him.
Junior Fernandez – RHP – 6’1"/180lbs/20yrs
My heart tells me yes but my brain tells me no. I want to believe that Junior Fernandez will develop into a mid rotation starter, but I don’t. Then again, I don’t know what to believe. The 70 FB/70 CH combo with upper 90’s velocity and life is undeniably exciting, but the lack of breaking ball is troubling. The athleticism and arm speed leads one to believe he can spin a breaker consistently, but things haven’t come around yet. The delivery as it is right now is very high effort. You can either believe that his youth and athleticism will lead to improved command, or you can damn him to the bullpen. If he moves to the bullpen b/c of his size/durability or lack of breaking ball but develops enough command, he’s a dominant 2-pitch reliever or possible closing candidate.
Not Close, Yet Intriguing Arms
Cardinals: Jake Woodford, Ronnie Williams, Alvaro Seijas, Johan Oviedo, Connor Jones, Zak Gallen, Jordan Hicks
Cubs: Bryan Hudson, Jose Paulino, Bailey Clark, Thomas Hatch
Verdict: The Cards come out with the advantage in both upside and depth in the starting pitching department.