The month of February has been a notoriously slow month for the baseball hot stove. Most free agents have already signed and most trades have already been made. February is, however, one of the most popular months in the sense that pitchers and catchers report and Spring Training begins, marking the start of the new baseball season.
With Spring Training on the horizon, fans will get their first look at the new team as well as their team’s top prospects. Cubs fans, especially, will be looking forward to February and March this year because of the abundance of top hitting prospects the organization has. However, the pitching the Cubs have in the system is admittedly a bit weak. Despite this, they do have a handful of bright spots throughout many levels on the farm. Here are five pitchers that could have a big 2014.
1. Kyle Hendricks SP
Acquired in the trade that sent fan favorite Ryan Dempster to the Rangers, Hendricks has surpassed all expectations. He was stellar in his first full season in the Cubs organization, posting a 2.00 ERA and a miniscule .229 opponents batting average against him combined between his time in Double-A and Triple-A. He is known as a guy that does not strike out a ton of hitters nor does he really have a signature pitch. What he has going for him is his ability to mix and match with his pitches and force a lot of ground balls. Hendricks will start the year in Triple-A and if he pitches well, could be a member of the Major League team by June or July.
2. Neil Ramirez SP
Another former Rangers farm hand, Ramirez was sent to the Cubs in the Matt Garza deal last July. The right-hander is one of my biggest sleeper candidates in the entire farm system. He was a former top prospect for Texas that fell off the map a bit due to injuries the past couple of seasons. The 24-year-old rebounded in 2013, posting a 3.84 ERA in 21 starts. While he is a starter at the moment, Ramirez’s future seems to project in the bullpen because of his injury history. He will likely begin the season in Double-A, but if he pitches well, he might be the first call-up to Triple-A Iowa.
3. Frank Batista RP
A name that many Cubs fans haven’t heard about is Frank Batista, a closer who has quietly put up excellent numbers the last three years in the Cubs farm system. He has saved 69 games over the last three seasons and has posted ERA’s of 2.36, 2.22 and 2.60 at High-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee. Batista might be the best closer prospect that the Cubs currently have and the only thing working against him is that he is 24-years-old and has only pitched in six games above the Double-A level. Batista will start in Double-A as the closer once again for Tennessee, but could be in the big leagues by 2o15 or 2016.
4. Tony Zych RP
A fourth-round pick of the Cubs in 2011, Zych has shown good progress thus far. He pitched in 47 games last season for the Smokies and was steady throughout, posting a respectable 3.05 ERA. A college closer, Zych only has nine saves in his Minor League career, but could get some more opportunities this season, depending on what happens with Batista. The right-hander doesn’t strike out a ton of hitters, but allowed his opponents to hit only .237 against him last season. Another Double-A reliever option, I think Zych will burst onto the scene in 2014.
5. Rob Zastryzny SP/RP
The Cubs selected Zastryzny in the second round of last season’s draft, and he was great on the mound after signing. The only lefty on this list, he worked in only 11 games last season, but had a 2.25 ERA and quickly moved up from short-season Boise to Single-A Kane County. Zastryzny struck out hitters at a good rate, almost one per inning. He is poised for a breakout season in 2014 where he could find himself as high as Double-A in his first full professional campaign.