Chicago Cubs Minor Leagues Watch: Chris Archer, Trey McNutt… Robert Whitenack?

Posted on April 18, 2011

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Something good is going on, at long last, in the Chicago Cubs‘ farm system. The team is developing a knack for turning fringe-level pitching prospects into studs with front-of-the-rotation potential, and the latest beneficiary may be Robert Whitenack.

The team traded for live-armed but wild right-hander Chris Archer on new Year’s Eve 2008, whereupon Archer became one of the game’s top right-handed pitching prospects. He was so good in 2009 and 2010 that GM Jim Hendry really ought to have been able to trade Archer and just a pair of other prospects for Tampa Bay Rays hurler Matt Garza. Instead, Hendry swapped Archer, fellow prospects Brandon Guyer and Hak-Ju Lee, and two other useful pieces for Archer. Opportunity squandered, right?

Perhaps not. After all, Hendry had failed to land his top trade targets the previous three winters (Jake Peavy and Brian Roberts), so getting Garza marked a chance for the embattled GM to prove he can reel in the big fish–although he used too much bait along the way.

More importantly, the Cubs had already replaced Archer, in a sense. No organization can ever have too much pitching talent on the farm, of course, but with Trey McNutt in the fold, Archer might have seemed somewhat expendable.

McNutt came to the Cubs via the draft in 2009, in the 32nd round. Not a misprint. Every team, including the Cubs, passed on McNutt 31 times. It made sense at the time: McNutt was a fringe guy, low-90s velocity, good command but no overwhelming secondary pitch.

Twenty-two months later, though, McNutt routinely hits 95 and has hit 98 enough times to ensure scouts it is no fluke. He has developed his hard slurve into the best breaking ball anywhere in the Cubs system and a true plus-plus pitch, and in 116.1 innings across three levels last season, he fanned 132 while walking just 37. He may need to back off throwing the heat in the high 90s and just let it go so that he can keep the pitch moving, but he will be a co-ace in the Cubs’ aceless rotation by this time next season. He and Andrew Cashner have similar upside, but frankly, McNutt is the more viable starter for the long term.

Now the Cubs may be molding yet another unsung prospect into a power arm worthy of a look. Robert Whitenack went 24 rounds ahead of McNutt in 2009, but was equally unheralded until last week. That was when he fanned 12 batters in a High-A game, walking none and allowing just one hit over six innings. He followed that up with six more innings against the same team (the Clearwater Threshers, a well-stocked Phillies affiliate) Sunday, in which he whiffed three, walked one and allowed only one unearned run.

Since he was drafted, Whitenack, 22, has ticked his fastball from the low-90s to 94-95, and all of his pitches have good downward plane from a long-levered delivery.

Whitenack’s age-versus-level is not as exciting as that of, say, 2010 first-round pick Hayden Simpson, but this guy could fly under the radar and into the back of the Cubs’ rotation someday relatively soon. And hey, if not, he has a future managing what would be just an epic 80s rock supergroup.

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Posted in: Baseball