Selected in the second round of the 2012 draft, Duane Underwood is one of the few prospects left from the first draft class of the Theo Epstein era. He’s still only 23 years old and this coming season will be his second as a part of the 40 man roster, so I don’t foresee the Cubs giving up on him anytime soon.
Though it seems sometimes that he is been around forever, Underwood has only completed two full seasons, the first of which was in 2014 at Kane County. The second one was last year at AA Tennessee. That’s it. He barely pitched 70 innings apiece in 2015 and 2016 as he struggled to stay healthy, but putting in 138 innings at Tennessee last year bodes well for 2018.
Aside from saying healthy, what impressed me most about Underwood last year was how his walk rate improved throughout the course of the year. In fact, he cut it in half from May to August. When he had health issues in 2015 and 2016, he struggled to command the ball despite throwing it in the mid to upper 90’s.
Last fall, I published a profile of Underwood’s progress at Tennessee. But when it comes to 2018, there are just a few things to look for when he’s at AAA Iowa.
1. How many innings is he pitching and how many pitches is he throwing?
Underwood has never been a strikeout pitcher despite his plus arsenal that includes a quality fastball and curve. Instead, he’s known to pitch to contact. This was supposed to allow him to get deeper into games and not throw as many pitches, but it hasn’t necessarily work that way. If all goes well in Iowa, he should get in 140-150 innings with a pitch count of 90+ each night. Strikeouts there are not that important, but getting his arm ready to pitch every five days in the majors is.
2. Staying healthy
Underwood has missed going under the knife, so he’s still got the same arm the Cubs drafted. And at 23 years of age, there’s a lot of life left in it. He is going to have his work cut out for him in some of the parks in the Pacific Coast league, as they have been known to be places where the ball just flies out. He’ll just need to avoid over-throwing and remain consistent.
Aside from injuries that have shelved him for short periods of time, the only struggle he’s had in the past five summers has been his command. As Jen-Ho Tseng and Eddie Butler showed last year, one can be a successful pitcher with a low ERA in the PCL despite some of those issues. It’ll be interesting to see how much confidence Underwood gained from putting up 138 innings at AA, and from that impressive late stretch. The PCL is a known hitter’s league, so there’s potential to have to navigate some rough waters.
4. Spring training
I expect to see Underwood make a few starts with the big league club this spring, especially early in camp. If all goes well, he could hang around for most of the spring. Now that he is just one level away, I am excited to see if he can really put it together and make that final jump. It is just a matter of command.
If you’re interested, here are some other profiles in our offseason prospect series: