As we continue our tour of the top prospects across the Chicago baseball landscape this afternoon, we take a look at Chicago Cubs #6 prospect, Duane Underwood.
He was the best of pitchers, he was the worst of pitchers.
Such describes the consistent inconsistency associated with top Cubs’ pitching prospect Duane Underwood. Despite being plagued by a lack of control and all sorts of injuries, the 22-year-old has made a name for himself in one of the top organizations in the MLB.
The tall right-hander garnered all sorts of attention when he was a high school-er just north of Atlanta, where he hit 98 mph (!) on his fastball during his senior year (!!) and continually coupled it successfully with a tight curve. His major problem was that he had almost zero consistency and control, and, for that reason, he fell into the 2nd supplemental round of the 2012 draft, where the Cubs took him.
But despite the incredible promise that came with Underwood, his minor league career has been, to put it simply, a roller coaster. He struggled at the beginning of his minor league career in the Arizona Rookie League in 2012, giving up 5 earned runs (and 6 walks) in 8 and 2/3 innings pitched. He spent 2013 in Low A, but couldn’t seem to find success there either, pitching to a 4.97 ERA and a miserable 1.603 WHIP in just over 54 innings. On the other hand, development showed as his walk rate decreased significantly.
2014 was the season in which Underwood finally hit his stride. At Single-A, he ended the year with a phenomenal 2.50 ERA, a massively improved 1.202 WHIP, an again decreasing walk rate (although still not great at 3.2/9), and all in over 100 innings.
2015 saw continued success as Underwood kept moving up through the farm system. He spent the year at A-Advanced, and earned an even 3.19 ERA and a 1.036 WHIP. His control continued its development, as his walk rate fell to 2.9/9. Underwood seemed to be unstoppable, and, despite a brief injury, looked like he was well on his way to being a major league starter.
Going into 2016, Underwood was ranked by MLB Pipeline as the 77th best prospect in all of baseball and he was the Cubs’ top pitcher on the entire farm.
Alas, 2016 was disastrous for Underwood. He started the season on the DL due to a forearm issue and only made it a little over two months at Double-A Tennessee before he suffered from another undisclosed injury and missed about a month.
But it’s not like those two months were even remotely impressive. There’s no nice way to say this; Underwood got beat up. In 13 starts, his ERA shot up to 4.91, his WHIP regressed to 1.653, and opponents hit .280 off of him. While he rehabbed from his mystery ailment, he pitched fairly well at the lower levels of the minors, but didn’t shut anybody down like it was hoped that he would. While I stand by the uselessness of the win/loss stat, it is worth noting that Underwood didn’t win a single game all year.
Underwood’s performance has been rocky, but his tools are undeniable. His fastball still reaches 96 miles per hour, and doesn’t slow down much as it approaches the plate, making it much harder for hitters to make contact. His curve is also incredibly useful as it has a nasty bite to it when he throws it well. On the minor league skill ranking scale from 20-80, his fastball is at a 65 and his curve and change both earn 55.
The top tier ability of Underwood’s arm gives him a high ceiling of a front end starter (though not an ace). That being said, if injuries and consistency continue to be problems, he could see time in the late end of a bullpen, especially if it increases his fastball velocity.
Cubs staff continues to hold out faith that Underwood will right the ship and turn into the dominant starter he can be, but his performance gives more than enough cause for concern. The front office added him to the 40-man roster this past November to avoid losing him in the Rule 5 draft, so it’s possible we see him hit the majors at some point, but a 2018 debut is more likely. Even then, with all the recent struggles, it’s more likely we don’t see him on a consistent basis until even later.
This season is a pivotal one for Underwood. He could either show that he’s figured it out and propel himself further towards the majors or he could continue his miserable stretch and slip even further away.