The Cubs are hungry for young pitching. With their farm system teaming with premium bats, bats that are already starting to bleed over into their major league lineup, Chicago has placed a flier on every youthful power arm they can get their hands on. Since July of 2012, Team President Theo Epstein has acquired Corey Black, Dan Straily, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, C.J. Edwards, Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez, Felix Doubront, Jacob Turner, Blake Cooper, Jonathan Martinez, Ivan Pineyro, and Barret Loux, among others, from a host of teams for a string of low-level prospects and free-agent-to-bes. But what if, amidst this sea of talented imports, they turned to an under-appreciated pitcher already in their organization?
Three weeks ago, Eric Jokisch celebrated his 25th birthday, one month after he marked his fifth season in the Cubs organization. In half a decade in the Chicago’s system, the former 11th round pick has never appeared on a Baseball America top 10 prospect list, or garnered even a tenth of the attention that players like Kris Bryant or Addison Russell are getting right now. What he has done is pitch. Successfully and consistently.
Since 2011, the left-hander’s first full professional season, Jokisch has never posted an Earned Run Average under 3.60, never walked more than three batters per nine, never failed to log at least 134 innings. Only once, across four seasons and four different levels, has he pitched to a K/9 under 7.7. Seldom the benefactor of luck or the victim of misfortune, his Fielding Independent Pitching has only ranged between 3.31 and 3.97.
Granted, the Illinois native, has rarely been dominant. His lowest ERA came back in 2011, and was just 3.01 (between A ball and Double-A) and his his highest career strikeout rate is the 8.2 he has posted this year.
His stuff itself seems to resist dominance. The term most often associated with Jokisch is “crafty-lefty,” a soft tosser who lives off of the movement of an above-average circle change and his ability to change speeds. “Crafty lefty” and circle change may conjure up images of Tom Glavine, recently enshrined in Cooperstown, but the Braves legend is an outlier. Most pitchers of Jokisch’s mold, particularly in today’s high-octane game, end up as left-handed specialist or middle relievers, 4th/5th starters at best.
He has his moments that can make you imagine, though. In an August sixth start for the Double-A Tenessee Smokies last season, Jokisch threw a complete game no-hitter against the Jacksonville Suns. He struck out eight and needed just 108 pitches to go the distance and finish the first nine-inning no-hitter by a Smokies pitcher since 1985.
And there’s the stretch he’s been on of late. Though Jokisch broke his personal four-start winning streak in last friday’s loss to Las Vegas, it would be difficult to declare him at fault. Jokisch fanned six and allowed just two earned runs over six innings, taking home a quality start along with his loss. In eight outings since July 4th, he is now 4-1 with a 1.76 ERA and 51 punchouts in 51 innings. Opposing hitters have left yard just once over that span and drawn but eight walks (1.4 BB/9).
The hot streak has put him among the pitching leaderboards in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. He paces the circuit in strikeouts (137) and his 3.52 ERA ranks fifth. His 1.85 BB/9 is the sixth lowest, and his 3.59 FIP is second only to top Brewers prospect (now rookie) Jimmy Nelson.
Impressive numbers, though they should be tempered with the understanding that the best prospects and performers in Triple-A are often promoted before they can qualify for ERA titles or rack up high totals in any category. Last year’s PCL leader in FIP was Sonny Gray (12-7, 2.99 ERA), the young ace of the Oakland Athletics. But previous seasons have seen such journeyman and career minor leaguers as Yusmeiro Petit and Brandon Dickson top that category.
The Cubs won’t know if Jokisch is Gray or Petit and whether or not he has enough “craft” in his left arm to truly succeed until he pitches at the game’s highest level. A tryout could come this September.
Jokisch is not a member of the team’s 40 man roster but he will need be added by November, when he would become an eligible and attractive candidate for the Rule-V draft. Expect Epstein to add him on September 1st and call him up. The number of actual starts he will get, however, remains unclear.
The rotation may not brim with the same young talent their lineup does, but it is nevertheless full. Jake Arietta (6-4, 2.61 ERA) has blossomed into an ace this season, Kyle Hendricks has a 1.48 ERA since his July 10th promotion. Tsuyoshi Wada may be a 33 year old rookie, but he’s a 33 year old rookie who’s 3-1 2.75 ERA. And while Edwin Jackson and Travis Wood are a combined 13-23, both are veterans with histories of success, and under team control through 2016.
Manager Rick Renteria could certainly squeeze out a few spare starts, particularly by putting the woeful Jackson in the bullpen, but those won’t necessarily go to Jokisch. Down the stretch, the Cubs may also want to get looks at the recently acquired Dan Strailey, Felix Doubront and Jacob Turner.
It’s a crowded road to a 2015 rotation spot in Chicago. Eric Jokisch has the stats and consistency to elbow through, but the odds, like those for most soft-tossing lefties, are not in his favor.