It’s finally here, 2015 Spring Training, ignore the negative twenty-five wind chills outside, it’s baseball season. The talk over the last few years heading into spring training has been how good the Cubs prospects are, and eventually the Cubs will compete with said prospects. This year publications still love the Cubs when it comes to prospects (Kris Bryant was just named the number one prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America), but the major league team is finally ready to take the next step. But before we get too far into that I want to talk about a Cubs prospect that is one of my personal favorites, but doesn’t get too much pub yet, Paul Blackburn.
Blackburn is in the group that I would consider the second wave of prospects, which means one of two things. He either steps onto a Cubs team that is already competing (2017), or he is traded in a package to improve an already competitive team anywhere from this season through the 2016 off-season. Either way I think that Blackburn can, and will be an effective major league starter, I just hope it’s with the Cubs.
The Cubs drafted Blackburn in the 1st round (supplemental round) of the 2012 amateur draft, number 56 overall out of Heritage High School in Brentwood, CA. Wasting no time, the Cubs and Blackburn struck a deal, and Pauly was pitching in Arizona for the Cubs AZL team. It was the end of a long calendar year, but Blackburn handled himself quite well in an offensively heavy league. Blackburn tossed 20.2 innings, and finished the season with an ERA of 3.48, and a FIP of 5.39, obviously that last number is a little high. The following season with Boise was trying for Blackburn as his innings were limited, and his command disappeared. My guess is he was trying to miss too many bats, probably due to the fact that his BABIP was .313 in 2012, bad luck, so he tried to limit contact, just my opinion. On one hand the strikeouts escalated from 5.66 K/9 in 2012 to 7.43 K/9, but so did the walks, which was uncharacteristic. In 2012 Blackburn had a BB/9 rate of 3.05, that went all the way up to 5.67 BB/9 in his 46 innings of work in 2013. With all that happening his advanced stats got better, the BABIP went down to .288, and his FIP went down to 4.47, more strikeouts, more walks, but less long balls.
With only 65+ professional innings under his belt Blackburn took his talents to Kane County for the 2014 season, and broke out. Blackburn was a key cog in one of the best minor league teams that I’ve ever seen, as well as one of the best rotations. The command came roaring back, Blackburn could put the ball where he wanted without hesitation again. The strikeouts went back to 2012 levels, but the walk rate plummeted to 2.38 per nine innings, the FIP followed suit, dropping to 3.84, a career best. The most impressive thing about Blackburn was his ability to bounce back from a year in which he probably learned a lot about himself as a pitcher. As Jonathan Mayo points out in his 2015 prospect rankings (Blackburn 15th in Cubs system), Blackburn probably has the best combo of stuff and feel in the system. He knows how to pitch, kind of like Kyle Hendricks, and has the same type of ground ball stuff but with a little more consistent velocity. Expect Blackburn to get time at High-A Myrtle Beach this year, and possibly Double-A Tennessee. I’m excited about the type of pitcher, and person that Pauly is, you should be too.