On Monday the Chicago Cubs designated 24-year old RHP Robert Whitenack for assignment. As of today he has a new home as the Cleveland Indians claimed him off waivers and have optioned him to Double-A Akron. It is with the Aeros that Whitenack will look to reclaim the form that had people taking notice back in the early months of the 2011 season.
Now with the Indians Whitenack will look to make the Cubs regret letting him go. (Photo Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports)
Of course his impressive 2011 campaign came to a premature end due to an elbow injury and subsequent Tommy John surgery. Before we get to that, however, let’s rewind to the beginning of his career as a professional.
The Cubs selected Whitenack in the 8th round of the 2009 draft out of the State University of New York at Old Westbury. At the time the 6’5″ righty was throwing his fastball in the upper 80s with a decent changeup and slider combo, but it was his knuckle-curve that was far and away his best pitch rating as at least plus. He signed for $125,000 shortly after the draft and was assigned to short-season ball.
With Boise he logged 54.1 innings finishing with a 4.80 ERA, 1.58 WHIP and 1.65 SO/BB. The following season he started out with Peoria (A) displaying a similar 5.5 SO/9 and elevated 4.96 ERA. However he significantly dropped his H/9 from 10.9 to 8.9 and also trimmed his BB/9 from 3.3 to 2.6. After 20 starts and 103.1 innings the Cubs promoted him to Daytona (A+) and his stock picked up a decent dose of helium.
He made seven starts in the FSL at the tail end of that season and in that stretch turned in the best stat line of his young career. In 39.2 innings he finished with a 2.04 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 7.3 H/9, 2.3 BB/9 and 6.4 SO/9. As he added weight to his slender 185 lb frame, his velocity picked up. Heading into the 2011 season he was consistently throwing 92-94 and capable of hitting 96. The increase in velocity didn’t take away from his movement and it set the stage for his 2011 campaign.
The Cubs started him back in Daytona but he was quickly promoted after dominating the FSL. In four starts and 23.0 innings he allowed 11 hits, 3 earned runs and a staggering 25-1 SO-to-BB. After reaching Double-A Tennessee his strikeouts dropped off and his walk rate increased but he still pitched well enough to hold a 2.39 ERA and 1.20 WHIP after seven starts. He was on the fast track and in the midst of a significant statement season, but the season came to an end in May when he injured his elbow. Despite missing the rest of the 2011 season, Baseball America still tabbed him as the Cubs #19 prospect during the offseason.
Following rehab Whitenack returned to the mound and made his 2012 debut with Daytona in May. Predictably he had his struggles and wound up with a 5.96 ERA in 15 starts. In his 51.1 innings of work he allowed 70 hits and a 31-27 SO-to-BB. His stuff, and most notably his velocity, were slow to return as was his control.
Undeterred the Cubs added him to their 40-man roster this offseason and even though he continued to struggle with his control in spring training (5 BB in 3.0 IP) he struck out 3 and was still just 20 months removed from surgery. To see Chicago designate a player with the potential upside of a mid-rotation starter was more than a little surprising.
What is not surprising is the fact that Whitenack was available for less than 48 hours before the Indians claimed him off waivers. He’s a gamble, and there is no guarantee that he can fully recapture the stuff and velocity he displayed early in the 2011 season. However, it’s a low risk gamble with the potential to provide a significant return.