Cubs Clearinghouse: Rich Hill

The Chicago Cubs organization will have two young players on the bubble when spring training rolls around in February. Pitcher Rich Hill, and infielder Ronny Cedeno are currently on the outside looking in when it comes to 25-man roster spots.

Unfortunately for the Cubs, both players are also out of minor league options, which means the club has three options: 1) Keep them on the 25-man roster; 2) Trade them for other talent; 3) Expose them to waivers in an attempt to send them down to the minors. If the club chooses the third option, each player would definitely end up in other organizations with zero compensation, which really leaves the club with two options: Play or trade.

Hill, 28, had a breakout 2007 season and allowed just 170 hits in 195 innings of work. He posted rates of 2.91 BB/9 and 8.45 K/9. The southpaw’s control was solid all season long, although he did walk seven batters in 11 innings over his final two starts of the season (When he also threw more pitches in back-to-back games – 219 – than he did all season).

In 2008, Hill made just five starts and did not walk fewer than three batters in any one game. In those games, he allowed just 13 hits in 19.2 innings and managed 15 strikeouts, but he walked 18 batters. The final straw came on May 2 against St. Louis when Hill went just two-thirds of an inning and allowed no hits but walked four batters.

Interestingly, his first three pitches of that game – to lead-off batter Brian Barton – were three solid strikes: fastball (looking), curveball (looking), fastball (swinging).

Next up (ironically, perhaps) was Rick Ankiel, who took four straight balls on a curveball and three fastballs. The next batter was Albert Pujols, who fouled off the first pitch and then looked at three straight balls (although Gameday shows pitch three was a pretty clear strike on a curve). Hill then received a strike call before walking Pujols on the six pitch of the at-bat.

The pitching coach visited Hill on the mound prior to Troy Glaus stepping up to the plate. When play resumed, Hill buried a curveball in the dirt. Glaus then eagerly popped up the next fastball, which would have been a borderline strike at the knees. Ditching the curveball, Hill then went after Ryan Ludwick with five straight fastballs, four of which missed the strike zone by a wide margin.

Yadier Molina then faced seven straight fastballs with the first three coming in as balls, although the first two were borderline strikes: over the plate and at the knees. The third missed way up. The next two pitches were called strikes, although they were worse than the first two that were called balls. Molina than fouled off a high fastball before Hill buried the final one in the dirt, signaling the end to his night – and season in the Majors.

The Cubs sent Hill to the minors after that game but the control did not improve. In three High-A ball games his walk rate was 8.03 BB/9 and in seven Triple-A games the rate was 9.69 BB/9. Hill continued pitching in the off-season in the Venezuelan Winter League and walked 23 batters in 21 innings.

Any trade of Hill at this point would definitely be selling low on the left-hander. But the sad truth is that this past season looked a lot like the tail end of Ankiel’s pitching career, and Hill does not have the option to pursue a second career as a hitter. More time in the minors probably won’t fix Hill’s problem, if it is indeed the dreaded Steve Blass disease. But he certainly is not going to be effective on a Major League mound while facing the best hitters on the planet with limited command and control of his pitches. It appears to be a no-win situation.

On Tuesday, I will look at Cedeno. Outfielder Felix Pie was originally part of this series before his trade to Baltimore, which hit the press on Sunday.

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Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

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Hill had a lot of control problems in 2000/2001 at Michigan as well as low in the low minor leagues. But his control took a big step up in 2005 (AA/AAA) and remained pretty decent until 2008, when it completely fell apart.

He went from walking everyone, to showcasing decent-to-good control, back to walking everyone.

We often heard about a “back injury” last year, but that seemed like a poor excuse as opposed to a legit problem. Hill’s confidence seems shot, and given the circumstances, it’s easy to see why.

If Hill has any shot, he needs to get out of Chicago, and the writing may be on the wall.

From a Chicago Tribune article last week:

Hendry was blunt about Hill’s status, saying: “He had a shot, and he lost it.”

When a fan asked what happened to Hill, Kenney interjected: “If Jim can answer that one, I have a couple of stock questions for him.”