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Cubs young pitching on the rise: A look at the Cubs 4 top pitching prospects and the creative means by which they were acquired

Cubs young pitching on the rise: A look at the Cubs 4 top pitching prospects and the creative means by which they were acquired
Trevor Clifton

The Cubs haven't produced a homegrown starting pitcher in the Theo Epstein era. This seems almost impossible given their eye for talent. On the other hand, it does seem possible when you consider that the Cubs haven't made the same kind of investment in terms of draft picks. Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McLeod picked 6th, 2nd, 4th, and 9th in their first 4 drafts, but none of those picks were pitchers.

The Cubs philosophy was to take advanced position players, particularly those with promising hit tools. And so the Cubs drafted Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Ian Happ in those drafts. The tally is a starting CFer wth gold glove potential, an MVP, a World Series legend, and a top 2 prospect in their system.

Not bad.

It's not like the Cubs have completely ignored pitching. They drafted Pierce Johnson, Paul Blackburn, Duane Underwood, and Ryan McNeil all within the first 3 rounds in 2012. They drafted Rob Zastryzny in the 2nd round the following season. 2014 saw the Cubs invest a 2nd round pick on Jake Stinnett. In 2015, it was Bryan Hudson as a 3rd round overslot.

And then last season, the Cubs picked Thomas Hatch with their first pick in the draft, though once again it was not a first round pick.  Hatch was a 3rd round pick as the Cubs gave up their first two picks to sign Jason Heyward and John Lackey.

So when the Cubs have invested a higher draft pick on a pitch, they have done reasonably well. All 7 pitchers mentioned are legitimate MLB prospects, though Blackburn was part of the deal that brought Mike Montgomery.

But the Cubs also attacked the pitching shortage in numbers and it has been some of their lower round gambles and modest IFA signings that may have the most impact potential.

The Cubs top 4 pitching prospects (in alphabetical order) are as follows...

  • Jose Albertos
  • Dylan Cease
  • Trevor Clifton
  • Oscar De La Cruz

Jose Albertos

While they may not have been high draft picks or the top IFA bonus babies, the Cubs have been creative. Albertos is a product of Mexico, a region that has been largely unexplored by scouts...until now.  Cubs successes like Jose Albertos as well as position players Carlos Sepulveda and Isaac Paredes have brought attention to Mexican amateur baseball.  The Cubs once had their pick of the litter, but now it seems other teams are in on the secret, so it is going to be more difficult from this point forward.

The Cubs did manage to snatch Albertos for a relatively cheap $1.5M, though it did not seem all that albertos-closecheap at the time because Albertos wasn't widely known.  Even I was mildly curious at first simply because I did not have a lot of information on him.

And then I saw him pitch.

Albertos surprised with a mid 90s fastball that touched as high as 97 as a 17 year old.  He showed an advanced change-up and a curve that flashed plus.  He also displayed unusually good command for a player of his age and experience.  That the Albertos signing came and went relatively quietly and with some skepticism to boot just goes to show how little scouts had as far as the amateur ranks in Mexico.

If Albertos were to be made available today, there is no question he would bring about a bidding war, but the Cubs beat everyone to the punch and got themselves a potential ace where few were looking.

Dylan Cease

I saw Cease at the UA All-Star Game and he had the best fastball of any pitcher and quite possibly the best curve, though the curve was not on display that day.  I gushed about the pick and this is what I wrote about him after seeing him at the UA game the previous August...

Dylan Cease isn't the biggest kid out there at 6'2", 180 but he showed a nice, easy delivery with tremendous arm speed that made it look like the ball was just exploding out of his hand. He also hit 97 on the stadium gun but did not have a feel for his secondary stuff yesterday.

But a questionable delivery and then the inevitable injury raised a lot of doubts shortly before the draft, so he dropped.  And the Cubs, who had played the draft wisely in terms of allocating their pool money, pounced on the opportunity.

dylan-cease-game-faceCease lasted until the 6th round in 2014 but that didn't mean he was an easy sign.  He had once been considered among the top 10 players in that draft class.  There wasn't ever any chance he was going to sign for 6th round money.  The Cubs were either going to pay him top round money and take the risk that came with the likelihood of Tommy John surgery  -- or he was going to take his chances and try to re-establish his value in college.

The Cubs chose to take the risk at a price tag of $1.5M.

We know the Cubs get to know players very well before they invest and that was vital in Cease's case.  They saw a kid who had the mental makeup to not just overcome that setback, but also to handle the pressure and load that comes with being a front line starter.

Fast forward to 2017 and the Cubs are ready to let Cease loose.  He showed up this year at 6'2". 200 lbs of lean muscle.  He is now far enough removed from surgery and strong enough physically to take on a significant innings load.  The kiddie gloves are off.

In short stints, Cease has shown dynamic stuff:  a fastball that has reached 100 mph, a curveball that one Cubs official compared to Dwight Gooden's and a moxy and focus on the mound that might make you think of Jake Arrieta.  In fact, that was overheard in the stands in one of his extended spring games last season.  One of his opponents sitting behind home half-jokingly said, "Did the Cubs send Jake Arrieta down here for rehab or something?"

Cease is working on two things:  his change-up and his command.  The change isn't going to be special.  It isn't going to remind you of Kyle Hendricks -- but it doesn't have to.  Cease understands that he needs the pitch to keep hitters honest and that velocity alone isn't going to carry him in the big leagues.  While it doesn't have a ton of movement, he sells it well enough with his arm speed and occasionally gets some run.  When he has thrown it well, it has drawn some weak swings and weak contact.

The command is improving as well.  Cease can throw strikes and he doesn't miss by as much as we saw 2 years ago, but he is still working on throwing better strikes.

The last concern is the possibility of reinjuring that right arm, but Cease has smoothed out his mechanics a great deal and one scout I spoke with rated it a 4 on his personal 1-5 scale (5 being the best).  His previous rating was a 2.  Combine that with the added strength and physical maturity and it would seem that while it is impossible to control injury, you can at least minimize the risk.  Cease appears to have done that.

Trevor Clifton

Clifton is the most advanced pitcher on this list in terms of the level he has reached.  He will start the season at AA Tennessee,.  Clifton came to camp in his usual good shape, sporting the same athletic frame he has since he was drafted.

But that Clifton is considered the most "advanced" is a testament to his hard work.  He was anything but trevor-clifton-catchpolished when the Cubs drafted him in the 12th round, though they liked him enough to pay him well above slot at $375,000.  What they saw in Clifton was not a finished product, but a good athlete with the hand strength to spin and the work ethic to make the most of his natural talent.  I am not sure there is a pitcher in the system who has come further in terms of improving his mechanics, command, and secondary stuff as much as Clifton has.

Clifton broke through last year and is an across the board top 10 Cubs prospect now.  Some see him as a 3rd starter on the strength of his 92-94 mph FB, plus curve, and much improved change which is beginning to look like it can also be an above average MLB pitch.

The key for Clifton in 2016, however, was the drastic improvement with his control and command, something that can be directly traced to his work to rein in his once violent mechanics and learning to repeat his delivery consistently.

AA is a big test for pitchers but Clifton seems ready for the task.  His live BP session may have been the most impressive of the past 2 days.  If he can build on what he started in 2016, then the Cubs could have a replacement for John Lackey as soon as 2018.

Oscar De La Cruz

Another creative find, De La Cruz was an oversized shortsop at 6'4", 200 lbs who signed for a mere $85,000 while we all had our eyes on Jorge Soler, Gerardo Concepcion, Juan Carlos Paniagua, and Frandy De La Rosa, the 4 bonus babies of that class.

As you might expect, De La Cruz is a good athlete with plus arm strength.  He has since grown to 6'6" and now fills out that frame pretty well.

oscar-de-la-cruz-close2The added size has come with added velocity.  De La Cruz will pitch in the 92-97 mph range and started to consistently hit those mid 90s last season.  He complements that with a curve ball that can be a plus pitch for him at the MLB level.  It is about 15-20 mph slower than his FB, so the speed differential can disrupt a hitter's timing.

The change-up is a work in progress and it wasn't very good when I saw it last spring.  He often tipped it off by slowing his arm as well as leaving the ball up.  Hitters were teeing off and I began to worry that he may end up a reliever.

The change has since improved and while it is still not consistent yet, there is a lot of room for growth.  De La Cruz hasn't been a pitcher all that long and up until now, he has been able to get away with being an aggressive, intimidating power arm, not afraid to go inside on hitters to back them off the plate, then dropping the curve on the outer half to put them away.  Given his inexperience, the Cubs feel he is just scratching the surface on that 3rd pitch and there are some believe it can even become an above average offering in time -- but time is the key word here.

Also working in De La Cruz's favor is his athleticism, which helps him repeat his low effort delivery easily.  The control has always been solid despite his relative experience and above average command may soon follow.

There really isn't any question to me that these are the Cubs top 4 starting pitching prospects and that all have impact potential as #3 starters or better.  They also have high floors because of their solid command and power repertoire.  They all can be power relievers, though the Cubs are obviously hoping that they stick as starters.

It's an exciting time in the Cubs system as far as pitching goes.  We really haven't seen this kind of talent since the days of Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano, Juan Cruz, and Angel Guzman to go with young MLBer Kerry Wood.

And there is talent behind them as well, including the pitchers we mentioned early in the article.  Apart from those high draft picks, the Cubs are high on Adbert Alzolay, who possesses excellent arm speed and has a good feel for pitching, They also still have high hopes for lefties  Jose Paulino, Justin Steele, and Carson Sands.  Bailey Clark, a power arm who showed a lot of promise until some struggles in his junior year, has potential as both a starter and reliever.  Lastly, the acquisition of Alec Mills gives the Cubs another potential starter, as does Eddie Butler, who is technically no longer considered a prospect.  Once again the common theme here is the Cubs acquiring these arms through unconventional means, whether they be unheralded IFAs whom they helped developed, mid round overslots with something to prove, or post hype prospects who may just need a change of scenery.

 

 

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    This is a hopeful sign seeing this many talented pitchers in the system now. I'm curious to see how Cliffton does. The first of these promising guys to reach the high minors. Of course seeing the names of those past pitching prospects shows how hard developing pitchers is. Especially with injuries derailing careers.

  • In reply to Sean Holland:

    I put the complete list up there just to show how fortunate you are to get one or two good pitchers. In the cubs case Prior was great, but short-lived. Zambrano was good and had a longer stretch of being good. Cruz found success elsewhere and Guzman, who some thought was the most talented of the bunch, could not stay healthy.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    The attrition rate on pitchers is so high you can see why the Cubs focused on developed bats. And someone like a Juan Cruz became a reliever. Reminds me a lot of CJ Edwards, similar build and array of pitches. My Uncle was a big believer in Angel Guzman, I think he still would want him on the roster.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Guzman was crazy good. The one thing Prior had over him was his pinpoint command, but Guzman still had good command and I think his pitches, particularly his breaking ball was sharper. He really could have been something but I'm not sure he ever managed to stay healthy even two seasons in a row. He just never could get on track.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I remember seeing Cruz start a playoff game for Daytona, something like 7 IP, 2 H, 14K. I thought he was going to be a superstar.

  • In reply to springs:

    Everyone did. He was a top ten prospect in all of baseball at one point.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    If I remember correctly wasn't there some problem with Cruz's age. Like he was actually 2-3 years older than they originally thought. And, in light of that, his stock fell precipitously. One of those things where they thought he was dominating as a 20-21 year old and he was actually 22-23 making it less impressive. Something like that.

  • As you stated, the theme is unconventional methods. It's not really diamonds in the rough or getting lucky(maybe a little), but great scouting and development work. I'd like to throw in that with the up coming draft, there are some opportunities to pick up some good pitching too.

  • In reply to couch:

    I found that aspect interesting. None of these guys were true blue chip prospects but right now they are all potential top 100 prospects by the end of the season

  • In reply to couch:

    It was the strategy. Phase 1 (2016-2020) young cost controlled hitters with free agent starting pitching
    Phase 2 (2021-2025) young cost controlled pitching with high $ contract hitters.

    How did they get there? In the draft use high picks for polished hitters after the top pick go after every potential pitcher. Because volume is the key when it comes to pitchers. So far the plan seems to be right on the money.

    John you nailed it on young starting pitching attrition is the word.

    I have seen Paulino pitch, maybe he was on but I was very impressed.

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    Dwight Gooden's curve! Wow that is high praise. I can remember watching Gooden as a kid and trying to throw that curve to my brothers and friends in the back yard. You have me excited about the future of the rotation! Thanks for a great article John.

  • In reply to Brandon Halford:

    He does have a great curve. That's high praise.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Gooden's curve was called "Lord Charles" instead of the usual Uncle Charlie. That is serious praise for Cease as a comp.

  • In reply to rbrucato:

    Yes it is. It is one respected official who made that camp that I know of. He's really telling you how good it can be. When it's on, it's a knee buckler. He and Hudson have the two best CBs with Albertos, De La Cruz, and Clifton all having good ones as well.

  • We can never have enough pitching. Interesting article John! I hope we get more kids from Central America. And maybe sneak a couple out of Cuba, lol

  • In reply to LRCCubsFan:

    Indeed! They might not get a lot in 2017 due to still being under restrictions, but I like the group they currently have.

    Erling Moreno
    Brailyn Marquez
    Javier Assad
    Eugenio Palma
    Yunior Perez
    Carlos Ocampo
    Faustino Carrera
    Hector Garcia

    have all given the Cubs hope with either there talent, performance or both that there will be another wave along soon.

  • In reply to Quedub:

    Finding the next TOR in this year's IFA crop may be a bridge too far, but Oscar De La Cruz's story is a sliver of hope, signing for under $100K as a SS. That and my extreme confidence in this organization to both find "hidden gems" and then to effectively polish them, leave me with a sense of hopeful expectation for this year's crop.

    John, as always, I appreciate the regular "peeks" into the future you provide here.

  • In reply to Good Captain:

    Indeed. The 2017 crop will likely be quite thin. But I'm okay with that because they're already building the next wave with the 2015 haul.

  • Cubs pitching prospects have come a long way in a relatively short time. The top 4 John mentioned have only recently become relevant.

    In 2015, MLB.com didn't have any of those guys ranked in the Cubs top 10 (Cease was 11th, De La Cruz 24th and Clifton 27th). This year all 4 are in the top 10 (Cease is 4th, De La Cruz 6th, Clifton 8th and Albertos 9th). That's what I call scouting and development.

    While Theo and company took over in 2011, the Cubs top pitching prospects per MLB.com were:

    1. Chris Carpenter (#4)
    2. Trey McNutt (#5)
    3. Rafael Dolis (#7)
    4. Jay Jackson (#8)
    5. Hayden Simpson (#10)

    Carpenter, ironically, was part of the compensation package sent to Boston in return for Theo. He pitched a total of 6 IP for the Red Sox walking 10 and striking out 2. He never pitched in the majors again and is now retired.

    McNutt, Dolis, Jackson and the star-crossed Simpson have combined for a grand total of 48.2 major league IP. McNutt has battled injuries ever since the infinitely wise Hendry regime pushed him from 27 IP in his rookie year to 116 IP in his first full season. He's currently in the Padres system and has pitched 15.1 minor league innings over the last 3 seasons. Dolis and Jackson both pitched in Japan last year, and poor Hayden Simpson never recovered from a bout with mono after Hendry made him the 16th overall pick in 2010. He retired in 2013.

    Theo took that group and turned them into:

    Dylan Cease, Oscar De La Cruz, Trevor Clifton, Jose Albertos, Thomas Hatch, Jose Paulino, Duane Underwood, Alec Mills, Rob Zastryzny, Bryan Hudson, Ryan Williams, Bailey Clark and Preston Morrison (all starting pitchers ranked in the current MLB.com Cubs top 30 prospects).

    And, lest we forget, traded prospects for Eddie Butler and Mike Montgomery.

  • In reply to Quedub:

    Also Theo got us a nice young starter from the Rangers (some kid out of an ivy league school). That was maybe one of the biggest heists ever (right along with arrieta & strop for feldman).

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    In reply to bleachercreature:

    Forgotten is the fact that Christian Villanueva was a legit MLB player too by most accounts. He just found himself behind Bryant/Baez, 2 of the BEST 3B in the majors (though Baez is also one of the best 2B, best SS...). While he may not be "starter material" for the Cubs now if they were still rebuilding--and when they acquired him there was no telling exactly how long the re-build would last, Bryant wasn't drafted and Baez was still a raw SS with some pop--he wouldn't have been a terrible return for Dempster. If the Cubs were thin at 3B and still rebuilding they could have done much worse than Christian Villanueva at league minimum salary.

    Part of me wishes they had gotten something in return for Villanueva. But I can understand why other teams sat back and waited knowing that he would likely become "available" for nothing but low salary. And I am happy he will likely get a shot at a big league roster in the next couple of years. I will always have a soft-spot for him.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    Good call. I really like Villanueva. Kid has had a tough go to make it to the big leagues. There are probably multiple other situations he could have been in that the path to the big leagues was clear.

  • In reply to bleachercreature:

    Yep! Killer deal. I didn't include him because Theo didn't trade prospects to get him.

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    At a luncheon last year, just shortly after the ML debut of his team's newest Venezuelan catcher, a sidelined Kyle Schwarber gushed that the best arm in the system belonged to Willson Contreras. How likely would it be in the event of a new MLB (or US Federal legislative) rule banning South Americans from catching beyond the fourth inning, or by some odd industrial mishap that took two or more fingers from Contreras' left hand, that we might see Willson develop into one of the team's best relief pitching prospects?

    I know the likelihood of such an event is low and that by any measure the greatest threat to a successful catching career for Willson Contreras is over-zealous American political reaction preventing any non-US-born athlete from playing sport or writing home to family. But if we're speculating anyway over prospects, should we consider the possibility of Willson Contreras developing into one of the Cubs' best and first eight fingered pitching prospect refugee?

    And what about Munenori Kawasaki? I mean, what about him? Just take a look at him. How many innings could he keep up with John Lackey at a clubhouse buffet?

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    Wonderful read John. It sounds like these are all around the same timetable to reach the majors--assuming health, of course. I wonder if a lot of teams have pitchers with this kind of talent in there systems. Many can throw hard or have great curves but can't get it together for any length of time. Edwin Jackson is a perfect example. Great stuff, but not a winner. One of the amazing things about the Cubs' draft of young hitters is that all of them have succeeded (except Soler). I also noted that Underwood has fallen off. I know he's been injured--is he able to throw again this season?
    If, and it's a big if, one or two have great years this summer, they might be able to replace Lackey or Arrieta by 2018. It will be fun to watch them, and see who breaks out that you haven't listed John.
    Now we get to watch the pitchers.

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    In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    Soler might have needed a change of scenery & more playing time. He never really played due to injury or being blocked by an all star. He could be a beast in KC, especially if he can mentally handle DH spot.

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    I wrote something but was eaten by the vortex. I just wanted to mention that all these pitchers have a big upside, but I'm sure many organizations have such pitchers. They are much more injury prone than position players and so many things happen on the way to the majors. The "luck" the Cubs have had with the hitters they've drafted #1 is that all succeeded with great results (as John related). Now we've have a wave of pitchers that are coming, maybe even by the beginning of 2018 in time to replace Lackey and Jake. We have to be wary of "stuff" though. A perfect example is Edwin Jackson. Great stuff yet can not put it together for any length of time. We should be wary of stuff. Jay Cutler and Jeff George each had talent. Hopefully at least 1 or two will break out. I still hope to see Underwood this year after coming off injuries the last few years. I also anticipate someone we haven't even thought of breaking out.
    We can now concentrate on the arms while watching Happ and Jimenez progress too. A really nice read John and a good reminder of what we have coming up.

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    I got it, Jonathan. At least I think I did. I fished out one of your previous posts. Thank you for the kind words, too!

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    Thanks John. I appreciate it.

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    In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    Edwins problem was no movement on his fastballs and he'd be to close to the plate. Hitters just sat on FB and teed off.

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    Underwood is a wildcard tis season...he legitimately could step up and become a MOR pitcher based on his stuff or another dominant reliever. Nobody is talking about him due to, as you mention, the recent injuries, but he'd likely have been on the top list had he been healthy.

  • I think it should be pointed out that they have only had at most 4 years to develop any of these guys. And if you look at the first class 3 of the 4 high picks were HS pitchers, so it isn't that unexpected that they haven't broken through yet. They are all still young. The only slight disappointment would be Johnson as the lone college guy, but even he is still a legit prospect. Since that year they have invested fewer top picks and a couple of the ones they did were raw college guys (Stinnett, Zastryzny) that they knew needed work.

    Because everything else about the rebuild went at warp speed I think these pitchers, and the FO that drafted them, are being held at too high of a standard if there is disappointment in the fact that they haven't developed a SP yet.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Another way of looking at it, is what pitchers drafted in 2012-2014 by any team have developed into a major league SP. The answer is very few. And even fewer when you realize that the only way the Cubs could have had many of them is by picking them over Bryant and Schwarber and many that were picked before the Cubs picked. The 2012 draft is interesting, because an argument could be made for Wacha, Stroman or Heaney over Almora, but we don't really know that answer yet. And sure there are many very good pitiching prospects from those drafts, but the Cubs have very good major leaguers from those drafts instead.

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    In reply to couch:

    Wacha is an interesting case. He was a college pitcher so much more advanced in terms of maturity over Almora. He exploded on the scene in 2013. But his career high fWAR is 2.3, in large part due to injuries. Almora is 3 years younger and, in even more limited time had nearly 1 fWAR. It will be interesting to see how these careers develop. To me a MLB draft is best evaluated 5-10 years later since so many of these guys will spend years in "obscurity" outside of circles like this that pay incessant attention to the minor leagues.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Thanks for pointing this out, Michael. It is easily forgotten how amazing and meteoric the rise of Bryant and Schwarber has been. Most players spend about a year at each league. In which case 4-6 years should be considered a "normal" training curve.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    You are correct. It usually takes a while for prospects, particularly pitchers, to rise through the minor leagues. Bryant's and Schwarber's meteoric rise is NOT the usual and we shouldn't confuse it as such.

  • Pitching is so hard to predict that even the teams that are best at developing pitching have a high failure rate and it usually takes a couple of years before you even know what you have, even with most college pitchers (there are exceptions of course). The fact that the Cubs spend such a huge amount of time evaluating and acquiring arms is impressive and frankly to have 4 of these guys looking this good without drafting them in the higher rounds is seriously impressive. One of my weaknesses as an armchair evaluator is that I love guys with stuff and tend to dismiss guys with lower velocity. The problem with that of course is that the stuff guys eventually have to learn how to pitch, sometimes even after they reach the majors, while often times some of those lower velocity guys start much earlier than that because that's their only path there. Guys who come to MLB with both are rarer than a snowman in July. I'd love to have one of those on the Cubs but I'm not going to hold my breath. As an interesting aside I looked at the 1st round of the 2013 and 2014 drafts (about the earliest really look) looking for pitchers that could be impact starters and, although I could be missing someone, I found two; Jon Gray and Aaron Nola both of whom I think will be TOR starters for years but that's 2 out of 24.

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    In reply to TC154:

    TC, you're exactly right. I have the same tendency--when I read about a pitcher my first inclination is to see how fast is his FB. I know better. I know it's how much the ball moves, how good is the location, change of speeds, etc. There are not a lot of pitchers that go quickly through the minors. I know of only 1 Cubs pitcher that went directly to the majors and that was Burt Hooten in the early 70's. You made a very good point that there haven't been very many pitchers who have come up in the last few years that the Cubs could have chosen over the hitters they did.

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    In reply to TC154:

    I have the opposite bias (and it is a bias). While I appreciate "stuff" I find it hard to dismiss a guy who compiles good performance after good performance until someone stops him.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    Sometimes performance is all that one has to go on. It's one reason I liked Jokisch(where is he know), because had solid numbers(not spectacular) at every level , but apparently his lack of stuff caught up with him.

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    In reply to 44slug:

    Yes. A player without "stuff" can have it catch up to him. Which is why I put in the last phrase "until someone stops him." That may happen anywhere along the way. It might happen at A+ ball. It might happen at the MLB level.

    I just resist saying that someone won't succeed BECAUSE they lack "stuff" or "demographics" to succeed.

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    In reply to 44slug:

    Maybe we are talking about slightly different things. When I say "stuff" I am usually talking about things like their grade on Fastball, Curveball, Slider, Change-up, Control (possibly command separated out, possibly included), then, maybe, an "overall" and the comparable scores for hitters. For this I will focus on pitchers but comparable things can be said for batters as well.

    Then "other comments" such as how much movement his pitches have, whether he can "control" the movement, what type of break, does he hide the ball, does he "tip" his pitches (most often slower arm action on change-up), etc. Basically, things we can glean from watching the player with a good deal of attention and a good idea what to look for. I would even include things like mental make-up, "character," and other "soft traits." I would include demographics in this as well (height, weight, frame, arm length, "arm slot,” etc—I don’t intend this to be a comprehensive list).

    Honestly, the thing that gets me most excited about a pitcher isn’t hearing he has a mid-high 90’s fastball, or that his curveball is a “hammer.” I like hearing about guys who just plain “know how to pitch.” The guy without amazing “stuff” might learn how to get away with what he has and, I believe, is more likely to be successful in games where he best “stuff” isn’t available. Meanwhile, the guy with amazing stuff can coast along on sheer talent. But what happens when his “talent” deserts him. Whether it is just “he doesn’t have his good stuff tonight” or “after injury he lost speed on his fastball” or things like that, sometimes the guys with superior stuff never learn to pitch. The phrase often used is “he is a thrower, not a pitcher.”

    I don’t dismiss the scouting reports and their grades. But sometimes I think we get too attached to their evaluations to the point of being blinded to their performance. Especially as a player reaches AA and AAA and continues to have success.
    This is why I will take a player and ask, point blank, on this board, “Why should I believe he will get ‘exposed’ at the next level or the mlb level?” Sometimes I am given very good reasons. Reasons that will likely not show up in the box score or stat line, or, maybe, a measure of performance I hadn't taken into account. And I very much keep these things in mind when looking at their stat line. This is one of my favorite things about this board. Sometimes I am given “canned answers” that, frankly, I dismiss. Though I will often not debate them.

    I say this in full knowledge that some things won’t show up in the box score. It might over/under-sell a player. Maybe he isn’t trying for a stat that I am looking for. For instance, maybe the pitcher isn’t working on striking guys out, but, instead, working on his command and ways to elicit “weak contact.” Or maybe he is working on a weaker pitch against live competition. Conversely, maybe he is “airing it out” trying to K guys and not really “developing” anything.

    So, I try to pay attention to both: scouting and performance. But, honestly, when the two are in conflict I still err on the side of performance unless given a compelling reason to believe there is something ephemeral about their performance. For every example of a guy whose performance fell off against tough competition there are counter examples of guys with extraordinary “tools” and “stuff” that never quite harness it.

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    In reply to 44slug:

    John, I have a post that got caught in the administrator. It is long and I would rather not try to re-compose it.

  • Havent seen anyone other than Cease yet, saw him on display last week when the Cubs were playing the LAD and its his curveball that impressed me. Reminded me of Rich Hills curveball back in 2007.

  • In reply to mutant beast:

    When Hill was 'on' back then when he first broke in with the Cubs - he looked like a guy who was going to have one heck of a career.

    Then his control went wonky in 2008,... that series of back, shoulder and elbow injuries kept him down & out for a bunch of seasons,... and until he resurfaced with Boston to end the 2015 season nicely - I didn't even know he was still kicking around.

    If Cease has anything like Hill's curveball,... and can keep himself healthy,... he's going to be a real find.

  • Fantastic article. Thank you.

  • Great article as always, John! Any hope for Dillon Maples and Tyler Skulina to emerge as...something?

  • Fun to think about these guys, John.

    Q1: Have you seen Albertos throw yet this spring? If not, could you watch for him or ask around? Az Phil lists him in the "Rehab Throwing Program (elbow".
    Q2: Ditto for Hudson? Az Phil lists him in in the "Rehab Throwing Program ???)."

    I'm hoping there is no problem, and this is all totally precautionary at the start of camp, and that they'll both be throwing freely in short order.

    But you can be assured that we your readers will be anxious to get any reports, whether for good or for bad, regarding both Hudson and especially Albertos!

    Hadn't been aware the Hudson had been hurt previously. Did either or both guy throw in fall instrux?

    Good thing is Cubs have been very careful with their prospect arms, so I assume that if there are any doubts, they will be very cautious and due-diligence protective. But it would be a huge bummer if Albertos, after all the gush scouting from you and others, turns out to be injured before his pro career even gets started.

  • John -- 3rd round pick Hatch has deservedly gotten great press and 5th round pick Clark's early college season performance/stuff and strong work as a Cub have given him mention as someone to watch as well.

    Have you seen 4th round pick Tyson Miller at all this spring (or have thoughts from last summer's short stint at Arizona)? While the picks sandwiching him get mentioned regularly, he has been ignored.

  • In reply to springs:

    Miller is both younger and more raw and projectable than Hatch and Clark. I think that's the reason we've heard less about him. Hatch and Clark have more present stuff while Miller is more of a project.

    I expect Hatch will start in South Bend with Clark having a chance to do so as well depending on his performance this spring. Miller will almost certainly stay in extended spring training and start in Eugene.

  • In reply to Quedub:

    Thank you Quedub.

  • For the 1st time in a long time, the Cubs minor league pitching depth is starting to fill out. I believe this is largely due to their strategy of drafting pitching in volume. There will be lots of misses, as it is with pitchers, but if you get enough of them, some will pop.

    We've already seen guys from the lower rounds distinguish themselves. Trevor Clifton was taken in the 12th round. Ryan Williams, the Cubs minor league pitcher of the year in 2015 was taken in the 10th, and Preston Morrison who won the same award last year was taken in the 8th. None of those guys are TOR material, but Clifton has an MOR ceiling and both Williams & Morrison could be serviceable BORs if they fulfill their potential. And, as we are seeing at the big league level, depth matters.

    It may fall out differently than this, but here's a look at the existent depth of arms in the organization.

    AAA

    Mills
    Butler
    Zastryzny
    Williams
    Frankoff

    AA

    Clifton
    Underwood
    Morrison
    Stinnett
    Hedges

    A+

    De La Cruz
    Kellogg
    Leal
    Martinez
    Steele
    Alzolay

    A

    Hatch
    Cease
    Paulino
    Clark
    Rondon
    Moreno

    SS A

    Albertos (though there's a good chance he stays at Mesa)
    Hudson
    Miller
    Assad
    ...and a long list of other possibilities.

    There's at least one or often more legit prospects at every level. Haven't seen that in while.

  • In reply to Quedub:

    The AAA starting rotation has at least 3-4 guys that could be serviceable MLB pitchers (SP or RP). And that AA starting rotation has at least a 2-3 more that could also be so in a season or two,... I'm still pretty high on Stinnett (although he could just be a leverage RP guy in the end), and Clifton, Underwood and Morrison all have MLB level potential if they can stay healthy.

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    In reply to drkazmd65:

    I am starting to lose patience with Stinnett. I was super excited when they drafted him. Now I wonder if they were hoping that he would develop but, as much as anything, they could likely sign him underslot and allow them to pick up Cease, Sands, and Steele later with the savings.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    Fair assessment Joel - I think I had Stinnett as my 'breakout' MiLB Cub pitcher for last season. Was a bit disappointed - he's been decent at SB and last year for A+, but fairly unspectacular. Can't seem to stay consistently off the DL either.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    Couple of things. I have to wonder how likely a return to the bullpen is for Stinnett. He had a lot of success as a reliever in college.

    Also, Stinnett only signed for $250,400 under slot. The player that made it possible to go over slot on Steele, Sands and Cease was Schwarber. Kyle signed for $1,496,200 under slot value.

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    Condolences to the Bill Hands family.

  • Comment from some national expert on pitching prospects: "Every organization says 'oh, you should see what we have in rookie and A ball' and it isn't until they're at at least AA until I seriously pay attention."

    If this comment is correct, it seems like this is the first year to really break through -- as only Rob Z and R. Williams have 'excelled' above A+. Johnson and Underwood really haven't made an impact at this level.

    At some level, this seems analogous to the position players . . . Junior Lake, A. Alcantara, Olt were 'wave 0,' not the real prospects but we wanted them to be. This 'wave 0' of pitching seems to exist, and its still behind them that the real prospects exist.

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    In reply to Gunga:

    Your comment from a national expert kind of fits my thoughts. I like hearing about these guys and reading about them. But I take any news of just how good they are with a grain of salt. They are SO FAR away from the majors, in general. To me, at that level, it is like when experts are trying to predict where a hurricane will hit a coast. The further out you get the more uncertain things become. This can be done at the organizational AND individual level. At the individual level we rarely know in Rookie and A-ball how good a player will be. There is usually a lot of talk of "floor-and-ceiling." On an organizational level lots of players can be listed as "prospects" in the lower levels and wilt as they face stiffer competition.

    I am not saying this is the case every time, though. There are some guys that can be "spotted" a mile away as a MLB player. My point is that at the lower levels there is an enormous amount of uncertainty if we want to be honest about the evaluations. That is part of the reason I enjoy Cubs Den. While there is often a consensus, there is also considerable disagreement among people who know what they are talking about when discussing these guys. That prevents it from becoming an echo chamber.

  • In reply to Gunga:

    That's a good point. I know I'm excited about Cease, but he really hasn't shown anything yet. I heard Jason McLeod in an interview this past week say that 50% of ML starting pitchers were taken in the first round. Maybe this is the year the Cubs use one of their two first round picks on a pitcher.

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    In reply to Cubswin09:

    WOW. If thats true, that is insane, but then again it would make sense why so many teams are willing to roll the dice on pitchers in the 1st round.

  • In reply to Jim Odirakallumkal:

    That's what he said. He was asked why the team hadn't developed so any starting pitchers yet, and he pointed to that stat, although also said he didn't want to use it as an excuse. He argued that they really need to put an infrastructure in place to develop pitching, even if they don't draft them in the first round. Of course, I think you could make the argument that the best pitchers in the Cubs system are Eloy, Happ, and Candelario, because there is a good chance that one, two, or all of them are traded for pitching.

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    In reply to Cubswin09:

    Can you hear me typing?

  • In reply to Cubswin09:

    If you sort pitchers on Fangraphs by WAR with min of 100 IP for 2016, eight of the top ten pitchers are 1st round picks, 12 of the top 20 and then 13 of the top 30. So not only will a large percentage of SP be 1st rounders, but it will be heavily skewed toward the best of them being 1st rounders.

    Interesting to note that the Cubs have 3 pitchers in the top 20 and all three were not 1st round picks.

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    In reply to couch:

    That's a surprising fact (Cubs have 3 of the top 20 and none were 1st rounders). I'm not sure what to make of it. My inclination is to consider it an outlier. But it is odd.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    I think it all gets back to what John was talking about in this article. The Cubs are creative in finding starting pitching. Sure they will use the assets available to them to sign pitchers they want (Lester) but I think Arreita and Hendricks fits the creative profile.

  • In reply to couch:

    It's also a by product of waiting on them. The Cubs signed Lester when he was 30 and traded for Arrieta when was he was 27. Each were well known quantities by that time which takes a lot of the risk out of acquiring them.

    Hendricks was another story, but the Cubs still had a chance to see how he had done at Low A, High A and a bit at AA before they'd acquired him. That's a lot more information on a guy than you get when you draft someone.

    Waiting on pitching and acquiring it via trade makes sense from a data and health risk standpoint. But I still like the idea of the Cubs using at least one of their top 2 picks on a pitcher this year.

    This team is in such a unique position with an unprecedentedly talented and youthful offense and 4 out of their top 5 prospects (Jimenez, Happ, Almora, Candelario) being hitters, that now is the time to throw caution to the wind and take the best arms you can get at #27 and #30 in this year's draft.

  • John, excellent article. I am excited to see these young guys when I get down there the end of March. MT Bob

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