Oscar De La Cruz
One of the big prospect stories out of Major League spring training has been the return of Oscar De La Cruz. The big righty entered 2017 as one of the hottest prospects in the Cubs system and then looked strong out of the gate with Myrtle Beach featuring a fastball (91-95, T97) with good arm side run, a plus curve and an average change. A pectoral injury sidelined him in May and ended up lingering until late in the year.
He did return to the Pelicans in late August to make four abbreviated appearances. His fastball was down a couple of ticks but after the long layoff that was not a big concern. When the team held him out of Arizona Fall League after initially naming him to the roster, that was a bit concerning. Adbert Alzolay, who stole much of the prospect spotlight expected to shine on De La Cruz in Myrtle Beach during the season, replaced De La Cruz on the Mesa roster. Alzolay continued his breakout season by showing well in the AFL.
The Cubs added added De La Cruz to the 40-man roster in the offseason in order to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. The move also provided De La Cruz his first opportunity to perform in Major League camp this spring. Given his injury-plagued season, along with the fact that he had yet to pitch above the Advanced-A level of the Minors, I imagine many did not expect much from De La Cruz in March. But despite some reports from Fangraph's Eric Longenhagen that his velocity was still down in the 88-92 MPH range upon his viewing, Oscar De La Cruz has made a strong impression.
His secondaries have looked sharp. He has shown no fear of the higher level of competition, challenging hitters and forcing them into pitcher's counts. For those who have watched him in the Minors, that aggressive mentality should come as no surprise. De La Cruz always seems to be in attack mode and rarely wastes time on the mound.
Cubs Director of Player Deveopment Jaron Madison spoke highly of the big righty in a recent interview with Jim Callis of MLB.com. "De la Cruz is pitching really well," Madison said. "We've thrown him into the closer situation and he has embraced the pressure with the game on the line. He has a big league body and great makeup. We've just got to get him through a healthy year."
Embracing the mindset necessary to perform when the game is on the line is one that may prove useful in the years to come. Oscar De La Cruz may have the highest upside of any starter in the Cubs Minor League system, but he also has a history of nagging injuries, and the entire Cubs starting rotation is under team control for the next three seasons. The team also possesses a pair of experienced left handers, Drew Smyly and Mike Montgomery, to function as rotation depth. Combine those factors with the fact that many of the team's relievers have their contracts expire over the next two winters, and you can understand why the road to breaking in as a big leaguer for many of the Cubs young pitchers, even the eventual starters, is most likely to come via the bullpen first.
It is a belief that Madison shares, "It's going to be a year or two before you see some starters have an impact. We're going to have a big battle at South Bend and Myrtle Beach this year. We probably aren't going to have enough rotation spots for all the [impact] arms from the last two Drafts, but that's a great problem to have."
The group of relief prospects led by Dillon Maples, David Garner, Craig Brooks and Corey Black will face stiff competition in the coming years from De La Cruz, but also other upper level starters Adbert Alzolay, Thomas Hatch, Alec Mills, Jen-Ho Tseng, Duane Underwood Jr., Trevor Clifton, among others. And the battle figures to get no easier even once some of the rotation spots open up after the 2019 and 2020 seasons because by then that large contingent of arms down in South Bend and Myrtle Beach will be ready to challenge as well.
While De La Cruz has made some unexpected waves, the prospect many looked forward to seeing has been held out of action so far. Fans may have noticed that Adbert Alzolay has yet to appear in any Cactus League games this spring, despite also attending big league camp as a member of the 40-man roster. It is hardly time to panic, temporary shutdowns are not uncommon during spring training, especially with young pitchers. No injury has been reported and he has been seen participating in some on field drills.
Alzolay did set a career high for innings pitched in 2017 and then went on to play in the Arizona Fall League. It is possible he is suffering from dead arm or the team simply does not want to rush their prized prospect. Another possibility is the club has asked him to focus his efforts on improving his changeup and feel that side work is more beneficial right now in that development than it is for him to worry about retiring MLB hitters with the pitch. If we don't see ramp up his activity in either Cactus League games or Minor League camp over the next week, then we should start considering the possibility that Alzolay will remain behind in Extended Spring Training to begin the season.