Cubs Notes: Pierce Johnson, more on Cease, and the unexpected race for the last bullpen spot

Edited 4:00 PM

First of all, I want to thank everyone for their patience as I have been in full information gathering mode.  It’s  info I plan to use for the minor league recaps as well as some MLB roster moves.  I haven’t been on the site to comment as much as I like, but I do read them all and things will calm down once the season starts — which is somewhat strange to say, but it is true in my case.

Don’t sleep on Pierce Johnson

Maybe we shouldn’t write off Pierce Johnson yet.    I have seen Johnson pitch live more than any single pitcher in the entire organization.  Earlier this spring, even when he was getting rocked, I’ve noted the quality of pitches are there — the 92-94 mph FB, a high 80s cutter, the 82-83 mph power curve, and the much improved change.

One thing that has become apparent to me more and more is it’s not always what you throw, but when and where.  We tend to fall in love with velocity and pitch movement.  That kind of data is available these days without ever having to see a game.  The science of pitcher evaluation is becoming well-established.  There is an art to pitching as well, particularly when you are a starter.  Nobody exemplified this more in our lifetimes than Greg Maddux.

As good as Johnson’s stuff is, MLB level hitters have seen it all before.  They’re pretty good too.  If they couldn’t hit those kinds of pitches, they wouldn’t be where they are.  Perhaps nobody exemplified this more than Jake Arrieta before he joined the Cubs.

Now Johnson doesn’t have the stuff that Arrieta does, few pitchers at any  level do, but he does have a power repertoire.  What he doesn’t have yet is consistent command and is still learning to sequence his pitches to maximize their effectiveness.  It’s that part that gives him something in common with Arrieta prior to coming to the Cubs.  In that light, it is appropriate that Arrieta has taken Johnson on as his pupil this spring.  If anyone can understand what the talented but inconsistent Johnson is going through, it’s Arrieta.

The fastball and curve are swing and miss quality pitches.  The change could become one as well if he learns to locate it better.  If Johnson can get ahead off hitters consistently, he’ll be able to keep hitters from sitting on his FB and increase the effectiveness of his secondary pitchers.  He’ll be able to control the AB because he can sequence pitches as he (or his catchers) want to and not be at the mercy of the count.

Johnson isn’t there yet but it is much to soon to give up on him — and by too soon, I mean too soon in the season and too soon in his career.  If it all clicks for Johnson, the stuff is good enough to be a #3 starter.

Spencer Patton making a strong case to make team

I already knew how good Willson Contreras and Jeimer Candelario were.  Given it takes him a bit of extra time to adjust to each new level, I am not surprised that Arismendy Alcantara put up a strong spring ether. If there is a spring training surprise for me, it has been Spencer Patton.  As I’ve mentioned before, it started with his loose build and athleticism I noticed during PFPs.  That loose athleticism has also manifested itself in terms of his delivery and Patton has used that to generate 96 mph heat, touching 98.

After an encouraging start, Neil Ramirez has fallen off a bit and the velocity isn’t making the progress many of us hoped it would.  But Ramirez is out of options and the Cubs can’t simply option him to Iowa because they would need to pass him through waivers first.  He would certainly be claimed if the Cubs tried to sneak him through.  The other answer is the DL if the Cubs just feel Ramirez still isn’t quite 100% yet in terms of health.

Manny Parra is another pitcher who has done well albeit in just 3 innings so far.  He could give the Cubs another lefty out of the pen to go with Wood and Richard.

Ramirez is a favorite among many Cubs fans because when he has everything working, he can flat out dominate — but that is not the Ramirez we have seen of late.  There is still time for that to happen but right now, it’s been Patton who has been able to come in, throw strikes, and overpower hitters.  Were it not for the options situation, I would say he has earned that last spot outright.  Parra also is making his claim and would give the Cubs flexibility to mix and match with 3 lefties.  As it is, the Cubs may have to make a decision on their pitching staff that many of us probably thought would have involved Rex Brothers or Carl Edwards, Jr. when the spring started.

More on Dylan Cease

I wrote a bit about his performance here but I went into a bit more detail on 2080 Baseball.  You can read that here.

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  • fb_avatar

    Good stuffs usual John. I have 2 questions about Cease.

    For some reason, had always thought Cease was headed for that closer position. Is this accurate or does he have a chance to be a starter?

    Could the dry air of Arizona have something to do with his feel for the change up?

  • In reply to bocabobby:

    I think Cease could wind up in either role and it largely depends on his change up and durability.

    If he can improve his FB command, he'll be deadly as a closer. His curve can be plus as well. It just needs greater consistency from everything I've read. The FB command may take some time, but otherwise he's not too far off from being a major league closer.

    But if he can add a consistent average change, he's a starter, at least in the sense that he'll be able to get through the order more than twice without being easy to figure out. That and having the stamina and durability are the biggest obstacles he has to work on if he wants to start.

  • In reply to Quedub:

    I think he'll have the stamina.

    The Dominican kids here call him La Piedra Humana. The Human Rock. He is in phenomenal shape. Very strong kid. For me it's command first and then an average change-up, neither of which are too far away right now.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Good to hear.

    "The Human Rock". Sounds like he may have a future in pro wrestling when his career is over (hopefully 20 years from now)!

    Now it's stay healthy and get the reps/coaching necessary to improve the FB command and the change. It will be interesting to see how he performs once he gets promoted to South Bend later this season.

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  • In reply to visecobul:

    bocabobby, that was a reply that the dry air isn't hurting Cease's feel for the change up. LOL.

  • fb_avatar
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  • Great news on Pierce Johnson. Seems like Arrieta has been a massive influence on this team, firstly by his conditioning regimen.

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    Thanks for the great dissection of the pitching of Cease and Johnson. It sounds like the Cubs have a potential dominant pitcher with Cease, and a very good one with Johnson. I also liked how the other scouts felt about each, that's telling too.
    All the great pitchers had at least 2 plus plus pitches--it isn't enough to just throw a FB in the upper 90's, it's the curve and CU and ability to locate pitches that separates the good from great. I also look forward to hearing more about Patton. If Ramirez isn't like he was in 2014 Patton could step into that role and our bullpen would be so much better.
    It must be fun to be in Mesa now. Imagine if you were there in the 70's when talent was few and far between! Timing is everything.

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    Jonathan, I commented on this before but it got swallowed up by the filter. Spencer Patton is from a town called Farina, IL, which is about 40 miles south of me. Population 500. I know a couple of classmates of his that run a local church who graduated with Spencer. They say he's s great kid, and deserves all the success he gets...great kid. Great story.

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    In reply to copinblue:

    Thanks Chet. I've been in that same whirlpool that swallows our comments.
    It's good to hear that about Patton. The Cubs are as much about character as talent, a welcome change from our Milton Bradley days.

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    Thanks, Jonathan. Johnson has a chance to have an impact on the rotation at some point this season, as does Ryan Williams. Two different kinds of pitchers, but both talented. Both work hard.

  • If the light goes on for Johnson this year, it would be a big plus for this clubs pitching. He would be a nice option as a replacement should Hammel have his typical second half and would be a cost controlled asset to for Hammel in future years.

    We've all tried to speculate which of our young arms will be first to come up and make an impact even if he is not front of the rotation or ace level. I thing Edwards, Tseng or Underwood were all pegged. Buthe Johnson and Williams entry into the discussion is a welcome saddition.

  • I think the first of the young arms to make an impact will be Hendricks. I know he has been around for a while, but I think that this year will be his breakout year. He tends to be discounted because he doesn't throw heat, but there have been a lot of darn good pitchers who were impact pitchers without a high 90s fastball.

  • In reply to DaveP:

    I get what you're saying, and I guess it depends on what we mean by impact, but I'd say he already has made one.

  • I agree. But I really think that the best is yet to come.

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    In reply to DaveP:

    I agree also. It's a pleasure to watch him pitch. We always hear the Maddox comparison, but he's doing what Greg did--change speeds, moving in and out, up and down. Like real estate--location, location, location.

  • So what does the rotation and bullpen shape up like so far in Iowa? Unlike past seasons where it has been almost exclusively populated with filler, minor league vets and non-prospects, this year Iowa's staff should feature some legit future ML-ers, no? That's a good thing.

  • A Pierce Johnson 'emerging' as a viable #3/#4 starter going into 2017 or 2018 is NOT a bad thing. Hammell isn't signed long-term, neither is Lackey,.... and while I like Hendrick's game,... he's not the kind of pitcher that's ever going to be a team 'ace' - unless it is a really bad team,....

    It'll really be fun to watch as some of the draft picks for pitchers finally start to pay off.

    Thinking of RP options from drafts,.... Has much been seen of that side-armer Berg this Spring?

  • I don't know much about Patton, so I've been digging through some numbers. Seems like a typical fringy power reliever with high K-rates and highish walk rates. You point out his athleticism and easy motion, which I like as that can always harbor upside. He could be a perfect candidate for a Bosionian mechanical and/or pitch selection/sequencing tweak. People rightly bemoan the unpredictabilaty of bullpen arms, and how fickle success can be year-to-year. For all the downside of that reality, the upside is that guys can go on bursts of great effectiveness. Gather enough Strops and Rondons and good things can happen. Patton could end up being very valuable.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to BarleyPop:

    Spencer Patton has raised some eyebrows; he's probably the first Iowa option now in the event of injury, since he has a 40-man spot and has options. We'll probably see alot of him this year if he keeps it up.

  • Reading that Arrieta has taken Pierce Johnson under his wing, so to speak, is pretty awesome news.

  • fb_avatar

    Question for John or the gallery: Where is Dallas Beeler? I know, you're probably thinking "who cares", but he is on the 40-man roster, is not on an injury list, and I haven't heard one word about him during ST. As a 40-man roster guy, he should be in major league camp.

    What's up with Dallas? With several other Iowa rotation options (Pierce, Ryan Williams, Fife, Jokisch,plus some others) he may be cut but just curiouse.

    Anyone seen Dallas?

  • In reply to Zonk:

    I've liked Beeler for a couple of years now - and although he is what he is - a guy with a nice sinking fastball and not much else - he's still got to be somewhere on that emergency starter list for Iowa callup.

    Hadn't heard anything about him either - good question Zonk.

  • This:

  • fb_avatar

    Kyle Hendricks made an impact his first year going 7-2 with a 2.46 era in 13 starts in 2014. His overall record is 15-9 in 45 starts. Kyle has marginal stuff but he knows how to pitch. A man's
    got to know his limitations and I think Kyle knows what those limitations are.

  • In reply to Terry Rosdail:

    The only real criticism many could make about Hendricks as a SP last season is that he regularly didn't go deep into games.

    18/32 starts in 2015 Hendricks didn't last into the 6th inning - although he went at least 5 innings in 29/32 starts. For a guy who's expected to be your #5 rotation guy,.... that's actually not terrible, but it could be better.

    Cubs also won 19 of the 32 games he started, even though Kyle wasn't around to get the decision in a bunch of those games. He's healthy,... appears to be durable,.... and when he's on and being efficient he can be very good.

  • fb_avatar

    19 team wins out of 32 starts is a .594 winning percentage. If we get that out of all 5 starters, that's 96 wins.

    I'll take that from our 5th starter every year!

  • In reply to brober34:

    Yep,.... All you really want you #5 rotation guy to do is keep you in most games, and to not wear out the bullpen,.... Kyle appears to be able to do that most days.

    And keep in mind - that was the #5 starter last year on a team that - early in the season - was having a hard time consistently scoring runs.

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