Good morning! This afternoon starts another Arizona Fall League, which will kick off Cubs Den’s exclusive coverage of the off-season leagues. Today, we preview the pitchers and coaches assigned to the Mesa Solar Sox.
Bailey Clark, RHP
As Bailey Clark continues to make his way through the Cubs’ minor league system, the biggest question surrounding his is, “Can he stay in one piece?”
Coming to the Cubs in the 5th round of the 2016 draft from Duke University, Clark fell in the eyes of the scouts with injury and command issues while in college. Those issues limited Clark to only 4 games in the rookie league and with Short Season-A Eugene following his signing.
Clark returned to the Emeralds’ roster in 2017 as a nominal starter, averaging about 4 innings per appearance. Command was once again an issue as Clark posted a concerning 1.634 WHIP and 3.83 ERA against a low level of competition while striking out 44 in 44.1 innings. Clark was also unimpressive in two appearances with Low-A South Bend in the final week of the season.
At the start of the 2018 season, Clark returned to South Bend recast as a relief pitcher and finally showed off some of his potential. The 6’4”, 185-pounder put up a 1.26 ERA and 1.047 WHIP in 14.1 innings before being promoted to Advanced-A Myrtle Beach in late April.
But after making 8 appearances for the Pelicans, it was back to the disabled list for Clark. Following a two-month layoff, Clark made another 4 appearances to finish a combined 4-2 with a save, a 1.89 ERA, 1.088 WHIP, and 36 strikeouts against 14 walks in 36.2 innings.
The 23-year old features a mid to upper 90’s four seam fastball along with a low 90’s two-seamer and a slider. Clark has enough pitches to last as a starter as long as his command is good, or move to being a high-leverage reliver, if he is able to stay off the DL.
Erick Leal, RHP
Where were you in 2012? If you were Erick Leal, you were a member of the Diamondbacks organization in the process of being dealt to the Cubs for OF Tony Campana.
Following the move, Leal was still a teenager when he saw action in the rookie league in 2013 and with Short Season-A Boise in 2014, posting a combine 3.31 ERA and 1.293 WHIP while going 9-4 with 83 strikeouts in 111.1 innings.
Leal continued to put up similar numbers in 2015 as a member of the Low-A South Bend Cubs, as he went 10-8 with a 3.85 ERA, 1.321 WHIP, and 86 strikeouts in 128.2 innings. Leal did take a no-hitter into the tenth inning that season, only to lose on a walk and an error.
In the 2016 season, Leal would see some improvement, but there was also trouble on the horizon.
Moving to Advanced-A Myrtle Beach, Leal saw improved numbers as his ERA and WHIP lowered to 3.23 and 1.188 respectively, while fanning 66 in 94. 2 innings. But Leal also missed some time due to an injury. In spring of 2017, Leal experienced arm issues again and was forced to miss the entire season.
After spending the spring of 2018 in the Cubs throwing rehabilitation program, the 6’3”, 180-pound Leal returned to the Pelicans in late May. Working mainly out of the pen, Leal used his impeccable command and control to go 1-1 with a 1.70 ERA, 0.817 WHIP and 61 strikeouts against 17 walks in 63.2 innings.
A change-up specialist, the 23-year old flashes an above average curve along with an upper 80’s/low 90’s fastball to keep hitters honest. Off-speed pitchers usually take time to find their niche, and the injury issue complicates things. But Leal has just the amount of change-of-pace and command that can make him valuable.
Manuel Rondon, LHP
A former Northwest League Pitcher-of-the-Year, Manuel Rondon has some similarities to Erick Leal in that he was acquired for a fringe major leaguer and had to reinvent himself after injury.
Signed by the Angels in 2012, the left-handed Rondon was dealt to the Cubs in exchange for catcher Rafael Lopez in 2015. In his first full season with the Cubs organization in 2016, Rondon took the Northwest League by storm. The native of Venezuela went 6-1 with a 1.10 ERA, 1.256 WHIP, and 49 strikeouts in 57.1 innings for the champion Eugene Emeralds.
But when Rondon took the field as a member of the South Bend Cubs in 2017, he would find the going a little tougher. With a team that would have its share of fielding issues, Rondon was 14-6, but had a 4.63 ERA and 1.543 WHIP as he struck out 113 in 128.1 innings.
However, Rondon came up with his own arm issues in the offseason and also ended up in the throwing rehabilitation program this past spring. It took until late May before Rondon made his debut, first with South Bend and then moving to Myrtle Beach a month later. And like Leal, it was as a member of the bullpen. The 23-year old went a combined 3-5 with a save, a 3.53 ERA, 1.275 WHIP; striking out 62 and walking 28 in 51 innings.
At 6’1”, 165-pounds, Rondon’s mid 90’s fastball belies his slight stature. Rondon also has a breaking pitch and a change-up to go along with his fastball. With occasional control problems, and permanent move to the pen might be the most effective use of Rondon.
Justin Steele, LHP
As one of three high school pitchers drafted in the early rounds for the Cubs in 2014, Justin Steele remains the last one standing.
Sandwiched in between Carson Sands and Dylan Cease in the 5th round, Steele tossed 18.2 innings in the rookie league after signing to set himself up to be part of Short Season-A Eugene’s rotation in 2015. Steele spent some minor time on the disabled list, which cost him a shot at the Northwest League ERA title. In his first full professional season, Steele started 19 games and was 3-1 with a 2.66 ERA, 1.303 WHIP, and 38 strikeouts in 42.2 innings.
Expectations were sky high for the South Bend rotation in 2016, but it was not to be for all of the staff including Steele. Struggling with his control all season, Steele amassed a 1.707 WHIP and 5.00 ERA, striking out 76 in 77.1 innings as he was 5-7. Things got so bad for Steele, he was actually sat down for a period of time in an attempt to readjust his approach.
After an offseason of work, Steele came back with renewed confidence in 2017 as a member of Myrtle Beach. Steele got off to a good start, putting up a 2.92 ERA and 1.378 WHIP in 98.2 innings, as he was 6-7 with 82 strikeouts. But disaster struck at the end of July as Steele would go down with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery.
The status for the left-hander was cloudy for this past season due to his surgery in August. But Steele was back throwing batting practice in late May in extended spring training. By early July, Steele was making the first of five starts in the rookie league before rejoining the Pelicans for four starts, and finishing with two starts for Double-A Tennessee. All total, Steele was 2-2 with a 2.31 ERA, 0.900 WHIP, and 53 strikeouts in 46.2 innings for the year.
The plan is for the 23-year old to get innings to put him back on track for an assignment to Triple-A Iowa by the end of 2019, if all goes well. Prior to the injury, Steele had a low-to-mid 90’s two-seam fastball, a four-seam fastball with late movement, a late diving curve, and a change-up.
Jesus Feliciano, Hitting Coach
Drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1997, Jesus Feliciano enjoyed a 15-year minor league career as an outfielder for the Dodgers, Rays, Mets, and Nationals. Feliciano played 54 games in the majors with the Mets in 2010 and hit .231 in 119 plate appearances.
His final season as an active player in 2015-16 for Carolina of the Roberto Clemente League in Puerto Rico. Feliciano was signed by the Cubs replace Bill Buckner as hitting coach for Short Season-A Boise in 2014, and moved to hitting coach of the South Bend Cubs in 2015. In 2016, Feliciano was assigned to manage the Short Season-A team in Eugene. As a rookie manager, Feliciano led the Emeralds to the league’s best record and a Northwest League championship.
Feliciano skippered the Emeralds for one more season in 2017 before being assigned to Double-A Tennessee as their hitting coach last year. Considered a brilliant baseball mind, it has been speculated that Feliciano is on the fast track for a possible major league assignment.
Note: Reports from John Arguello, Michael Ernst, and Stephanie Lynn contributed to this article.