Feature Photo: Justin Steele, LHP, Cubs
The Cubs are largely known for developing hitting prospects. Even after graduating players like 2016 N.L. MVP Kris Bryant (3B/OF) , Kyle Schwarber, (C/OF), catcher Willson Contreras and others, the Cubs’ farm system is still stacked with hitters such as Eloy Jimenez (LF, High A Myrtle Beach, Carolina League), Ian Happ (2B, Triple-A Iowa, PCL), and Jeimer Candelario (3B, Triple-A Iowa, PCL).
They’re not as well known for their pitching, however. Dylan Cease (RHP, Class A South Bend, Midwest League) has begun to generate some buzz, but many would have a hard time naming a Cubs’ pitching prospect beyond that. One place to look is the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, home of the Cubs’ High A affiliate in the Carolina League. To open the season, the Pelicans’ feature a rotation of four Cubs pitching prospects, including one pitcher of whom some think may be even better than Cease.
There is also an interesting story here that goes deeper than the prospects in the Pelicans’ rotation. It speaks to the creativity of the Cubs’ scouting department and front office when it comes to finding pitchers. There are no first-round picks or international bonus babies in this group. All four pitchers in this group slipped through the cracks for one reason or another, but scouts saw enough in them to take a chance on them. Now, it looks like these low-risk gambles are beginning to pay off for the Cubs.
De La Cruz is height and weight listings already appear out of date – he’s probably closer to six-foot-six and 240 pounds presently. Looking at him now, it’s hard to believe he was a shortstop as an amateur in the Dominican Republic. Other than the rather obvious projection that he would outgrow the position, the Cubs quickly converted him to a pitcher because of his arm strength. Because of that, De La Cruz was more of a project at first, and played relatively anonymously to most evaluators until the spring of 2015, when he suddenly showed up two-inches taller, and with a few more ticks on his fastball.
That fastball now reaches as high as 97 mph but De La Cruz pitches most comfortably at 92-to-94 mph, where he has much better movement and command. His ability to play shortstop before signing speaks to his athleticism, and it’s an attribute that comes into play as a pitcher as well. De La Cruz has a fluid delivery that seems to require almost no effort at all. He repeats his delivery well, and that has led to good control for much of his young career. It is expected that with more experience, he’ll refine his mechanics even further and perhaps pitch with above-average command later in his career.
Aside from the fastball, De La Cruz has a curveball that has plus potential as well. It’s a hard curve that has good vertical and horizontal break. Just as importantly, he can throw it for strikes. The two pitches work well with his aggressive approach on the mound, as De La Cruz is not afraid to pitch inside and back a hitter off the plate than drop that curveball, which will tail down and away from right-handed hitters.
Where De La Cruz has improved most since last spring is in the development of his changeup. Last year he would tip it off by slowing his arm speed, and also have a tendency leave it up in the zone. That is not a good combination, and predictably, the pitch got hit hard. It did begin to improve late in the spring and it has now reached the point where some in the organization believe it can become an above-average to plus pitch for him.
How good can De La Cruz be? Well, there are scouts who believe it is De La Cruz who is the Cubs’ best pitching prospect because of his size, stuff and potential for good command. Some see him as a number three starter with the potential to be a number two if it all comes together.
Hatch lasted until the third round of the 2016 MLB Draft in part because he was a relatively unknown commodity. Less than a year later, it is beginning to look like the Cubs may have gotten quite a steal here. Hatch had sprained his elbow ligament at Oklahoma State University and ended up redshirting, though he did not require Tommy John surgery. Hatch came back a different pitcher. He learned to pitch with a lower arm slot and went with a slider instead of a curveball. It was done in part to ease some of the strain on his elbow but there was an added benefit as well. The low-3/4’s arm slot added a lot of movement to his fastball, which now features good run as well as some sink. The downside for Hatch, at the time, was that all of that injury and change might have created too much uncertainty for scouts. Cubs’ scouts jumped on the opportunity when Hatch slipped to their pick. He was a pitcher they had targeted on their boards.
The Cubs did not pitch Hatch after the draft because he had compiled 130 1/3 innings in 2016, as Oklahoma State made a big run in the College World Series, relying heavily on Hatch’s right arm. Hatch would reappear in the instructional league where he wowed the Cubs with his stuff and command. The fastball topped out at 96 mph and he showed good command and a polished approach on the mound.
Hatch continued to impress this spring. He would pitch at 94-to-96 mph early in games, and then sit in the 92-to-93 mph range in later innings. He also began working in a mid-80s changeup, which looks to be an average pitch for him. It looks like it will be enough to counter lefty bats, while his slider is beginning to look like a serious weapon versus right-handed hitters. He has pitched well in his first three starts for Myrtle Beach, though he did fade a bit late in each outing. After taking some time off last season, Hatch may just need to build up his stamina over the course of the season.
Despite the good stuff, Hatch may not put up the kind of strikeout numbers that Dylan Cease (RHP) or Oscar De La Cruz (RHP) will. His approach is to keep the ball down with his sinking fastball/slider combination and induce weak contact, particularly on the ground. Given the infield defense in Chicago, that is a formula that should fit in well with the big league club down the road.
Perhaps one of lesser known of the Cubs’ top arms, Alzolay has certainly caught the eye of the Cubs’ scouting department. He was among the new front office’s first international free agent signings – but certainly an unheralded one. When Alzolay turned 16 years old, his first year as an eligible international signing came and went without a contract offer. It wasn’t until he turned 17 years old that the Cubs spotted the Venezuelan pitcher with the loose, athletic frame and the live arm.
One reason he may have slipped through the cracks was that at an even 6-feet-tall, his height is rather fringy for a big league right-handed starter. On top of that, he had a rather slight frame that didn’t seem to bode well for much physical projection. Additionally, he needed to build stamina and strength. There were times, even as recently as last season, where he’d lose velocity as the game went on. All of those things give you the temptation to just label him a reliever. However, Alzolay seems to have matured physically since last season. He looks to have added some lean muscle that should help him go deeper into games.
The Cubs are developing Alzolay as a starter, in large part, because he has a full repertoire, good command, and a good feel for pitching, but to just focus on that would sell him short. When you combine that with his less-than-ideal build, it may have you thinking that Alzolay is a soft-tossing finesse pitcher. That is not the case at all. Alzolay will throw his fastball anywhere between 92-to-96 mph and he complements that with a cutter, curveball, and changeup. It’s that good stuff that has some scouts excited that he can pitch in a big league rotation. In fact, team president Theo Epstein has mentioned him along with Dylan Cease, Oscar De La Cruz, and Justin Steele as some of their best young impact starters in the minors. That’s pretty good company to keep in this organization.
This will be a key season for Alzolay, because he will be eligible for the MLB Rule 5 Draft after the season. He doesn’t have the pedigree of a top prospect. You’ll rarely, if ever, find him on a list of the Cubs’ top prospects, yet he is something of a sleeper in this organization. He’ll try to prove he can stick as a starter, but if he doesn’t, he can certainly have an impact out of the bullpen, where he may be able to add a tick or two to his fastball.
Steele dropped to the fifth round in the 2015 draft, in part, because some scouts projected him as a reliever. Like Alzolay, Steele is a good athlete but didn’t have the kind of size that screamed durability. There was also the problem that he looked like he was just a one-pitch guy. The Cubs, however, did their research and learned that Steele had what was then an unknown wrist injury, which affected his ability to spin what is usually a good curveball. The prevailing thought among many in the industry was that Steele would go to college to try to raise his draft stock. Because of that, he was considered something of a tough sign. Couple that with his somewhat disappointing 2015 spring season, and you can understand why some teams didn’t think he was worth the risk.
The Cubs saw enough in Steele to pay him a well-above-slot signing bonus of $1 million and it immediately looked like a good decision. Steele quickly became one of the Cubs’ top prospects – and perhaps their top left-handed starting pitching prospect after the 2015 season. Expectations were high as he looked to make his full season debut in 2016 at Class A South Bend.
But Steele’s 2016 season never quite got off the ground. He got off to a slow start, posting an ERA over 9.00 in April and over 6.00 at the All-Star break. The second half was better (4.04 ERA) but the season as a whole fueled some concern and Steele’s prospect status took a hit. He dropped off the radar almost as quickly as he had risen through the ranks.
A closer look at Steele’s 2016 season revealed what may have been a big part of the problem. Steele had two disastrous starts: a two-inning, eight-earned-run performance in April and then an even worse outing in which he gave up eight runs in just two-thirds of an inning in August. If you take out those two performances, Steele posted a very respectable 3.25 ERA for the season.
Of course, this isn’t Olympic skating and you can’t just remove your worst scores, but those two outings may have taught Steele more about himself than the rest of his starts combined. He is competitive on the mound, which often serves him well, but there were times when, instead of pitching his way out of trouble, it seemed as if he would overthrow. It would disrupt his mechanics and that, in turn, would lead to more walks, wild pitches, and poor location. It was something of a snowball effect.
He came in to this spring looking to pitch with a more mature approach, especially with men on base. So far the results have been good. Steele was tested right away in his first start when walks, some soft hits, and shoddy defense got him into some trouble. This time Steele was able to work his way through and it felt like something of a breakthrough for him. He was excellent in his next start, pitching five scoreless innings and allowing just two hits while walking one and striking out six.
When he is at his best, Steele will throw 90-to-94 mph with a good curveball and a solid-average changeup. He’s an exceptional athlete who can repeat his delivery well and so there is a chance for him to develop good command over time. Like Adbert Alzolay, he seems to have matured physically as well, and the Cubs will keep him as a starter as long as he continues to pitch well in that role.
The Pelicans’ rotation will be interesting to watch this season. It features four good athletes who have enticed with their raw talent, yet their best days are seemingly still ahead of them. The rotation is also a testament to good scouting as none of these pitchers were hyped as amateurs. Still, it wouldn’t be surprising to see each of them ending the season among the Cubs’s top 25 prospects. The Cubs prospect list may soon be undergoing something of a makeover. Right now it’s Eloy Jimenez and Ian Happ getting all the attention, but the Cubs next wave of talent might just come from their stockpile of lower-level pitching prospects.