Two years ago, Zach Cates was a catcher at Northeast Texas Community College.
A big kid with a big arm, Cates was converted to a pitcher late in 2009, before taking on the role full-time in 2010. Then, that summer, the San Diego Padres – under Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod – took a chance on Cates in the third round of the 2010 draft, and paid him big bucks to sign (his $765k signing bonus was double the recommended slot amount). Clearly, they saw serious potential in the young man, despite the limited track record.
The move paid relative dividends in Cates’ first professional season. Although he had a 4.73 ERA in 2011 at A-ball, his WHIP was a respectable 1.356 WHIP and struck out 111 in 118 innings of work.
Cates has a fastball that sits in the low to mid-90s, and touches the upper-90s. More impressively, he’s got an advanced changeup that is usually in the high 70s. He’s looked good enough that he was recently named by John Sickels as the Cubs’ 16th best prospect.
Hoyer was very pleased to land Cates in the Andrew Cashner/Anthony Rizzo swap.
“We’re excited to get Zach Cates,” Hoyer said. “He’s got a very good arm, he’s athletic. His velocity is around 96 and he has a very good change-up. There’s some development left, for sure, but he’s a prospect we’re excited to get.”
Baseball Prospectus’s Kevin Goldstein agrees that there’s a great deal of upside with Cates.
“He’s got good stuff,” Goldstein said of Cates. “The best way to put it is he’s still kind of transitioning from thrower to pitcher. When he pitches, you watch him and you go ‘oh that looks like a catcher trying to pitch.’ Which is what he is.
“He has trouble throwing strikes because there’s effort to what he does. But there’s upside there. There are pieces of raw ingredients. He’s a big, strong kid who throws hard.”
Goldstein added that an impending issue for Cates is the lack of a good third pitch – a breaking ball – which could relegate Cates to the bullpen in the future.
Even if Cates ends up in the bullpen, this review only makes me more impressed at the Cubs’ work in the Rizzo/Cashner swap. Despite the Padres knowing how strongly the Cubs coveted Rizzo, they landed him for Cashner and Kyung Min-Na, a young outfield prospect most slot as a significantly less impressive prospect than Cates. Increasingly, I feel like Rizzo for Cashner and Na would have made sense. To land Cates – a very legitimate pitching prospect – on top of it? Well done, boys. Very well done. (And, yes, I understand the counterargument that, by acquiring Yonder Alonso, the Padres tipped their hand about their opinion of Rizzo, thus depressing his value. Still. I’m impressed.)
Cates, who turned 22 in December, will probably begin 2012 in High-A, and continue to work as a starting pitcher.