In the last two offseasons, the Cubs have added three starting pitching prospects to the 40-man roster: Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele, and Oscar de la Cruz. Each have received their pub as high (if not top) prospects in this organization, and all have given some degree of hope that they’re the guy to end the team’s homegrown pitching drought.
But also … they’ve each faced plenty of turbulence in the past year. Whether it’s Alzolay’s health troubles, Steele’s struggles out of the gate, or De La Cruz’s suspension, there have been plenty of reasons for doubt and skepticism. Perhaps that’s starting to change.
Alzolay made his season debut in Myrtle Beach on a rehab start this past Sunday. And by the results, it did not go particularly well: 4 IP, 7 H, 6 R, 5 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 1 HR-A. However, his velocity was back in the mid 90s, and clearly the Cubs weren’t particularly concerned about any results: they put him on a plane to Triple-A Iowa yesterday.
The thing that jumped out early in Sunday’s struggles was the lack of feel he had for his breaking ball. Note that I’d normally call it a curveball — what he’s always thrown — but Sunday’s version had a slurvier feel than in the past. The first two hits he allowed came on hung breakers, and his two-strike hooks were not well commanded. He did throw two good ones for strikeouts (and I noted one good change-up, too).
This all left Alzolay just pumping fastballs, with hungry A-ballers swinging out of their shoes and timing him up. He actually had nice, more-than-I-remember armside run, but it actually seemed to be a detriment. He lost his gloveside corner as a result, as fastballs thrown to that corner had the bad habit of running back to the middle of the plate.
I suspect he’ll be sharper next time out, when he likely supplants Alec Mills in the Iowa rotation (unless an injury occurs on the staff between now and then). I’ve written how this is a big year for Alzolay already, with a late-season Major League call-up his assumed path for now. If Alzolay is going to be a help in a September bullpen, the sharpness of that curveball is a big thing to watch.
Like Alzolay, Steele arrived to big league Spring Training hungry and eager, and then a little minor injury cost him February and early March. Steele has had difficulty getting comfortable since, missing two turns through the rotation in early April, and his numbers are a bit of a mess: 14.2 IP, 22 H, 9.20 ERA, 8 BB, 14 K, 2 HR-A.
I would note that part of the blame here belongs to Lady Luck, as Steele has an absurd .455 BABIP. If we break them down by platoon splits, it’s even more pronounced:
Vs RHH: .391/.451/.652, .471 BABIP, 19.2 K%, 52 PA
Vs LHH: .286/.412/.286, .400 BABIP, 22.2 K%, 18 PA
Regression will help here, but Steele has to bear some blame for that BABIP, too, and for one simple reason: too many line drives allowed to righties. His approach against them needs some alteration; I haven’t seen great looks from his change-up, and have little to report on a rumored fourth pitch. I’m seeing mostly a FB/CV combo that doesn’t tunnel all that well. But still, his velocity is good for the left side, and with good spin it pops up in the zone.
My expectation to start the year was to have Steele up in September as a power bullpen arm on the left side. While that is a need for the Cubs, Steele will have to stay healthy and earn that right. And you’ll want to see him utterly dominant left-handed hitting. We’ll see.
Oscar De La Cruz
If his return from suspension wasn’t teamed with someone a bit more notorious, it might have made more waves when the former top prospect reached AA after a successful conditional assignment in Myrtle Beach. It does seem like his five starts spread between High-A and Double-A have flown under the radar, especially when we consider the overall significant success: 26 IP, 17 H, 1.04 ERA, 10 BB, 29 K, 0 HR-A.
I watched three of those starts, sure I’d find some Pitching Lab created differences since he was last starting games. Perhaps the success of those starts had my hopes a little high, but I saw the same guy as always. His fastball gets quoted in the 91-94 mph range, and it’s heavy from good armside run. He’s pitching effectively inside to right-handed hitters.
However, I just don’t love the state of his secondary pitches right now, numbers be damned. The armspeed drops noticeably on offspeed, and the command is still a big work in progress. With two strikes, you can safely bet De La Cruz’ catcher will call a curveball away and in the dirt. More times than not, he’s locating that pitch high and inside. In fact, it’s almost an effective wildness so far.
De La Cruz change-up is more consistent, but I don’t see it as a plus pitch. Overall, his fastball is doing most of the heavy lifting, and it doesn’t feel like enough. However, if these numbers continue, I’m clearly missing something in the equation, and you can bet now 24 years old, they’ll be quick to promote him to Iowa.
When he was added to the 40-man roster, De La Cruz was awarded a rare fourth minor league option. This eased the pain of last year’s lost season, as De La Cruz entered this year with the same number of option seasons remaining (3) as Steele. I can’t speak to whether he’s more likely to be up in the Majors or used as trade bait this season, but he’s pitching well enough to be back on the radar either way.