A few weeks ago, the Cubs named former big leaguer and Very Smart Person Craig Breslow as their Director of Pitching. This is a new title for the Cubs organization that has taken pitching development more seriously in the last two years, with modest victories like Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan, and Brad Wieck as proof of progress.
While we can’t judge Breslow’s tenure on the success of any one player – but instead an overall improved batting average on pitching prospect development going forward – I can’t help but look into the Cubs farm system and see two players that represent ideal molds for Breslow to begin to show his impact: Kohl Franklin and Riley Thompson.
Both come from a 2018 draft that had the Cubs talking publicly about identifying higher upside pitching talents. Kohl (6th round) and Riley (11th round) are actually quite similar: tall and lanky right-handers with the fastball-curve-change mix. Both surprised in 2019 with their polish and pitchability at the lower levels, but I believe both are only scratching the surface for how good they can be.
These are the type of higher-ceilinged arms that an organization should develop, and that hasn’t been something in great supply much of the last decade.
I see each with two items on the checklist to reach the next level. First, the curveball must become a more consistent strikeout offering. Second, they need the muscle development and delivery tactics to have their fastball reach the top end of its range. Oddly, I’m satisfied where both stand with the changeup.
Franklin, who turned 20 earlier this offseason, is still relatively new to breaking stuff. His father, an MLB agent, kept him from throwing a curve until his senior season of high school. While its shape drew some plaudits in predraft scouting reports, it needed significant work, and the Cubs (led by Brendan Sagara) helped Franklin find a new knuckle-curve grip.
Kohl Franklin and his curveball. pic.twitter.com/iTNAAt1kha
— Eldrad (@thats_so_cub) July 24, 2019
“For me it’s about trusting it and throwing it like a fastball instead of babying it and trying to throw a strike,” Franklin told me by phone recently, while on a Cubs organizational trip to the Dominican Republic.
Thompson comes from a slightly more advanced place, which isn’t a surprise as the 23-year-old comes from a forward-thinking college program in Louisville. Riley achieves some of the best spin rates on his curveball in the Cubs system, but the pitch isn’t as swing-and-miss as I believe it can be. Thompson had a 20.9 K% vs RHH in the Midwest League this year, which isn’t high enough for someone with his arm, and it’s indicative of the lack of development his curveball has seen so far with the Cubs.
Instead, and perhaps understandably, the focus in 2019 was on Thompson’s changeup. It made huge strides, I’d say going from fringe-average to flashing plus, and is now a third pitch that should have him more convincingly projected as a starter.
Franklin, meanwhile, dominated the Northwest League in 2019 with one of the system’s best changeups, with lefties hitting just .210/.329/.290 against him (and that’s with a .351 BABIP) with a 34.2 K%. He can command the pitch around the zone, has comfort throwing it to right-handed hitters, it plays off his fastball. It’s a fantastic offering.
#Cubs 2018 6th Rd pick Kohl Franklin, an overslot prep signing out of Oklahoma, struck out 8 batters in 4 innings last night.
Most of his success came on the back of an impressive changeup.
So, let's take a look at a minute of Franklin throwing that pitch throughout the outing. pic.twitter.com/OFF2uLB4jI
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) June 22, 2019
Recently, we heard that Tim Buss would be leaving the Cubs, and there are other changes coming to the training staff. I have heard the changes extend to the minor league side, too, and expect a more data-driven strength and conditioning program throughout the system. Franklin and Thompson represent two players with wide fastball ranges, who with enhanced muscle could profile to pitch in the mid 90s consistently.
“For me, I think if I can pitch at 92-94, touch 96, that would be perfect,” Franklin told me. He added that it’s not the high end of his velocity that is his focus, but consistency on the lower end of his range.
Thompson reportedly touched 100 mph at Louisville (in relief), but was mostly in the 91-95 range in South Bend this year, touching as high as 96 mph (that I could find). His fastball has more sink than Franklin’s, and so it’s not purely about max velocity, but I do think more mid 90s would benefit him. The gap will make his change up even nastier.
Riley Thompson (@rileythomp19) will be a name to keep an eye on in 2020:
• 11th round pick from Louisville in 2018
• Coverted from reliever in college to starter as a pro
• 3.06 ERA & 1.23 WHIP in 2019
• 22.3% K vs 7.9% BB
• Featured a new and plus-grade changeup in 2019 pic.twitter.com/4dHNzaKaNX
— Greg Huss (@OutOfTheVines) October 29, 2019
Franklin has already been placed on a “calorie-loaded meal plan” that has him up about eight pounds. “I eat so much, the most I go without a meal is like an hour and a half,” he said.
The game of developing pitching prospects is learning to fight numerous battles simultaneously. Each pitch, and the body itself, in need of development. But whether it’s Thompson’s five no-hit innings to help the South Bend Cubs win the championship, or Franklin’s three no-hit innings in a season finale South Bend cup-of-coffee, it’s clear the Cubs are working with greater foundations than they’re used to.
Time to raise the roof, so to speak.