I won’t belabor a long introduction today, as you guys know the deal here: the Cubs have not been successful at graduating a completely homegrown reliever (heck, pitcher) in the Theo Epstein era. Your skepticism about that changing is understood, and no, I’m not going to try to convince you that Rowan Wick counts. The Cubs simply need to prove it to you, to me, to the baseball community at large.
While there’s a good chance the reliever that ends the streak is currently a minor league starter, the ten guys below would be my guesses if it comes from the reliever ranks. Nobody is suggesting all 10 dudes below are going to hit. Of course they won’t. But I think it’s really important for this player development staff to make sure that at least one does. Baby steps and all that.
[Note: all players in Honorable Mention will appear in alphabetical order. The age listed will be their 2020 baseball age, the affiliate is my projection at their Opening Day assignment. This is the last Honorable Mention; previous honorable mentions here, here, here and here.]
Jose Albertos, RHP, 21, Myrtle Beach (Stats). I know I’m being slow to quit on Albertos, but arms as talented as his don’t grow on trees. The big Mexican right-hander had his second consecutive lost season in 2019, throwing just 14.1 innings in eight games. He pitched 6.2 more innings this winter, and combined, walked 21 in 21 innings. It’s generally showing as 20 fastball command on the 20-80 scale, and until the mechanical and mental-game issues that produce that number improve, he’s scraping the bottom of my system top 69. (Acquired: IFA, 2015)
Bailey Clark, RHP, 25, Tennessee (Stats). The issue that’s followed Bailey around for much of his career was still an issue in 2019: he doesn’t miss bats at the rate his stuff suggests it should. Clark was up to 98 mph in the summer with Tennessee, and has the build to sustain that number going forward, and will flash good sliders. But while right-handed hitters struck out just 15.8% of the time against Clark, they still only managed to hit .188/.308/.248 against him. I’m intrigued by the change below, might it unlock the whiffs? (Acquired: 5th round, 2016)
As pointed out by @CubsRelated, it looks like Clark has shortened his arm path. I don’t have great video from 2019 to compare it to, but in the thread we have a 2018 highlight, and here you have a side by side with yesterday’s video against Clark in 2017. Lots of changes. pic.twitter.com/b8oTE3FDwD
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) January 29, 2020
Oscar De La Cruz, RHP, 25, Tennessee (Stats). It took until June 12, and an outrighting off the 40-man roster, for the Cubs to try their longtime highly ranked prospect in the bullpen. And it worked: 37.1 IP, 32 H, 3.86 ERA, 9 BB, 49 K. The walk rate there is what I find so encouraging, as ODLC won’t need to discover his velocity of four years ago (he’s more likely to top 94 than 97) to make an impact. The fastball is heavy, and the starter background gives him enough comfort with the three-pitch mix to keep hitters on their toes. (Acquired: IFA, 2012(!))
At the ballpark tonight checking out #Cubs pitching prospect Oscar De La Cruz. FB 90-94 with mid-70s CB and mid 80s CH. Struggled early finding CB release point and lives down with 2-seam FB. Great angles. FB played some up. CH could play too. pic.twitter.com/qxtwUrifVK
— Chris Blessing (@C_Blessing) May 11, 2019
Ben Hecht, RHP, 25, Tennessee (Stats). A guy that jumped out in Spring Training last year as someone who had added to his fastball over the winter, and then he backed it up with a dominant regular season. Hecht’s slider will play at the highest level. Something I’m watching closely: Hecht had a 1.86 ERA and 30% K rate in Double-A going into the last two weeks, and then was a disaster in his last four outings (5 H, 6 BB, 1 K vs 23 batters). I want to make sure he’s healthy and doing his thing again, just to ease my mind. (Acquired: IFA, 12th round, 2017)
Someone to watch this year: Ben Hecht. Last year at SB: 55.1 IP, 42 H, 4.23 ERA, 29 BB, 59 K. Killer vs RHH, not vs LHH. Killer slider. I saw FB this spring up to 94 with good spin. And then a very diff pitch at 90 (with low spin). Could have big yr in MB bullpen.
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) March 22, 2019
Ryan Lawlor, LHP, 26, Tennessee (Stats). At the end of July, these were Ryan Lawlor’s numbers in his 10 weeks at High-A: 19.1 IP, 12 H, 2.33 ERA, 6 BB, 36 K. That he wasn’t promoted to Tennessee for the final month of the season remains one of the most confusing things that happened on the player development side. He was simply too good for A-ball, and it was obvious pretty much all season. He never allowed a batting average above .196 in any single month. Lawlor’s curveball is among the organization’s best, and as he gets to the highest levels, my hope is that he throws it more and more. (Acquired: Signed from Indy ball, 2018)
Trevor Megill, RHP, 26, Chicago (Stats). The Cubs waived Travis Lakins this week to make room for Jeremy Jeffress, which sadly took our prospect list from 69 to 68. It’s possible that if Megill, a Rule 5 pick, doesn’t make the team out of Spring Training that the Cubs lose him, too. This is just how things go with minor league relievers, even ones as promising as Megill. I’m half-expecting the Cubs and Padres to make a trade so the Cubs can retain Megill’s services unencumbered by the Rule 5 process.
Presenting my favorite curve, my favorite slider, and the my favorite fastball that Cubs Rule 5 pick Trevor Megill threw in 2019. Note: they aren’t all like this! Fastball is usually 91-93, not the 97 here. Curve is usually a strike pitch, not a chase pitch. Still these are fun. pic.twitter.com/zh7QeNnhRf
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) December 13, 2019
Dakota Mekkes, RHP, 25, Iowa (Stats). I have made the case for Mekkes before, and so I won’t do it again besides to just say that I think he’s a pretty safe bet to be a successful specialist in the bigs. That being said, he simply needs to throw more strikes, as he’ll have a hard time winning over managers with the combination of lower-than-average velocity and below-average command. First impressions can be so important with young relievers, and Mekkes will have to show David Ross quickly that he can come into runners-on-base situations and not give out free passes to make matters worse. (Acquired: 10th Round, 2016)
To show my (crazy) work, here’s every pitch Mekkes threw at home in Aug. FB was as low as 88 and as high as 96 but lives 91-92. CH in 82-83 range and SL in the 77-79 range. Loves high FBs, command better than BB rate indicates. Nibbles, SL needs work. pic.twitter.com/SDG4gi3zKj
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) November 14, 2019
James Norwood, RHP, 26, Iowa (Stats). While he’s spent plenty of time with the big league team the last two seasons, I always found it a bit odd that Joe Maddon never seemed to trust Norwood in a non-blowout situation. I think it might be selling him short. Norwood’s strikeouts took a huge leap last year in Iowa, including 21 of the last 52 AAA batters he faced. I loved this article about Norwood’s active spin rates, because while I think his split-change is good (and better than the piece comes down on it), I do think his breaking ball needs to take one more step forward if he’s going to make it. (Acquired: 7th Round, 2014)
#Cubs Prospect Thread: RHP James Norwood
One of the org's breakout performers in 2018 and among those generating talk early in spring training this season, Norwood added velocity but more importantly a viable offspeed pitch as he made the jump from AA to the Majors last year. 1/ pic.twitter.com/yF65Dgbg9q
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) February 24, 2019
Ethan Roberts, RHP, 22, Myrtle Beach (Stats). If you’re a believer in the spin rate movement, you’re a fan of Roberts. He has some of the highest fastball and breaking ball spin numbers in the organization, and he combines it with the organization’s best control. He didn’t walk a batter between June 10 and July 31, and issues just two free passes in the second half. Roberts is very undersized and doesn’t throw particularly hard (88-92), which are two of those things that are limiting factors in how much rope you’re given, but not necessarily limiting in how successful you can be. (Acquired: 4th Round, 2018)
Manny Rodriguez, RHP, 23, Tennessee (Stats). I still can’t believe the Cubs did it, adding him to the 40-man roster a year after he posted a 7.59 ERA in Low-A South Bend. But Rodriguez was really good last year, and I think there’s organizational belief that something clicked that is allowing him to throw strikes more reliably. But Rodriguez is not on the 40-man because of his numbers, it’s because the Cubs self-scouted a guy that is throwing 97 mph sinkers and power curveballs and they were too afraid to lose that kind of talent. I love it. (Acquired: IFA, 2016)
Introduction to Manuel Rodriguez: a positively plus power curveball. pic.twitter.com/MuQe9WQEXL
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) November 21, 2019