We should know going in – it should be baked in as an assumption to this post! – that the odds of any Cubs big league Rule 5 selection sticking long-term in the organization is very unlikely. Rule 5 pick Gray Fenter probably ends up a trivia question answer and not a significant contributor, but what’s the fun in pointing out the realities? And, hey, the Cubs did pick him for a reason, right?
I find it more fun to go through the process of attempting to reverse engineer the Cubs fascination with the Orioles prospect. What drew them to spend $100,000 to select him? Unfortunately, just three of Fenter’s 2019 appearances were captured on MiLB.tv video (and, of course, none in 2020), giving me a small video “scouting” sample. But I did watch them all, and those 45 batters faced did provide some insight on Fenter’s strengths and weaknesses.
Here’s my take on the soon-to-be 25-year-old righty (and the minor league Rule 5 picks below that).
Biographical Information: An above-slot seventh round selection in the 2015 Draft, Fenter passed on a commitment to Mississippi State University to sign with Baltimore for $1 million and begin his professional career. The next spring, Fenter suffered an elbow injury that led to Tommy John surgery and cost him the 2016 season.
If I could criticize the Orioles, it seems they were too conservative with Fenter in the years following his return. Baltimore demoted Fenter in 2018 after 14 mixed appearances for Low-A Delmarva, where he still had a 3.92 FIP, choosing instead to have him finish the season in the short-season Aberdeen rotation.
In 2019, Fenter had an absolutely dominant season with Delmarva as a starter, posting a 1.81 ERA in 94.1 innings with an 11.7 K/9. The Orioles decision to never promote Fenter at least to High-A was bizarre, as he cruised to a sub-one ERA in his final eight appearances (which include a 13-K performance in the South Atlantic League playoffs).
The Cubs selected Gray Fenter from the Orioles Triple-A roster.
Fenter had a 13 K playoff performance in Single-A Delmarva in 2019.pic.twitter.com/1urYrB9XPl
— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) December 10, 2020
Body and Delivery: Fenter is listed at six-feet and 200 pounds, which seems accurate, and I don’t think you can prescribe a ton of muscle development hopes to his scouting report. He’s mostly maxed out developmentally, specifically in the lower body.
Fenter has a slow delivery with a long arm action, his arm goes straight back while he leans on his backside towards first base, before releasing over-the-top with his arm strength supplying most of the velocity. When he touches the higher end of his velocity range, you feel as though he’s literally reaching back and giving it all he’s got. I wonder if the Cubs see some potential in speeding Fenter’s delivery tempo or moving the momentum of his body more downhill.
Fastball: Unfortunately, only one Fenter 2019 start came on a feed connected to a radar gun. He was 90-95 mph with the fastball in that outing (the final of the regular season), which the broadcasters noted corresponded with the Trackman data they were privy to. The key will be living at the top end of this range, with the potential delivery changes above hopefully allowing the mid 90s more often than not.
Fenter’s manager in Delmarva credited the right-hander for his ability to spin, and you can see it in the life he gets on high fastballs. Fenter’s height and spin rates should allow for a flatter than average Vertical Approach Angle, despite his over-the-top release point, which could be effective. Given that he doesn’t seem to have much success generating significant natural movement on the fastball, you can expect the Cubs ask Fenter to pitch far more often high in the strike zone. The problem is: his command with the fastball comes and goes. He’ll need it to be on point in Spring Training to stick.
Curveball: The go-to pitch in Fenter’s arsenal is a hammer curveball; it’s either 12-to-6 or 11-to-5, as your mileage may vary. The good news is that Fenter snaps the hell out of it, and I can tell without seeing the data that he achieves relatively elite spin with the pitch. It befuddled South Atlantic League hitters, and if you told me that the Cubs R&D department found it to be one of 2019 minor league baseball’s more valuable pitches, I would believe you.
Fenter can bury the curve with two strikes, but it’s most effective when it freezes the hitter and generates a called strike. In his final regular season outing from 2019, Fenter sat down a half-dozen hitters looking with the curve, showing little more than that he didn’t belong at the level anymore. But I’ll say this: even against Major League hitters, Fenter’s curve is a plus pitch.
Slider: Not a regular part of his arsenal until late in 2019, I thought this quote from his 2019 manager really signals how huge the slider is for Fenter.
He’s developing the other two: a changeup and slider. We would always remind him to throw those pitches and he did a great job of owning it and throwing the pitches. Next thing you know, his slider showed up and then he had three (plus pitches). He was special. That slider never got squared up.
I had a limited number of viewings on Fenter’s slider, but the quality ranged from below- to above-average, even within the same at-bat. If I had to guess where the Cubs are forecasting the biggest difference they can make, it’s a curiosity about how their Pitch Lab (and coaching infrastructure) work could provide consistency with the slider. I wouldn’t be shocked to hear of a grip change, or something along those lines. Because I’ll tell you, when the slider takes the burden off the curveball to be a late-count pitch, the whole arsenal becomes available with two strikes. It’s the pitch his ultimate success hinges on.
Change: If Fenter were a young prospect, I would note here that I saw two good changeups with the exact fade shape he was going for. The problem is, I also saw a few that weren’t up to his standard, and I have to expect the pitch won’t be utilized at the Major League level (at least in 2021).
Projection: The curveball is Major League quality, but the rest of the arsenal comes and goes too often for a great deal of confidence. The foundation is there to make the pick work, but the Cubs will need Fenter to be playful with different slider grips, be open to upping his time pitching up in the zone, all while commanding the fastball at a Major League quality level. It feels a bit like asking too much, but when you see what the curveball does to hitters, you really want to believe it could happen.
Gray Fenter was 11th in the South Atlantic League in 2019 with a 15.6 SwStr% (min 60 IP).
That SwStr rate would have ranked second in the Cubs farm system (stateside leagues only) behind Brailyn Marquez.
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) December 10, 2020
MINOR LEAGUE PHASE RULE 5 PICKS
Remember: as opposed to the Major League phase, the Cubs don’t need to keep either of these players at a certain level for a certain length of time. They are now members of the Cubs organization until eligible for minor league free agency, no matter where the Cubs ultimately assign them.
Nicholas Padilla, RHP, via Tampa Bay
Padilla’s best strength is his feel for the breaking ball, which he spins really naturally and sometimes seems to throw as often as 50% of the time. The pitch has good depth, but the sharpness of the break comes and goes. In my four-outing viewing of Padilla I saw a few breaking balls with sharp late horizontal movement, but generally it was typical fare.
The fastball was anywhere from 88-95 on different stadium guns, and it occasionally showed some nice late sink, but generally is was just an OK 92. A changeup in the mid 80s is decidedly below average. He’ll be in the mix for a High-A bullpen spot, but I have to admit that my instinct is that I prefer the other names that I’ve chosen for that spot on the depth chart.
Samuel Reyes, RHP, via Pittsburgh
I far prefer the Reyes selection to the Padilla one when given the choice. Reyes is a weird build, listed at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, looking like a mix between professional athlete and boy wearing his father’s jersey. Reyes has good athleticism for a pitcher with some quick-twitch, so it’s not surprising that a fluid arm leads to 92-94 mph velocity. At his height, you can expect the Cubs will be looking to flatten that vertical approach angle and ask him to live up in the zone.
He also shows a breaking ball with significant horizontal movement, where his feel for spin is good, but his feel on command seems inconsistent.
Reyes was a late bloomer, not joining pro ball until age 21, so I think it’s worth the investment to see if there’s one more developmental leap forward waiting to happen. But competition for the Double-A Tennessee bullpen will be stout.