Because of the way the second half of last week played out, it feels like the Cubs’ signing of righty Kohl Stewart got short-shrift. I wanted to add a little more context and info to the move.
Stewart is kind of an odd bird when it comes to signings. He’s not really being signed to be a sure-fire rotation competition piece, since he didn’t pitch at all in 2020 (opted out), and has limited big league experience before that. He’s not really a mere minor league signing, though, because he has more pedigree and upside than you usually see in those deals. Oh, and also, it quite literally isn’t a minor league signing. Stewart got a spot on the 40-man roster, and a big league split deal that’ll pay him $700,000 when he’s in the majors, and $150,000 when he’s in the minors (AP). In other words, he got quite a bit more of an enticement than a typical minor league signing.
To that end, when I think of where to categorize Stewart as one of the Cubs’ pitchers going forward, I kinda feel like he’s more of an experienced prospect than anything else. He’s roughly in that same age range as the Cubs’ AAA starting options (26), he’s still got minor league options left, and, again, his big league experience is really limited (barely 60 innings total between 2018 and 2019).
The Cubs signed another AAA starting-ish pitching prospect, joining the Tyson Miller, Cory Abbott, Keegan Thompson, Justin Steele-type group. That’s pretty much the better conception of this one.
And even from there, it’s more a scouting/transformation play than grabbing a guy you have high confidence in his ability to contribute, because the reality is that Stewart hasn’t actually even been all that productive at AAA or AA in recent years:
So you see the results there, including atrocious strikeout and walk rates, even in the minors, and you’re like … how is this guy getting a big league deal and being viewed as a prospect type who might still have upside?
Well, again, it’s because scouts have liked Stewart from his young days, which made him the 4th overall pick in 2013 draft, and saw him befuddle batters with weak contact in the lower minors even when he was a teenager.
Sometimes a guy has all the things you look for and just doesn’t put it all together in the results department. But if you get a chance to get the bones into a new organization and maybe put your own stamp on the development? When the upside is what the scouts can all see? Sure, it’s easily worth taking a relatively low-cost chance. You’re talking about a guy who has used SIX pitches in the big leagues already – it’s not at all hard to imagine playing with that pitch mix, tightening it up, and improving just one or two pitches, and suddenly you have something.
Consider some data points that Brendan Miller got into over at Cubs Insider: Stewart’s curveball moves more than 93% of all curveballs, and his changeup drops more than 90% of other changeups. The curveball also put up 79th percentile spin in 2019, per Statcast. And his slider has actually been his most valuable pitch in the big leagues, with a value per 100 pitches that would actually place it among the top 20 starters in baseball if he’d thrown enough to qualify. He netted whiffs on it 1/3 of the time he threw it.
You don’t just put up movement like that or get results like that if you don’t have some talent. For whatever reason, though, Stewart has barely thrown those pitches in the big leagues, instead going extremely heavy with his two-seamer. That’s netted him a solid groundball rate and limited homers (thus he’s a FIP-beater), but if you have wipeout pitches available to you, maybe they can be deployed a little more aggressively? Not that you need to get him out of his zone as a contact manager – Cubs obviously have had a lot of success with those guys – but it’s hard for me to accept that a guy with a variety of nasty pitches is putting up a 12.7% strikeout rate(!).
The more I dig in on Stewart, the more I really think the Cubs hit a home run with this signing. By that, I do not mean he’s likely to contribute, let alone break out. There’s a reason he was freely available, and didn’t even get $1 million+ to sign. Instead, I mean that if you are an organization that now fancies itself able to get the most out of pitchers who haven’t quite gotten it to click in other organizations, then landing a guy who clearly has so much talent – and so much pitch diversity – is a big win. Get Stewart in the door, put him in the Pitch Lab, and see how he’s looking at AAA Iowa by midseason.
Or, heck, see what happens if he’s tightened up to a two-or-three-pitch mix and cranks up the fastball in relief …
In any case, what’s nicest about the Stewart signing is that if you do manage to unlock a little something and he becomes a productive big leaguer, he can remain under team control for up to five seasons.