The last time Keegan Thompson pitched for a full-season Cubs affiliate was April 6, 2019, 756 days ago. I wrote up the start, which featured the best array of curveballs I’d seen Thompson throw in the Cubs organization, not expecting that shoulder soreness would effectively end his 2019 season. He popped back up in late August in the AZL for two rehab appearances, and then did make up for lost time with a full season in the Arizona Fall League. Then 2020 happened.
But today, he’s a big leaguer, called up to swap out Kyle Ryan as the Cubs need arms.
I didn’t hear much about Keegan during 2020 at the Alternate Training Site, and before last year’s deadline to protect players from the Rule 5 Draft, I wrote: “While I don’t think Keegan Thompson is particularly likely to get protected, he also might be the one left off with the best odds of getting drafted.” Well, the Cubs did protect Thompson by adding him to the 40-man roster, and then they were less quiet about the steps forward he’d made in 2020. I was told he had arrived to Spring Training 2020 sporting career-best velocity numbers, and that his slider (once a distant fourth pitch) had evolved that summer into more of a cutter that was now a fully-integrated secondary offering.
During the first half of Spring Training, Thompson was the Cubs’ best starting pitching prospect in camp, showing 97 mph on the gun and the plus curveball that has been his calling card since his Auburn days. He did fall flat during his first opportunity to start a ST game, allowing six baserunners and four runs while just recording four outs against the Angels big league lineup. That was an ugly day, but not enough to quell the optimism from the Cubs brass about the gains the right-hander has made.
We’d previously heard Thompson was on the taxi squad for this road trip, ahead of reporting to his assignment in the Triple-A Iowa rotation, but he joins the Cubs bullpen today as a long reliever (as concern about Zach Davies ability to pitch far into the ballgame lingers). The Cubs will have four homegrown pitchers (Alzolay, Steele, Maples) on their pitching staff today, which must be the highest that number has been in a long time.
Thompson was a third-round pick in the 2017 draft out of Auburn (kudos to scout Alex McClure for the pick) where he’d finished a decorated 250 inning, 2.46 ERA career for the Tigers. There were questions whether his stuff had rebounded enough after Tommy John surgery that cost him the 2016 season, but the Cubs were betting on a return to form.
Today, Thompson’s stuff is in the best shape of his career, as he can bring four above-average offerings to the table on the right day. His fastball has been 93-98 mph recently, sources tell me, but I’d describe the life on the pitch as generally average. Given his 6-foot-1 frame it will play best up in the zone, but locating the pitch to that third is not easy, and a real key for his success. Thompson’s had good control dating back to high school, but will we have to see the impact that increased velocity and the nerves of a Major League debut have on fastball command.
It’s my assumption that the curveball will be his main secondary, and a pitch that I’d think Tony Wolters will call if Thompson seems out of sorts. It’s been his calling card dating back to Auburn and should play off high four-seamers well. I’d say that it gets good vertical break with average sharpness (flashing plus at times), and one that he can bury in the dirt and throw for a strike early in the count.
Keegan Thompson will end up going two years between full season starts, but this was how he looked the last time he did. Five hitless innings, with his curveball in the best condition it had been during his pro career. Cubs have had many looks at him since this game; we have not. pic.twitter.com/InLHvYkhZt
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) November 23, 2020
But it’s worth noting that Jim Callis, in Thompson’s scouting report at MLB Pipeline, suggested Thompson’s slider/cutter has “surpassed” the curve as his main breaking ball. I believe the pitch is now up to the mid 80s with more horizontal action, and we’re likeliest to see it on that gloveside corner (perhaps also up in the zone). Thompson also can flash a good changeup, a pitch that took a big step forward during his rehab and subsequent AFL stint in 2019. I captured this one during Spring Training, which is the pitch at its best, though it’s worth noting he allowed a home run shortly after on a changeup he left a little higher. Location is key there.
Oddly the only recent video I have of Thompson is of his changeup, either his third or fourth offering depending on the day/match-up. This is the best version of that pitch. pic.twitter.com/rdlwV6Whzw
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) May 1, 2021
While the stuff has definitely ticked up over the years, that March outing does linger in my mind, as the margin for error between an above-average and fringy arsenal can be very small in the Majors. I would think with the knowledge that he’s unlikely to face a hitter more than once, Thompson will be more free to let loose and be less pragmatic than we might see him down the line as a starter. Spot the fastball, get ahead in the count, and go with whatever of the three secondaries looked the best in the bullpen. I’m very interested to see how his advancements during the past two years work on the biggest stage. If they play, that’s a big win for the Cubs player development staff.