I’m going to my first White Sox game in what has to be three or four years today, and of course it’s kismet that Dylan Cease is on the mound for Chicago. I’ve long been a fan of the short right-hander, but I also haven’t paid a ton of attention to his development since leaving the Cubs organization. It’s a bit hard to fathom, for instance, that his highest whiff rates are coming on the slider and changeup. Not what I thought when I was dreaming on that fastball-curve combination five years ago.
Let’s break down the day in the minors for the Cubs …
Five: Ian Miller (and a little on P.J. Higgins and Shelby Miller)
I’m going to talk about Higgins out of the jump here, as he is the hottest hitter in the Cubs organization right now. So far in this series against St. Paul, Higgins has reached in 14 of his 23 plate appearances. He has an equal number of walks and strikeouts this year, but if you take out the season’s first two games, it jumps to eight walks versus just four strikeouts. Higgins is taking pitches during plate appearances that showcase his comfort right now, and when he swings, he’s taking the ball where it’s pitched (as evidenced by a 50% opposite field rate).
I do think Higgins is probably banging at the Major League door now, particularly as Tony Wolters gets more and more exposed in his back-up catcher role. Higgins is a minor league free agent at season’s end, meaning if not added to the 40-man roster before November, he can walk. I don’t think you want to risk it. But I do want to note that the urgency here is probably dampened a bit by his defense: base stealers are 8-for-9 off Higgins this year. His receiving isn’t nearly as rough as it showed in Spring Training, but a lot of his future might come down to the Cubs internal pitch-framing metrics on him (Brett: and I would add, if he can really rake, the ability to play other positions could wind up making him a passably unique utility guy, even if not a true back-up catcher).
We’ll touch on the Millers quickly here. Ian had his first multi-hit game of the season, and amazingly, also swiped his first bag. The 29-year-old has been striking out at an uncharacteristically high rate this year, and has been particularly exposed against southpaws. Fewer strikeouts, more steal attempts is what his resume needs. Shelby Miller’s second rehab start didn’t go quite as well at the first (part of a no-hitter), but still very solid: 3.1 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 4 K. He threw 37 strikes in 64 total pitches, and threw a first-pitch strike to 10 of the 17 batters faced. Velocity was a little higher.
Second MLB rehab appearance for Shelby Miller in an @IowaCubs uniform is complete: 3.1 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 4 K, 3 BB. 7.1 IP with 0 ER and 9 K's overall in two outings.
Has looked pretty sharp overall. Fastball velocity was 94-96 tonight.
— Alex Cohen (@voiceofcohen) May 16, 2021
It will be interesting how much longer the Cubs front office can convince Miller to continue his rehab assignment, but with those three walks (and how good Keegan Thompson looked last night), I’d definitely suggest one more.
Four: Vance Vizcaino
I’m going to touch on Vizcaino as part of the outfield group that had the top spot. See number 1.
Three: Ryan Jensen and D.J. Herz
Two: Manny Espinoza
I grouped the starting pitchers together here. While Espinoza has been the best overall contributor of this group, I’m going to focus on the other two more highly-regarded pitching prospects here. Jensen and Herz are all still on very conservative pitch counts this early in the year, so yesterday had a pair of short outings: Jensen allowed one run over 4, Herz pitched 2.1 scoreless.
Jensen’s start wasn’t streamed, so I can’t speak with first-hand knowledge of his outing, other than to say it was a lot more comfortable than his first. Todd of Cubs Insider was there, and he talked about how fastball-heavy Jensen is right now (a notion that Jensen himself noted in media day when he was asked to describe himself as a pitcher and he said “a lot of fastballs”). In the first start last week that was a problem, but yesterday the sinker clearly played better: seven groundouts, no fly outs.
We haven’t quite seen the electricity from Jensen that we’d like from a top ten prospect in the system, but he did strike out the side in his final inning last night. I’m hopeful he’s a guy that will improve as the weather does.
Jensen in slo mo pic.twitter.com/eJuIalSPGX
— Todd ⚾️🐻 (@CubsCentral08) May 16, 2021
In some ways, I’m more excited right now about lefty D.J. Herz, who has probably flown up my own personal prospect list this year more than any player in the system not named Cam Sanders. That electricity I’ve been looking for in Jensen? Herz is showing it in Low-A, particularly with his fastball that has tons of late life (and given how seamlessly Justin Steele has translated that quality into Major League success, that’s a really big box to check for me). Herz battled his control in the first inning yesterday, the lone bugaboo in both outings so far, as it has taken him awhile to find a groove in release point consistency. The delivery is a lot of legs, and he throws across his body, so repeatability is the question here. But when it works, right now it’s producing some of the most uncomfortable swings from opposing hitters as anyone in the farm system.
I’m hyped on Herz, and so I’ll drop this tease at the end of the section: if the control is manageable, I think he ends 2021 as a top 10 prospect in the system.
One: Jonathan Sierra and D.J. Artis
These two leading the charge in the farm system yesterday really highlighted for me how decimated the outfield position has been from an injury perspective in 2021. Sierra just joined Low-A Myrtle Beach after starting the season in Extended Spring Training, and Artis spent a week with the Iowa Cubs as a fill-in (for Nick Martini) before joining High-A as a fill-in (for D.J. Wilson).
The Iowa Cubs are missing Michael Hermosillo and Trent Giambrone as outfielders right now. Tennessee is missing Alfonso Rivas, Jared Young, Brennen Davis, and Zach Davis. South Bend is without Wilson and Nelson Velazquez. And Myrtle Beach saw Jordan Nwogu suffer a minor injury right after they lost Darius Hill (who went to Tennessee to fill-in for Davis). It’s a whirlwind.
So it’s impressive when guys just step up. Artis led off for South Bend last night and was a dynamo, reaching base three times and stealing three bases. Sierra had 4 RBI in the Pelicans 5-1 win, both on line drive singles to the outfield. The former bonus baby was one of the most disappointing players in 2019 as he just didn’t tap into his physicality at all, so more hard hit balls with positive launch angles would be a welcome improvement. And a shout out to Vance Vizcaino’s home run for Double-A Tennessee, where he has just two strikeouts in 25 plate appearances so far.
2-run single for Jonathan Sierra in his first AB of the season. Pelicans lead 3-0 pic.twitter.com/q54jByQKdW
— Jordan Miller (@Miller_MiLB) May 15, 2021
One good injury note to end things on: sources tell me Brennen Davis recently cleared concussion protocol after being hit in the face by a baseball in Spring Training, so he should be headed out to Tennessee after a few live at-bats in the next week or so.