While injuries were the unfortunate (but not unexpected) story for the month of May, the first month of minor league baseball in nearly two years did offer plenty of intrigue. So today, we’ll step back and analyze which May performances could have the biggest impact on Cubs prospect rankings.
D.J. Herz Is Probably the Cubs Fourth or Fifth Best Pitching Prospect
I know it seems reactionary to move a guy up 20-25 spots on twelve innings, but the eye test was overwhelming with Herz’ first four appearances in Myrtle Beach. The body has changed, the velocity is better and the secondaries are both improved; what more can you ask for? While the cross-body delivery does leave open some command and even injury concerns moving forward, it also adds some deception that play up his stuff. I don’t expect the Cubs to mess with it too much outside of helping him achieve greater release point consistency.
Herz has the natural life to his fastball that has made Justin Steele an instant success in the Majors, and coaches (and fellow pitchers) have raved to me about how fast he picked up a changeup. I bet in time we’ll see some work on a two-seam fastball and a cutter/slider, but the Cubs will be careful to not layer too much on too quickly here. This development will be slow and deliberate over the next four seasons, and you’ve seen the kid gloves already with Herz yet to exceed 60 pitches in a single outing. While patience will be required, I think we’re talking about a guy that has a #2 SP ceiling and a high LHRP floor. And that makes for one heck of a prospect.
…And Cam Sanders Is Probably Next After That
What a fantastic job Sanders did getting ready for the 2021 season, instantly answering the bell on his aggressive Double-A assignment with a big first month. Sanders struck out one-third of the right-handed hitters he faced in the first month, but was arguably even better against left-handed hitters. The potential is there for a midseason bump to Triple-A Iowa, and that puts him firmly in the mix to go and win an MLB rotation spot in 2022.
Between now and then, Sanders still probably has to settle on the most effective gameplan for his strengths and weaknesses. The fastball is the clear best offering, and I’m telling you right now to not be surprised when you hear him touch 100 mph in a start this summer. But how to mix it up from there? The slider consistency has varied from start to start, and Sanders hasn’t all-the-way embraced the changeup like I might want him to. But in every start he’s been able to adjust and adapt with the offerings that are best on that day, which suggest a mound intelligence that will help him reach his ceiling.
Ben Leeper Has Jumped Behind Burl in Reliever Rankings
From what I’ve been told behind the scenes, it’s not the results that Leeper has achieved that are most exciting to the Cubs, it’s the numbers his fastball and slider register on a Rapsodo/Trackman that give optimism that this guy could probably succeed at the highest level right now. The slider, specifically, is probably the best in the farm system.
Here’s what I’ve enjoyed the most about Leeper. His two-pitch mix is so good and also under control, he can jump between throwing five straight fastballs to throwing five straight sliders. You can’t sit on either pitch in any count, so it’s just up to Leeper and his catcher to figure out what the opposing hitter isn’t expecting.
But Let’s Not Lose Sight that Michael Rucker and Dakota Mekkes Are Still Relevant Potential MLB Contributors
It’s hard to see the exact scenario where Rucker and Mekkes break through into the Majors this year but let’s credit them with forcing the issue early on. Rucker has been up to 96 mph with the fastball and mixing four different secondaries into even short relief appearances. My two favorite of those have been the cutter (that was a developmental focus in South Bend) and a plus changeup, so I’m not shocked he’s been a reverse platoon guy (.411 OPS vs LHH, .769 vs RHH) thus far.
Mekkes, meanwhile, has been as locked into his control as ever, with a 2.9 BB/9 that would be his lowest since rookie ball. The podcast star has worked hard to improve and commit to throwing his slider (79-84 mph) and changeup (83-86 mph), but they’re still mostly decoys to sit up the 91-95 mph fastball that plays as plus due to Mekkes’ elite extension.
Nelson Velazquez Is Tapping Into His Power Ceiling
When I saw Velazquez in 2019, I was worried that he was out-growing his athleticism to stick in center field but unable to hit for the power he’d need to survive in a corner spot. The classic tweener profile. So it’s a credit to Velazquez that he’s come out of the gate in 2021 showing more power than ever before, and also hunting for it in a smart way.
While sometimes the answer for a prospect is to use the whole field more, or hit the ball on a line for, the Cubs know they can’t afford a One Size Fits All offensive philosophy. They’ve allowed Velazquez to look for fastballs to pull in the air, and he’s doing both those things at career-high rates. The walk and strikeout numbers will both have to get better for Velazquez to achieve long-term success (and they’d probably make me resistant to throw him in a top 30 quite yet) but you can’t fault a guy for swinging a lot during a hot streak. It’s how Velazquez fights through the inevitable slumps that will be the best insight into his true offensive profile.
• I’ll be honest here that I simply don’t know how to talk about Darius Hill, Levi Jordan or Grayson Byrd as prospects yet. My instinct is we need to see these offensive steps forward last a little longer. The Injured List in Tennessee is going to give Jordan the opportunity to show he can survive at shortstop, while Byrd has pitched in at all of the other three infield spots. Success in those arenas would really help raise the MLB bench profile. I probably feel the best about Hill, whose quick hands in a simple left-handed swing suggest his contact skills could hold up against even MLB right-handed pitchers. But I still don’t think I’d suggest the potential is there for more than a Des Moines – Chicago shuttle fifth outfielder quite yet.
• While Cayne Ueckert and Scott Kobos were probably the two best (or maybe most consistent?) relievers in May, the one that left me with the most future optimism was Brandon Hughes. I love having a plus athlete on the mound when you’re talking non-typical release points, and Hughes has tapped into that former-outfielder past to help stay consistent controlling mid 90s heat from his three-quarter slot. Just promoted to Double-A, the Cubs are going to test Hughes here as they gather more information in what’s shaping up to be an interesting November decision: whether to protect Hughes from the Rule 5 Draft or not.
• I just reviewed Sam Thoresen in our last Five Stars, where I said his breaking ball is already one of the best in the organization. I’m not sure he can yet be taken too seriously as a MLB prospect until he succeeds at a higher level, but the pitch characteristics are such to believe it will happen.