Notes on the Last Week in the Cubs Farm System: Stock, Aliendo, Jensen, Velazquez and More
The last time I went on a golf trip was in September 2019, when a trip to Southern California led us to San Diego for the Cubs-Padres series … which just happened to be, by complete luck, Nico Hoerner’s debut. So imagine my surprise (and delight) when, on Saturday, I found out on the 13th hole that Cory Abbott had been called up, with a debut likely during the only Cubs game on our Northern California itinerary. That was fun; should we do it with Brennen next year, Jed?
When Cory debuts you gotta sneak close pic.twitter.com/ANFKS7IMjP
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) June 6, 2021
I’ll tell you, though, I’ve had a heck of a time getting back into the swing of things since returning. Notes have been piling up in my head, and I’m just going to throw them into a post here, and then try and resume our usual Five Stars day-to-day(ish) posts moving forward.
Moving Into the Rotation
Brett touched on Robert Stock during this morning’s bullets, but I want to highlight further what he’s done. Triple-A Iowa has been ravaged by injuries, DFAs, and call-ups this season. And out of pure necessity, a decision was made last week to try Stock in the rotation. His June 3 outing was his first time getting 12 outs in a little less than seven years, his 19 batters faced last night the most in more than seven years. And the performance in those two starts has been pretty solid: 8 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 8 K.
I watched the third and fourth innings of his start yesterday to see how the stuff was holding up after crossing the 50-pitch mark. And the news was good: Stock was 97-100 in those two innings (he touched 101 to end the first). I think there’s an interesting option being explored here: a “starter” made to just go through the order two times. Would the Cubs explore this at the big league level? Good for Stock getting us to ask the question.
• I found it noteworthy that 2019 seventh-round pick Brad Deppermann moved from the bullpen to the rotation last week, as that was quick work by the player development team to acknowledge some unresolved upside. The righty was up to 98 mph out of the bullpen and 96 mph (on stadium guns) in Friday’s start, where he mostly threw fastballs in allowing zero earned runs over four innings. There are two distinct fastballs, and occasionally one takes on the look of a cutter (I think it’s just a four seam with cut action), and I did see a slider and changeup mixed in. We’ll keep an eye on him.
• Joe Nahas worked hard during 2020 to feel confident in a four-pitch mix, and that work paid off as he was asked to join the Low-A Myrtle Beach rotation after a successful stint in the bullpen. Nahas has some funk to the delivery that makes me think the bullpen is the long-term home, but I like the idea of exploring his durability out to 60-80 pitches.
A year ago, I would have never guessed that Pablo Aliendo would thrust himself into a significant catching role for Low-A Myrtle Beach, but credit to the guy for continuing to carve out a role for himself. He’s hitting an insane .515 during a nine-game hitting streak, which has been heavily fueled by BABIP, but let’s also credit hard contact. Aliendo has a 42.5 LD% that leads all Low-A East hitters with more than 60 plate appearances. The strikeout rate has to get better, but a combination of good athleticism and a quick bat for a young catcher is super intriguing.
• I think Nelson Velazquez’ home run last night might be my favorite for any Cubs prospect this season so far. Look how easy he goes to right center! The big story here is Nelson’s move to from a 36 FB% in 2019 to 52% this year, which I’m guessing is a result of moving his contact point a little more out in front. It’s letting Velazquez tap into his raw power, which was something I worried about in the past. The plate discipline has a ways to go, but this change is significant and not to be skipped over.
• On the other side of that coin is Yohendrick Pinango, whom Brett touched on the other day as one of the system’s hottest hitters. He’s flown up my own prospect list this year, succeeding while being the youngest in every pitcher-batter match-up he’s had. If I have any reservation, it’s that 66.7 GB%, where I’m almost reminded of a guy I covered in college way back: Dustin Ackley. You love the natural oppo-gap approach, but for a guy with natural strength like Pinango, you wonder how coaches can achieve a balance between contact and impactful contact.
• Hopefully Javy Baez is fine and no Injured List trip is necessary, but it’s worth pointing out that the two shortstop options at Triple-A Iowa have played a really nice last few games. Andrew Romine might be the system’s hottest hitter over the last 9 games: .467/.556/.733 with just three strikeouts in 37 PA. This from a guy that had a .416 OPS during his first 19 games. And shouts to Dee Gordon for looking really comfortable quickly in Des Moines. (Quick note that center fielder Michael Hermosillo is again healthy and playing well out the gate for Iowa, which is good to see, as I was impressed with his work in big league Spring Training.)
Entirely Random Notes
• Ryan Jensen is alternating between dominant and shaky outings in High-A, with five no-hit innings last week and three runs over four innings last night. Last night emphasized a season-long issue for Jensen: the platoon split. This is wild stuff. All four of the home runs Jensen has allowed, and seven of his nine walks, have been to left-handed hitters. It leads to a platoon split of a ridiculous .331 OPS allowed to RHH versus a rough 1.182 OPS allowed to LHH. I think the goods news is this should be a pretty standard developmental hurdle for the organization’s pitching coaches to attack this summer. But it will also surely add more fuel to the fire to the critics that believe Jensen’s only future is in the bullpen.
• D.J. Herz is a top-10 Cubs prospect, and I hope the Cubs view him like that as they enter trade talks over the next month. That is all.
• In the flight home from California, I watched some Derek Casey, whom I think has pitched a lot better than his 4.30 ERA would indicate out of the High-A South Bend rotation. Casey added a little to his body since 2019, adding to a little more velocity, but I was most impressed by a changeup that’s probably top 3-5 in the farm system right now. He’s 25, so I think you push him to Double-A pretty quickly here to see what’s what.
• And when that happens, you should have Sam Thoresen replace him. Thoresen’s stuff is too good for Low-A, and he can work on fastball command anywhere.
• It hasn’t translated in a big way in their numbers yet, but wanted to give Brennen Davis and Chase Strumpf some props for looking the part in their first few Double-A games. Davis has reached base in all five games, with a pair of multi-hit games in the middle. After homering on the first Double-A pitch he saw, Strumpf slumped for a few games, but has reached base five times in the last two games, including three walks last night.
• Dakota Mekkes has one walk allowed in his last five appearances, all of which have been at least two innings. The season ERA is down to 1.53, and I wonder if the Cubs front office is asking themselves if Mekkes might provide more utility than what Dillon Maples offers. And then you wonder where Ben Leeper might fit in, who made his Triple-A debut last night with a lightning-quick 1-2-3 inning where he was 95-96 with the fastball and 88-89 with the slider.
By the way, here are my Five Stars tweets for each night in the last week: June 2, June 3, June 4, June 5, June 6, June 8.