If you blinked yesterday, you might have missed it, but Cubs first-round pick Jordan Wicks made his professional debut yesterday with High-A South Bend, in a game that was coincidentally (and fortunately!) broadcast on Marquee.
It was a smooth operation all around, with Wicks doing his part of the polished college ace: a strikeout, two fly outs, and back in the locker room after 14 pitches. Pro debut: check.
I appreciate the Cubs decision to allow Wicks this aggressive late season cup of coffee, bypassing the usual approach of a small debut in the Arizona League followed by a stint in a league not advanced enough for a player of Wicks’ pedigree. They offered him a challenge, and you can bet he’s going to use these next two weeks (and the Instructs that follow it) to try to convince the Cubs to start him at Double-A next season. It’s a trail blazed this season by the top college southpaw of the previous draft, the Angels’ Reid Detmers, who made the Majors in just his 14th pro appearance (though he’s definitely working through some bumps along the way, with a 7.11 ERA and rough peripherals through his four big league starts).
Let’s go batter-by-batter for a review on how Wicks looked.
Batter One, RHH: 7-pitch strikeout. A calm down-the-middle fouled-off fastball started things. Wicks missed with a changeup away and then a good slider got a swing-and-miss. Wicks then had three pitches that couldn’t finish off Miguel Cairo’s son Christian: another slider in the dirt, another changeup away that was fouled off and a fastball that missed by a lot. With the count full, Wicks went to his favorite pitch, the changeup to the arm side corner.
— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) September 5, 2021
Batter Two, LHH: 2-pitch F8. Starts with a fastball down-the-middle that seemed to have a bit of cut to it. Then went with his first curveball of the day, left belt-high, which was slapped into center field but snagged by Alexander Canario on a controlled, sliding play.
Batter Three, LHH: 5-pitch F7. Fastball at 94 mph missed just low and just away. Wicks followed it with his best pitch of the outing: a nasty frontdoor fall-of-the-table changeup. A slider missed away and a fastball missed inside. At 3-1, Wicks went with a fastball to the outside corner, which the batter lined to left field, but Yohendrick Pinango made a diving catch to haul it in.
Not quite enough there to draw any conclusions from: Wicks was who I thought he was. Which is a good thing. Onto what’s next.
And he’s through the first inning. Swinging K, two line outs on nice plays by his center fielder and left fielder. Fastball sat 92-93, had guys out in front on what looked like the changeup
— Randall J. Sanders (@RandallJSanders) September 5, 2021
He understood the assignment. 💪🏼 pic.twitter.com/K8qacZpeu6
— South Bend Cubs (@SBCubs) September 5, 2021
Some more level debuts to discuss …
Also yesterday, Anderson Espinoza‘s Double-A debut was solid: 5 innings, 3 hits, 1 run, 4 walks, 6 strikeouts. He also threw 87 pitches, his highest since (and this is not a typo) August 26, 2016. It’s an amazing comeback story for the twice-operated-on arm, and a nice job by the Cubs to realize that Espinoza was trapped in a 40-man roster crunch with San Diego, because it’s frankly absurd he was the return for a Jake Marisnick rental.
In his first Smokies start, Espinoza proved that his fastball was ready for the more advanced assignment: he held 95-98 mph the entire outing, and the swings and contact from Rocket City suggested the arm side run was troubling them. No secondaries did a lot of damage in this one – the changeup and curveball showed solid shape but ultimately were mostly spit at. Espinoza understandably still lacks the feel of an upper-level pitcher, but I think he was the right choice to take over one of the Smokies rotation spots.
Down in Myrtle Beach last week we had the full-season debuts for two pitchers I’ve been really anxious to see: Frankie Scalzo Jr. and Luis A. Rodriguez. They combined for four shutout innings in a 1-1 game on Saturday night, opening the door for a late-inning Jordan Nwogu go-ahead home run. Scalzo was the Cubs’ 14th round pick out of Grand Canyon University, a 6-3 right-hander with upper body projection remaining. He was up to 96 mph in this outing, showing a good changeup with late sink that earned a strikeout against a right-handed hitter. He flashed one solid breaking ball, but it was mostly fringe-average, so will likely be the focus of off-the-field development.
Rodriguez, 21, is a southpaw out of Mexico who had a 0.73 ERA in the DSL in 2018 and a 1.73 ERA in the ACL this season. He’s well-built with below-average arm speed, falling off a bit to third base after his foot plant. We saw fastball-curveball-changeup in this one, with a big, sweeping 1:30-to-7:30 curveball looking impossible for left-handed hitters. The change doesn’t have a ton of action but got confused swings off velocity deception. Will be interesting if he returns to the rotation at some point. I think he could handle it.
I kept promising that I’d write up a quick scouting report on Gabriel Jaramillo, who was having one of the better relief seasons in the system with Myrtle Beach (2.33 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 11.4 K/9), but never did it while he was with the Pelicans. He was promoted to South Bend a few days ago, and let’s use his debut there to describe him. Listed at 6-1, 176, Jaramillo is a thin-waisted right-hander with a short-arm delivery and over-the-top release point. He works on the first base side of the rubber and mostly looks to pitch to the outside corner of the opposing batter. He throws a fastball that has a bit of cut-side movement, an aggressive straight change, and a curveball. It’s not a profile that screams Prospect as a 22-year-old reliever just reaching High-A, but there’s no reason he shouldn’t get to the upper levels and give himself a chance.
The next debut to happen: OF/1B Felix Stevens was promoted from the ACL to Myrtle Beach at the end of the week. The big Cuban slugger ends his time in the ACL with a .298/.365/.606 batting line, though at 22 he was older than the average player in the league. The power is some of the best in the system, but until he proves otherwise, there should be a healthy bit of skepticism about whether the plate approach will allow him to fully tap into it.
I should also mention that DJ Herz had a very nice High-A debut (5 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 8 K), bringing him one step closer to locking up the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year title. It’s not surprising to me that Herz’ stuff and deception allows for a seamless transition to High-A, and it was a good sign he was able to manage the adrenaline and stay under control. I think Herz is a top-8 prospect in the system right now who has a top-5 argument, and I think we’ll see the national outlets indicate that this winter. It’s a remarkable season he’s had, and he’s doing with three plus pitches and a delivery that I think we should begin thinking of more as a feature than a bug.
My first HERZday was absolutely electric.
— Max Bain (@mbain_38) September 5, 2021
DJ Herz was incredible in his South Bend Cubs debut last night!
5 IP, 3 H, 2 BB’s & 8 K’s. 🔥
— Cubs Zone ™️ (@CubsZone) September 5, 2021