Still at it. The Chicago Cubs have signed reliever (slash Civil War general?) Jackson McClelland to a minor league deal. The 27-year-old righty appeared this weekend for the Iowa Cubs, throwing 1.1 innings during a 21-4 loss to Toledo (not a typo or a weird football score). Having allowed just a solo homer in his appearance, it was actually one of the best outings in the game for the I-Cubs!
McClelland was a long-time Blue Jays prospect, drafted in the 15th round in 2015, and headed for minor league free agency after this season. He reached Triple-A in 2019 on the strength of a good year at Double-A (and appearances in the AFL in 2017 and 2018), but stalled out later that year and in 2021 (5.51 ERA this year and meh peripherals over 16.1 IP). It looks like the Blue Jays decided they wanted to give his innings to other arms after the post-draft promotion shuffle, and they let him walk.
When you dig into the scouting reports on McClelland, it’s not hard to figure out why the Cubs want to give him a look: he can throw up to 100 mph. In today’s game, particularly in the bullpen, it never hurts to bring in guys who do at least one extreme thing and then see what else you can do with them. That’s been the Cubs’ approach for a while now, and it would seem velocity is McClelland’s extreme “thing.” Unfortunately he’s never paired it with much control, which means the big righty’s walk rates have been way over 10% in the minors. Moreover, it means his strikeout rate has never been commensurate with a guy who throws as hard as he does and apparently also features a good splitter. He also pitches from a funky setup, at least based on the video I can find from a couple years ago, where his back is to the batter when he starts his delivery. That means he hides the ball well, but he has to come all the way back around to center as he delivers. I’m sure it creates some extra whip and deception, but I bet it’s also really hard to repeat consistently while maintaining command.
The Cubs will keep on trying to bring in arms for evaluation, regardless of the date on the calendar or the status of the big league team. I like it a lot, because you never know when a guy you bring in now finds a little extra something in your infrastructure, and then re-ups on a minor league deal for 2022, and then is a surprising contributor. It’s the one area where the Cubs get a whole lotta latitude from me, because they’ve had a lot of success with reinvented relievers, stalled out young relievers, etc.
With McClelland, specifically, you just don’t know if, in your system, there’s some kind of mechanical tweak you can help him with. Maybe that tightens up the control just enough to make him a useful big league middle reliever. Even if McClelland merely became an up-down guy in 2022, that would be a huge win on a late-season minor league signing. You have to keep taking lots of swings like this, and if the starting point is a guy who can touch triple digits, that seems worth a no-risk shot. If you like what you’re seeing here in September, and you can get him to agree to a 2022 minor league deal sooner rather than later, you’ve effectively jumped the minor league free agent market.