Five Stars of the Cubs Farm, 4/20/22: The Bats Catch Fire (Especially Nelson Velazquez!)

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Five Stars of the Cubs Farm, 4/20/22: The Bats Catch Fire (Especially Nelson Velazquez!)

Chicago Cubs

It genuinely took everything I had in me not to complain and draw ridiculous conclusions from the crazy-slow start that the bats in the Cubs system had in the season’s first two weeks. You know how it goes.

The restraint paid off, as last night came the breakout we’ve been waiting for. The Myrtle Beach Pelicans had a 10-run inning in a 17-3 win, and the Smokies had a 6-run come-from-behind eighth in their 10-7 victory. While Iowa managed just two runs in a Tuesday morning game in Louisville, the four affiliates still averaged nine runs per game yesterday. Don’t stop now, boys!

Let’s break down the day in the minors for the Cubs …

Hitter Honorable Mention: Ed Howard was the hero in South Bend’s come-from-behind win, with his second single of the game putting the Cubs ahead. Howard entered the game in a 1-for-20 slump, so this was a welcome sight … Brennen Davis has an .889 OPS in his last nine games, with the strikeout rate dropping, which is obviously a story that deserves our attention. Davis worked a first-inning walk (against an impressive Reds prospect) and later hit a rocket groundball infield single. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer … The best thing I can say about Ildemaro Vargas and Alfonso Rivas in that game was they looked like big leaguers playing down in Triple-A … Shouts to Bryce Windham, who reached base three times (including a bases-loaded, game-tying walk) and was very busy behind the dish dealing with a lot of balls in the dirt. He’s impressed.

Pitcher Honorable Mention: The night’s most impressive performance was Dalton Stambaugh’s 10-out relief appearance for South Bend, where he got 12 swings and misses on 22 swings and 41 overall pitches. The 25 year old lefty has incredible feel for a solid changeup, gets some sweep on the slider and then his fastball will catch hitters off guard. The key is some real deception achieved from hiding the ball behind his body for a long time. Putting himself on the map … Second consecutive outing where Tyler Schlaffer allows just a solo home run in four innings of work. He’ll have a featured spot in Five Stars soon, I’m sure … Anderson Espinoza looked better in the time I watched than his line indicates, up around 95 mph with a strikeout garnered from each offering.

Five: Alexander Canario

Enough said:

Four: Yeison Santana

After six strikeouts in his first two games of the season, Santana is settling in nicely, and four-hit games certainly do their part to improve season numbers. In the seven games since: .350/.480/.450 with, perhaps most importantly, just four strikeouts in 25 plate appearances. This game was the Santana we dreamed about when he was acquired in the Darvish trade: pesky at-bats, an all-fields approach and plus speed.

Three: Yohendrick Pinango, James Triantos, Darius Hill

Triantos entered the night with a BABIP of .143, which had just completely destroyed his numbers (despite some decent BB/K peripherals under the hood), so he deserved this three-hit night. He’ll need to elevate the ball more as the season continues, but I don’t believe he’s overmatched at the level, despite the sub-500 OPS.

Make it six multi-hit games in nine appearances for Darius Hill this season, and man does he just seem to have a knack for coming out of Spring Training ready to fire. Hill has just three strikeouts in 41 plate appearances so far, and if Greg Deichmann ends up leaving the organization when his DFA is settled, Hill might be the first player in the system to earn a promotion.

Two: Pete Crow-Armstrong

Entering the night, PCA’s professional career was comprised of six 2021 games with the Mets and six 2022 games with the Cubs. In that Mets cup of coffee, Crow-Armstrong featured a 65 GB% en route to a .556 BABIP. In those six games with the Cubs, the ground ball rate had dropped to 24%. And that was before 3 fly balls – one for an out, one for a triple, one for his first over-the-fence home run last night. While still possessing the same good swing decisions that made him a first round pick (6 BB and 6 K in 33 PA now), I do think the tiny sample does give us some indication that there’s been an evolution in the batted ball profile we can project from his moving forward. The ceiling looks to have been raised.

One: Nelson Velazquez

Nelly took Brett’s “Patrick Wisdom Is Here to Show You the True Meaning of Early-Season Extremes” post from yesterday personally, I guess, because his game last night gave him the ultimate in the early-season numbers flip-flop game.

Entering Tuesday, Nelson was hitting .156/.206/.281 and striking out in half his plate appearances. My preseason complaint that he wasn’t in Triple-A seemed laughable. Then Velazquez had six extra-base hits, including two home runs, in the two games that followed, and now he’s hitting .275/.326/.650 and again looking like the scariest guy to face in the farm system.

While these days of incredible exploits are the most fun, the future for Velazquez does rely (like Wisdom) on that strikeout rate just being not worst-in-baseball bad. So I did decide to go back and watch the 12 strikeouts Nelson had in 21 plate appearances in the series prior to this one to see if I could learn anything about what was troubling him.

And I’ll tell you, it was encouraging! It turns out, and this probably won’t surprise you, the Rays’ Double-A team is just abnormally loaded with Major League quality arms. Yes, Velazquez had the common mistake of missing high-away fastballs and low-away sliders, but the quality of those pitches being sent to him by the Montgomery Biscuits pitching staff was highly impressive. Nelly will have to get a bit of a better feel for that outside corner, but that’s not an insurmountable hurdle than a hole in a swing might otherwise be.

I remain a Nelly optimist, which I suppose is an easy thing to say after a 12-total base day.

Author: Bryan Smith

Bryan Smith is a Minor League Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @cubprospects.