Five Stars of the Cubs Farm, 4/30/22: Howard, Devers, Clarke, and Five Homers

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Five Stars of the Cubs Farm, 4/30/22: Howard, Devers, Clarke, and Five Homers

Chicago Cubs

After days like yesterday with the big league team, I’m willing to stretch myself a little to write a Five Stars post to get our minds on something else.

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

Honorable Mention: I don’t think P.J. Higgins has appeared in a Five Stars this year yet, which is weird, because he’s been Iowa’s hands-down best hitter. After an 0-for-13 start to the season, Higgins is now 17-for-37 in his last 11 games, with more walks than strikeouts … Christopher Morel now has a 9-game hit streak, and after three singles last night, has the season batting average over .300 … Speaking of, PCA has reached base in 14 straight now, with multi-hit games in 7 of his last 8. But I’ll note he struck out a career-high three times last night … Solid short relief outings from Cayne Ueckert, Eduarniel Nunez, and Sheldon Reed.

Five: Conner Menez, Brandon Leibrandt, Max Bain

All three allowed one run in 3+ innings, Menez being the best of the bunch, racking up eight strikeouts against the 14 batters he faced. If you’re not familiar with Menez, he was the Cubs pick in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 Draft, a crafty lefty with some history of MLB success. He mixes a 88-90 mph fastball with a 78-80 mph slider and a mid 70s curve, and the breaking balls were causing big problems for a lefty-heavy Indians lineup. But like with Locke St. John, I don’t see a lot of upside for Menez in the organization. For lefty relievers, I’d have Brandon Hughes first, Stephen Gonsalves second, Eric Stout third, and I’m really eyeing the return of Brendon Little before needing to pick my fourth.

Bain has thrown three hitless innings in each of his last two piggyback appearances, allowing a run in this one only after a walk-steal-steal-sacrifice combination. This was Bain’s best outing of the year in terms of two important metrics: 35.4 CSW% and 41.7 whiff%. We’ve seen the slider take a step forward (now a true sweeper) and become Bain’s best secondary pitch, and he had good feel for the changeup in this outing. I would have loved to see him get the ninth inning in this one, to keep stretching Bain and Clarke out to their maximum’s, but the season is a marathon and not a sprint.

Four: The Bomb Squad

A bit on each.

  • Nelson Velázquez. Seven homers in his last 10 games. He’d be the runner-up to PCA in a Player of the Month vote, and I hope that he sees Iowa before long, because I actually think the craftiness of the pitchers there will be really important for his development.

  • Alexander Canario. I had forgotten that Canario had such a significant platoon split last year: 8 homers in 352 PA against RHP (366 SLG), 10 homers in 104 PA against LHP (649 SLG). Last night was a lefty on the mound.

  • Matt Mervis. Went back-to-back with Canario. Mervis is enjoying his week in Davenport, Iowa, and is hitting .406 during an 8-game hit streak.
  • Jordan Nwogu. I love the simplicity of the bat path on a Nwogu home run, especially combined with the fact that his bombs go farther than anyone else’s.

  • B.J. Murray. Last year’s 15th round pick notches his first one of the year, taking an outside corner fastball to the opposite field, in an impressive piece of hitting that will stick in my mind as I think about Murray moving forward.

Three: Chris Clarke

The feed in the Quad Cities isn’t good enough to get information from, so I won’t look to make a specific comment about Clarke’s stuff. I will note that he started his night by going 12-up, 12-down, before allowing a solo shot to start the bottom of the fifth.

Clarke is really succeeding in the way that someone with his stuff profile should: ground balls. The 6-foot-7 right-hander has the best GB% of his career so far with South Bend, and with just one walk in his last 14 innings, is clearly owning the bottom third of the zone successfully. The execution has been excellent, we’ll just have to continue to monitor if the stuff is worthy of a bump in prospect standing.

Two: Luis Devers

I spoke to Porter Hodge yesterday before the Pelicans game for a piece that will be out this week. I asked him the one specific pitch from his Myrtle Beach team that he’d love to have, and he didn’t hesitate long before choosing the Luis Devers changeup. It’s a straight change that generally tunnels his sinker really well and sometimes will get some fade to it as well, and his comfort with it is as good as it gets for a Low-A pitcher.

Below, Trevor noticed the same thing as I did from this outing, Devers is messing with a quick version of his delivery to disrupt hitter’s timing, using it for a strikeout to end the second inning (which probably caused an over-reliance on the trick after that). I’m probably lower on the breaking ball than Trevor is, it just seems like there’s no confidence there, and I think we haven’t seen the final form the pitch will take. This is a body type that should add velocity over time, so if you get a solid 3-pitch mix established before then, you could see him graduate to a big-time pitching prospect some day.

One: Ed Howard

You love when the results start matching an improvement in process. There have been obvious gains in Howard’s plate approach all season, from the very first week, but in the end, we were ending April and it had done little to change his batting line from last year. The improvement in contact rate was really just changing strikeouts to ground outs, with a drop in BABIP then mitigating the benefit of a near-doubled walk rate. And then last night happens, where Howard reaches four times, including a line drive triple into left-center, and the OPS jumps 95 points. It’s worth re-emphasizing what a pitcher’s league the Midwest League is in April; the average hitter slashes .226/.322/.365, and Howard is two years younger than that average player. In time, I suspect the swing will be tinkered to be less geared for grounders, but I think the team would be perfectly satisfied if he spends the year showing consistency in plate approach and hangs just points below the league-average hitter. That’s progress.

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Author: Bryan Smith

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