Five Stars of the Cubs Farm, 5/6/22: Morel's Hit Streak, Hughes' Dominance, and More

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Five Stars of the Cubs Farm, 5/6/22: Morel’s Hit Streak, Hughes’ Dominance, and More

Chicago Cubs

Shouts to my podcast co-host Max Bain, who is pitching today in special cleats (designed by Stadium Custom Kicks, a company run by old Cubs AA pitcher Alex Katz) to honor Oxford, Michigan, in light of the school shooting tragedy that occurred there last November. He will auction the cleats off after the game, with the proceeds going to non-profit 42Strong, so please keep your eye out for that. And shouts to Max, who continues to use the platform he has to spread positivity and mental health awareness.

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

Honorable Mention: Bryce Ball really deserved a spot on that list, going 3-for-5 with a double and home run in Tennessee’s 9-5 win. It’s been a really interesting 100 plate appearances for Ball to start this season, his walk and strikeout rates have both been slashed, but he’s hitting the ball hard and has a .290 batting average and 119 wRC+. Certain skills are breaking out for him, so the question is if they can get the power to be more realized, which would leave you with a big leaguer … Iowa broadcaster Alex Cohen gave me some flak about Nelson Maldonado not making the list with his three hit day, raising his Iowa batting average to .333 and his season average back north of 400 (.408). Such a talented hit tool — he’s like a right-handed Alfonso Rivas — but to really push for the last remaining promotion, he’ll need some other skill to shine as well … Ben Leeper looked a bit pedestrian in his first five outings this season, but I think he’s turned a corner, and pitched a fantastic ninth inning in Iowa’s 6-2 win in St. Paul. He was up to 97 on the St. Paul gun (which definitely runs a little hot), and the slider looked really good. Last three outings have been five scoreless innings with six strikeouts against just one walk. Cue the NBA Jam voice: he’s heating up… I never talk about P.J. Higgins, but want to just say that he’s been Iowa’s best player this year, bringing a day-to-day consistency to the plate that I really admire. Right now his 157 wRC+ is 16th in the International League for players with at least 60 plate appearances.

Five: Brandon Hughes

Man, look at those numbers in the above tweet, which date back to June 24 last year. It sort of defies logic, because while the stuff is solid (low 90s fastball, sweepy 78-81 plus slider, low 80s change), it doesn’t quite justify one run allowed in 34 innings. There’s something about that fastball that plays up above its velocity, you saw it last night as the heater was responsible for all four of his strikeouts. It plays against right-handed hitters just as much as lefties, and you see that in the numbers, with Hughes holding RHH to a 1-for-22 performance against him this year. I’ll admit that I don’t have a great explanation for the magic fastball here — it’s a low slot but not that low, there’s a bit of deception I guess, maybe something with spin direction? — but the track record of its success is getting long enough that I think you have to trust it. If Norris or Newcomb don’t cut it or get injured, I think the next lefty up just has to be Hughes.

Four: South Bend Pitchers

Probably Daniel Palencia’s most in-control outing of the year (and he touched 101 mph), and I was excited by Hunter Bigge’s ninth inning, as the confidence in his slider seems to be growing by the outing.

But this is Manny Espinoza’s section. Not to be confused with Anderson Espinoza, Manny is a short 21-year-old right-hander that the Cubs signed out of Mexico in 2018. He’s 5-foot-11 and pretty thick, and had mixed results as a Myrtle Beach starter last year. In 2022, he’s been one of the most successful pitchers in the Cubs system: 19.2 innings, 10 hits, 1.83 ERA, 5 walks, 27 strikeouts. He throws at least five pitches between 71 and 91 mph, the best of which is a changeup with really good late sink. There’s not a ton of explosiveness or projection in Espinoza’s profile, but he throws strikes with all his pitches and constantly attacks.

Three: Javier Assad

Another pitcher the Cubs signed out of Mexico having extraordinary success this year, Assad has been Tennessee’s most consistent starter, now boasting a 2.10 ERA in six appearances this year. Assad has pitched in the Cubs organization since 2016 — I wrote about him in early 2019 — and this is his second go-around at Tennessee, but he’s still just 24, younger than other Smokies starters like Cam Sanders or Riley Thompson. Assad also had a 0.00 ERA in 17 appearances out of the bullpen in the Mexican Pacific Winter League this offseason, so I wanted to use last night’s excellent start as a time to check back in (using Birmingham’s radar gun to help). Here’s a revised scouting report…

Assad is a 6-foot-1, moderately heavy-set pitcher with a slow and rotational wind-up. He does a good job of getting down the mound and exploding off his lead leg, with the fastball velocity having increased as he’s improved that leg block, up to 94-96 mph now. He’ll show pretty extreme armside run occasionally with the pitch. It appears he’s discovered a cutter in the 87-89 range that he throws to the gloveside corner with a lot of comfort to both right- and left-handed hitters. It’s modest horizontal cut movement with varying vertical movement, the most effective ones playing upstairs with less drop. Has quickly become his best pitch. Assad likes a mid-80s straight change to lefties that is relatively unspectacular, and he’ll try to steal strikes with a 74 mph slow slurve, comfortable enough to try them in most any count. There still seems to be the presence of Assad’s old slider as well, about 82-85 mph, the unspectacular movement profile bleeding into his cutter a bit. Plus command guy, especially relative to your average 2022 Double-A pitcher, which allows him to pitch deeper into games than his peers.

Two: Jared Young and Robel Garcia

Credit to these two guys that are showing that you can still continue evolving in Triple-A as minor league veterans. Robel walked three times last night in addition to his home run, raising his season BB% up to a career-high 19.4%. He’s been a dead-pull hitter with Iowa, and still striking out way too often (34.7%), but he’s been able to maintain real effectiveness with his improved pitch selection. Jared Young homered again yesterday, continuing to show that he’s been able to access the next level of his raw power. But Young still isn’t selling out for it, hitting it to the opposite field just as often as he does to right, and posting his highest ground ball rate since Rookie Ball. If Young can learn a little from Garcia, while still maintaining his contact rate, Jared could see the full maturation of his power.

One: Christopher Morel

Now that Nelson Velazquez earned his promotion to Triple-A Iowa, we can turn our attention to demanding the same happens to Morel. The 22 year old utilityman hit two home runs last night for Tennessee, extending his hit streak to 13 games, during which he’s hitting .377/.431/.755 with a 19% strikeout rate. Morel has just bounced between shortstop and center field during the last two weeks, with his double-plus arm playing pretty much anywhere he goes. I’ve always said that Morel is a Javy-type of player — acknowledging that Javy is the 99th percentile of that type — with instincts and intelligence helping bat speed and a big throwing arm. He’s on the 40-man roster, so I’d like to see him up in Iowa, preparing to help this big league team at some point. I’ve said it before and will say it again: I think David Ross will love Morel.

I also want to point out that I hope the Cubs are taking notice at how many of their good early-season performers played some version of winter ball. We’ve already talked about Assad in Mexico, and Morel played in LIDOM. Velazquez and Caleb Kilian obviously starred in the Arizona Fall League, and Velazquez and Luis Vazquez also played in Puerto Rico. Even Alexander Canario, who didn’t actually see the field in LIDOM, spent time practicing with Aguilas after they made him a first-round pick. I think more and more prospects should be encouraged to do that in the winter, and we’re seeing why right now.

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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.