Five Stars of the Cubs Farm, 5/12/22: The One About Bryce Ball

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Five Stars of the Cubs Farm, 5/12/22: The One About Bryce Ball

Chicago Cubs

It’s just crazy to think that Buddy Bailey has won 2,222 games as a minor league manager after Myrtle Beach’s 13-4 win last night. The Cubs are lucky to have that type of perspective in their organization, especially from someone so willing to work with players on the lowest rung of the full-season ladder. Congrats to Buddy, too!

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

Five: Game Finishers

It was an omission on my part that the tweet didn’t include Graham Lawson or Nick Padilla from the Tennessee doubleheader, as they both pitched admirably as well.

Brett touched on Ben Leeper’s recent success in his prospect notes yesterday, but I want to add to that a bit. The big difference for me in watching Leeper early in the year — when he scuffled a bit for the first time as a member of the Cubs organization — and the last two weeks has been the return of fastball whiffs. Leeper is always going to have the plus gyro slider, but to get to it, he needs that mid-90s fastball to play. Early in the year, for whatever reason, it looked flat. Yesterday, it didn’t, and a string of days like that will put him on the Major League radar. I still think there’s one layer of nasty-ness to go, though, and I’m fine to wait for that…

Four: Andy Weber

Played both right-side infield positions in the Smokies doubleheader yesterday, and combined that versatility with his best regular season day at the plate since 2019. Weber went 4-for-5 with three doubles and two walks, notching his seventh consecutive day with multiple hits, raising his May batting average to .474! Andy is basically building the perfect utility infielder profile, showing aptitude at all four positions, with a pesky left-handed bat that can provide value off the bench. Last night was a good night to show that Weber maxes at doubles power, as even when pulling the ball and hitting it pretty good, we’re still talking about balls short of the warning track. And that’s okay.

Three: Mora, Garcia, Alcántara

It’s now 14 straight games reaching base for Kevin Alcántara, who now has the OPS up over .800 after his grand slam last night. Fun homer there, almost looks like he accidentally inside-outed the 0-2 back-up slider over the right field fence. Does a really nice job keeping the hands in, and it acts as kind of a sneak preview on how easy it will be for him to hit baseballs far when he’s filled out (a deep fly out later in the game further hints at this). We’ve already seen the Cubs calm so much of Alcántara’s busy body pre-swing, and while development is still in its infancy, the early signs we’re getting from both his instincts and ability to take instruction continue to give him All-Star upside.

Two: Luke Farrell

Luke was excellent, but I’m going to use this section to talk about how the Cubs are using Triple-A this year, because there’s an interesting cause-and-effect chain that basically dates back to last year’s Trade Deadline. As the Cubs made their flurry of acquisitions last year, Jed Hoyer proved willing to accept good talent with value weighted down by their presence on a 40-man roster. This is the only way you could acquire a talent like Anderson Espinoza for Jake Marisnick, but it’s also why the other teams were willing to part with Alexander Vizcaino, Greg Deichmann and Alexander Canario. Players that take up 40-man space without offering Major League depth can cause logjams.

And the Cubs anticipated that this season, knowing they had a half-dozen prospects that would eat a 40-man roster spot, but offer zero chance of contributing in Chicago during the first half. So what’s their answer to that? Stack the Iowa roster with minor league veterans, guys that you’d be comfortable selecting for the Major League roster, but also guys that you’d be comfortable designating for assignment after a game or five. This was Locke St. John’s fate, and it’s probably going to be true for Conner Menez and Ildemaro Vargas, and perhaps another five or so players. Maybe Farrell.

As those players get DFA’d, roster spots open in Iowa, and the players that step in are the prospects that maybe belonged there in the first place. Nelson Maldonado, Nelson Velazquez, Brandon Hughes, Cam Sanders. And come the second half, assuming the Cubs are long out of a playoff race and have sold off vets at the Trade Deadline again, it can be the homegrown players who have proven worthy of a 2023 40-man spot that come up and provide the depth in Chicago. It’s been interesting — if a bit depressing — roster management to follow.

One: Bryce Ball

It always makes me anxious to use a player’s hot streak as evidence of their advancement as a prospect, and Bryce certainly is in one of those times where he’s hitting a beach ball, slashing .375/.429/.734 during his last sixteen games. Ball lowered the strikeout rate last night to 18.5%, an absolute massive (and at 124 plate appearances, we can definitively say meaningful) drop from last year’s 27.6 number. He’s been a different hitter than in 2021 entirely.

Some of that might be due to the Cubs decision to lower Ball’s hands pre-swing, but honestly, I wouldn’t want to assign too much credit to that minor alteration. Instead, we’ve seen a real shift in plate approach, reducing the number of pitches he’s seeing at the plate, more willing to be in attack mode out of the jump. And in general, he’s swinging a helluva lot more. Yesterday, Ball’s first two hits (including the homer) came on the first pitch of his at-bats, with the latter two then coming on full counts that involved foul balls and numerous swings.

While I’m excited about the improvements that Jared Young and Nelson Maldonado have shown this year, those two are held back by the limitations in their power profile. Ball does not fit in that category, even though he’s homered the least of the three this year. An uptick in the hit tool is really meaningful for a guy that also has the raw power to handle a lifetime spent in the 1B/DH role, and Ball is that guy.

Before I overpromise, I’ll say that there’s no question that the pitchers facing Ball are going to adjust soon. He is about to see a sharp decline in the number of balls in the strike zone he sees in a given game. It’s the reaction to that adjustment — you’d like the increase to come in BB% and not O-Swing% — that will be the determining factor in our excitement moving forward.

But in a system where the first baseman at each level is performing admirably, Ball is the one that you should be tracking with the most interest.


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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.