Cubs Prospect Notes on a Few We’re Seeing for the First Time: González, Rojas, Leigh, Hernández
Some (warning: long-winded!) thoughts on guys that I’ve barely been able to talk about in this space before. This one’s for the big prospect nerds.
Let’s dive in ….
Part of the Cubs 2020 undrafted free agent class, which I want to highlight as an absolutely incredible collection of players that the scouting department brought in. Ben Leeper, Matt Mervis, Scott Kobos, Sam Thoresen, Bailey Reid and this guy, to name just a handful!
González, 19, has a case to have the best raw stuff for a reliever in the Cubs organization. Up to 98 mph with a slider in the high 80s range, which is where Phil noted him in Extended Spring Training, but also what we’ve seen in three outings with Myrtle Beach so far. And while the Cubs development on González has been great, he was a 17-year-old from a high school in Puerto Rico when he signed, there’s still a ways to go before he holds the title of best relief prospect.
I see a few reasons why the Cubs have been able to add so much velocity to González’ fastball since he signed. First, the strength guys in the Arizona complex are a great group, and it’s not hard to see the work that went into getting some muscle added onto González frame in the last year. He looks strong in his shoulders and core, but I think will still be able to add even more muscle in his arms and legs in the next 2-3 seasons. González does a fantastic job loading up his back leg to create power, so as that right leg adds muscle, I would not be shocked if we’re talking about a guy that ultimately gets north of 100 mph.
González, a right-hander, stands on the third base side of the rubber, with his left toes and hips turned in. He keeps his left shoulder closed for a long time, leading to a cross-fire delivery that should add a bit of deception. But I do think the delivery also causes some command problems gloveside, as he’s not exactly linear to the plate. González brings his right arm far back behind him, and I’d look for the Cubs to shorten that arm action over the years, and ultimately uses great arm speed to release from a low 3/4 arm slot.
In time, high fastballs will be death to hitters with that combination of velocity, release height and deception. But González is still in the infancy of command development, and he’s not consistently able to access that upper third of the strike zone. We also see a fantastic slider in a few instances…
Nice little slider here by Angel Gonzalez pic.twitter.com/8RbEKqsKOJ
— Todd ⚾️🐻🦌 (@CubsCentral08) June 5, 2022
…But the pitch also takes on a different shape all the time. I’ve seen cutter versions, gyro versions, something close to a sweeper (all in three outings!). I don’t get the impression that this is on purpose yet, so locking down his go-to breaking ball is still a work in progress, even if the snapshots we’ve seen are good enough to throw a future “plus” on it.
The Mets have a YouTube feed for their DSL games, with both a camera behind CF and home plate visible on the broadcast (along with pitch velocity, exit velocity and launch angle), which is a special treat for nerds like me. So I went back into the YouTube of yesterday’s game between the Mets and DSL Cubs Blue, and decided to watch everything that Cubs shortstop Jefferson Rojas did during the game.
Rojas, you’ll recall, was the recipient of a $1 million bonus as an international amateur free agent on January 15 of this year. Information about him was pretty limited then, besides a brief scouting report as Baseball America’s #36 prospect, I wrote, “The 16-year-old is a more traditional middle infield prospect than [Alexis] Hernandez, with a smaller build that will keep him up playing the middle infield.”
The build is definitely slight, and you don’t see the room for projection that other players offer. He’ll be able to fill out and add weight, but is unlikely to ever have enough physicality to have power be the strength of his game. I can see the Cubs optimism in the other parts of his game, however. Rojas seems like he’ll settle in as a good defensive infielder, twice ranging to his left and making nice, accurate throws across his body for outs. He did make one error later in the game, but it was just biffing an easy grounder; this stuff happens at this level.
At the plate, Rojas has an open stance with his hands high by his ears. He lifts his left foot up as a timing mechanism, before showing pretty solid bat speed on a good level swing. He seems to track the ball really well, holding back on decent sliders a few times as he seems to let the ball get pretty deep before committing. We’ll see if he’s willing to take walks or simply uses his eye to get into hitter’s counts and make contact. His speed is just OK — I clocked him at 4.46 on an infield single that ended up a close play — but I think probably settles at above-average. Rojas ended up with three singles and a hit by pitch in this one.
It was nice to get Leigh’s season debut in Dayton, which has one of the best Milb.TV broadcasts in the whole minors, including a radar gun. Leigh was a very popular breakout pick this offseason, by members of the organization that I spoke with, as he’d been apparently unlocked as a short-inning reliever.
And then, shortly before I got to Spring Training, Leigh was injured and would miss the first two months. But he returned last Wednesday, looking very skinny I might say, with a 22-pitch relief outing where he allowed an unearned run. Leigh has a pretty unique wind-up delivery, where he starts his hands really low and gets really rotational with a pretty high leg kick (similar to Cam Sanders). It’s a simpler operation out of the stretch, which makes me wonder if he’ll eventually end up just pitching that way all the time.
In this one, we saw the fastball at 94-96, with above-average life. The curveball, at 80-81, would get the highest grade from this particular outing. Should earn plenty of strikeouts at this level. He threw Elly De La Cruz two changeups at 88 mph, both showed some fade but weren’t commanded at all, we’ll need to see how that develops. All in all, it was a fine debut.
I’d actually written a bit on Hernández in an early draft for yesterday’s complex leagues preview piece, but he was promoted to Myrtle Beach when Extended Spring Training ended (and when they simply couldn’t keep PCA in Myrtle Beach for any longer).
Hernández has a fun backstory in that he’s a Cuban refugee that ended up in Spain, starring on their national team before signing with the Cubs. He would post a 114 wRC+ as a 19-year-old in the Dominican Summer League last year, and according to AZ Phil, hit .309/.361/.382 this spring to earn his assignment with the Pelicans.
Hernández, a right-handed corner outfielder, is listed at 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds. I wouldn’t be shocked if he’s actually 10-15 pounds heavier than that right now, filled in pretty good in the chest and shoulders, kind of reminding me visually of Robel Garcia (please note they’re completely different hitters). Hernández’ swing seems to be geared towards having good hands, he lifts his front foot but everything is really designed to just throw his hands at the ball.
He’ll be a fun development to track, almost in the way Yohendrick Pinango is, because it speaks to both the player and the hitting development team. Hernández could have power some day, he has the strength like Pinango to do it, but can they coach his swing there?
Just wanted to add one note about Hernández’ home run yesterday, because the angle of the video taken was actually really helpful in understanding the contact problems that Hernández has shown in 2022. In my profile of Levi Jordan last week, Levi was nice enough to get in the weeds with some things he’s worked on, and in there talks about “barrel dumping.”
Well, if I’m not mistaken, I’m pretty sure we see in that video that Cristian has the same tendency to dump his barrel. He drops those hands to get on plane with the pitch so early, probable earlier than is actually necessary. This can make it hard to deal with fastballs with good ride, which is definitely one of those things getting swung and missed at.
I would note that there are likely other ways to fix this problem, no one fix is a panacea for contact issues with the rudeness of modern pitching. Christopher Morel definitely dumps his barrel sometimes, but his hand-eye coordination is so good that he can adjust his swing plane to match the pitch. Hernández should end up an equal to Morel in bat speed, so perhaps with more muscle memory on different pitches, maybe we’ll see the problem self-correct in a similar way.