Five Stars of the Cubs Farm, 7/6/22: Shutouts in South Bend and Tennessee as Jordan Wicks Is Very Good Again

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Five Stars of the Cubs Farm, 7/6/22: Shutouts in South Bend and Tennessee as Jordan Wicks Is Very Good Again

Chicago Cubs

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

Honorable Mention: I want to focus on Iowa’s bullpen here, as we know the successes there are an injury away from making an impact at the Major League level. Last night saw a combined 4.1 shutout inning effort from Sean Newcomb, Steven Brault, and Erich Uelmen. That’s three good names to check in on.

Newcomb, you’ll recall, accepted an outright assignment to Iowa after he cleared waivers. That’s somewhat rare for a player with Newcomb’s service time history, but I think yesterday’s outing might have signaled why: we’re seeing a slider now. Using the Indianapolis radar gun, there was a clear new offering between Newcomb’s 89-91 mph cutter and his 79 mph curve: a slider in the 82-85 range (note: Newcomb did throw a slider earlier in his career, but this is an entirely new velocity/shape profile). Given the Cubs organizational focus with sweepers this year, and the success it has unlocked for a pitcher like Keegan Thompson, this is a decision that totally makes sense. I’m just glad to see players are recognizing the potential it can unlock for them.

Last night marked the Triple-A debut for Brault, who missed the season’s first three months following an elbow injury that was found in his physical. Brault escaped a bases loaded jam, but looked pretty good: 92-94 mph with the fastball, which would be a bump from last year. Erich Uelmen came in and finished the outing with a two-strikeout ninth, bouncing back well after his worst outing of the year on July 2. Uelmen looks the most worthy of a post-Deadline look to me of anyone on Iowa’s pitching staff: velocity is peaking, the pitch mix is as diversified as its ever been.

Five: The Homers

Big love for John Hicks holding down the catcher position for Iowa while P.J. Higgins wins himself a job in Chicago …

Matt Mervis notches number 20 on the year by destroying a hanging slider in the ninth inning of Tennessee’s blowout win. The 24-year-old has hit .321/.374/.638 across those 70 games, and yes, he’ll be featuring on the soon-to-come midseason prospect list …

Last year, my hope was that Yohendrick Pinango would be coached to turn on inner-third pitches and let his natural strength do the work to right field. Because of his oppo-gap approach (which is, largely, good), he had a tendency to inside-out those pitches and pop the ball up. This year we’re seeing him get the bat around and lift the ball on those inside fastballs. It’s a big step …

Ezequiel Pagan is too good for Low-A. This guy needs to be in South Bend soon, because I think some meaningful enhancements have been made to his game since last year, but we need to see it at the appropriate level …

Four: Luis Vázquez

This was Vazquez’ second four-hit game in July, meaning that, in a week, his average has gone from .200 to .226.

The numbers don’t really show meaningful improvement in Vázquez’ bat in 2022, but I swear I see some: a better commitment to his plate approach, increased strength leading to better power. But both of those step forwards have been too small to mean much for Vázquez’ long-term profile, we’re still talking about a guy with a good glove that seems too light-hitting to project success at the next level. All those small differences just mean that I’ll be quicker to believe in any sustained success that Vazquez does have at the plate … but he needs to have it first.

Three: Luis Devers

The Cubs kept things easy for Devers in his High-A debut, asking for a three-inning relief outing as an entryway into his new assignment. He passed the test, allowing just two baserunners while garnering three strikeouts and eight swinging strikes on 42 pitches. Most of those came on the plus changeup that has fueled his breakout 2022 season; I definitely love that his first High-A strikeout came on a full-count, quick-pitch changeup to a right-handed hitter. Who the hell does that?

Two: Tennessee’s Shutout (Thompson, Reyes, Horn, Estrada & Windham)

Notes on those four Tennessee arms:

Riley Thompson: What a relief to see Good Riley again. Probably my favorite April arm, Thompson had a disaster start to begin May, immediately went on the Developmental List for six weeks, and then had a disaster start in his return. Those two outings probably mean Thompson is incapable of getting back to even decent numbers in 2022, but I’m telling you: on his best days, his stuff is big league caliber. Last night: 96-97, plus 80-82 mph power curveball, mixing in a firm 87-88 mph change.

Samuel Reyes: The two common traits that shouldn’t be ignored between last week’s Tennessee no-hitter and last night’s shutout: Bryce Windham behind the plate, and Reyes pitching the middle innings. Dependability is a skill, too.

Bailey Horn: One of my favorite early-season arms, I hadn’t realized that Horn had allowed a run in five straight appearances before he pitched last night. That’s a good streak to end. Last night: 93-95 mph fastball, 83-85 mph sweep-y slider, 77 mph curveball. If the command can be more consistent, he can have a big league future (I realize this is true for a lot of minor league relievers …).

Jeremiah Estrada: Mister Dependable this year. Estrada started off the inning by just repeating 96 a few times, then went slider-heavy for a bit, threw a few more fastballs and then broke out this curveball to end the game. Rude, Jeremiah, just rude.

One: Jordan Wicks

Early in the season, when the ERA wasn’t there for Wicks, there was definitely some concern out there that Wicks wasn’t dominating High-A like a decorated college pitcher should. I tried to preach patience, pointing out that the batted ball luck was terrible, the swinging strike rates were good, and mentioning that it just seemed like Wicks and the Cubs hadn’t quite come to terms on the proper pitch mix and sequencing yet. The development was the point and purpose.

Recent outings have shown a more confident gameplan and in-game adjustments (along with more balls finding mitts): on June 29 we saw a bunch of good curveballs, but last night he went with the slider more often. Ultimately, Wicks went 5.0 innings, allowing no runs on just two hits and one walk, and he struck out six.

The throughline in both outings is that Wicks’ fastball is in a really good place, as he’s routinely blowing upper third fastballs by hitters lately. That’s a sign that he’s locating to the top better, but I also think the raw characteristics are peaking as well. He topped at 96 mph in the fifth inning yesterday, and the pitch has shown good cut-carry throughout recent outings. This guy is earning a late-season cup of coffee in Double-A, and a 2023 Major League debut is looking more plausible than ever.

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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.