The Cubs once again provided a surprise in the first round last night, bypassing an intriguing quartet of hitting prospects to select the Draft’s first pitcher: Oklahoma right-hander Cade Horton. The 20-year-old recently threw back-to-back starts with double-digit strikeouts in the College World Series, essentially halving his ERA, and igniting his draft prospects.
I was not particularly aware of Horton’s skillset 24 hours ago – few of us were seriously considering him in the Cubs’ range – so I spent last night watching as much film as I could on Horton during the 2022 season. Here’s my scouting report on the surprise pick.
Body and Delivery: Horton is listed as 6-foot-1 and 211 pounds by Oklahoma. The build is a bit reminiscent of Tim Hudson, certainly short but strong and athletic. Like Hudson (though less successful), Horton was a two-way player with Oklahoma, getting 145 at-bats in 2022, mostly in the first half of the college season, and mostly at third base.
Horton added about 20 pounds while in the Sooners program, with the addition happening during his rehab from a Tommy John surgery that cost him the 2021 season. He is well-built throughout, certainly having tackled a lot of the upper body projection that he had in high school. If the Cubs see the possibility of weight room development, I assume it’s in transforming his body to be completely focused on pitching: no more skipping leg (or butt) days.
One plus in Cade’s column is an extremely simple and linear delivery that should suggest a future of strike-throwing. Out of the wind-up, Horton will step to the side and then stand straight on his back leg in tall-and-fall fashion. His hands break late but a very quick arm allows him to catch up to his body with ease. Horton has a noticeable head whip but everything is very well-controlled by a really good left leg block. He releases pretty over the top, negating some of the benefit of his short height.
I wonder if the Cubs will have him engage his right side more when loading up in his delivery, giving some hope that there may be even more average fastball velocity to squeeze out.
Slider: The story goes that a teammate of Horton’s helped him figure out his slider during the season, and he unveiled the pitch during the Big 12 championship. The pitch gets the lion’s share of the credit for Horton’s fantastic finish to the season and rise up draft boards.
Horton spins a gyro slider at 2500-2750 RPM, with the unique part being the vertical drop it (usually) imparts at the velocity he can achieve.
Horton threw the pitch anywhere from 83-90 mph during his final six weeks that I watched, with some of that variance coming from fatigue, and others being the lack of familiarity with the pitch and the intent he should throw it with. The best ones tend to come in around 87-88 mph, moving an above-average amount horizontally, but a plus amount vertically.
The key here is going to be consistency in all facets. I suspect the Cubs will help Horton learn why a good deal of his sliders back up on him, why some act like a cutter, and why his horizontal shape is inconsistent. This will get figured out in the Lab as much as it can. The bigger focus for Horton’s development will be in commanding successfully. He controls the pitch well enough to throw in all counts, including a ton of full-count ones during their playoff run, but too often they find the middle third of the strike zone. He must become more precise.
Fastball: During the College World Series, Horton began to pitch backwards, using his slider as his primary offering, and allowing his fastball to be the kill pitch. This is where baseball is headed, and Horton bought in quickly and successfully.
The pitch itself topped at 99 mph this year against Texas, but was often 96-98 in early innings. The pitch is a high-spin offering (2400-2500 rpm), but it’s not completely efficient … which the Cubs actually love. You’ll recall that I talked about cut-carry movement in this piece on Justin Steele, and Horton is another bet on cut-carry fastballs being an underrated trait, capable of producing both unexpected soft contact management and whiff rate.
However, the Cubs will have to work with Horton on the softer contact part. He allowed a home run in each of the last six of his starts (and that was the best part of his season). The successful work done with Steele in 2022 will help inform that, we hope. The Cubs also need to work on consistency with Horton in velocity, as he’ll drop down to 93-94 after about sixty pitches.
Curveball: There is no question that Horton’s slider and curveball now bleed together, and the Cubs will look to separate them as more distinct offerings. That being said, Horton has a good ability to spin a curveball, and by itself, his curve is a good pitch. He throws it in the low 80s, is more consistent with it than the slider, but the pitch is inherently less special. What the Cubs do with this pitch, specifically, is one of the parts of Horton’s development that I’m most curious about.
Changeup: Horton threw five changeups in Omaha if my charting was correct, including just two in the championship. They came in at about 87-88 mph, right in step with his slider, all thrown around the dirt, all featuring lackluster movement. The pitch isn’t non-existent, but it may as well be: the Cubs will have him explore many grips to re-think it. Long term, he’ll need either the changeup or curveball (ideally both) to become playable.
Mentality: Horton was a two-way player in, well, two different ways. He committed to Oklahoma as both a quarterback and SP/3B, and the football mentality definitely shows on the mound. He is a commanding presence despite his size, pitching with a tempo that hitters will unsuccessfully try to throw off. Fellow Oklahoman Kohl Franklin described him to me as an “unbelievable competitor” last night. The mentality, combined with the fastball-slider combination, is going to leave many suggesting that there’s a ton of reliever risk here. And I understand it, though let’s see what he’s got in pro ball.
Expectations: Due to the injury in 2021, Horton was still just a redshirt freshman this spring, though he’ll turn 21 in about a month. Still, the right-hander entered the Draft process with a good amount of leverage in bonus talks, even as his rise up the draft board went to unforeseen heights. So while the bonus amount will probably come in underslot, my expectation is that we’re really just talking about a half-million dollar savings. This kid’s still going to get paid.
After signing, I’d expect Horton to spend a couple weeks in Arizona, building metric base lines in the Pitch Lab, and messing around with a couple grips. Given that he only threw 54 innings this spring, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Cubs try to get him maybe three or four appearances during September, whether in Myrtle Beach or South Bend.
In 2023, expect Horton to start in South Bend, with the hope being that he earns a promotion to Double-A by summertime. I’m probably not willing to have Horton immediately join the Kilian/Wicks/Herz trio that I believe to be the Cubs best pitching prospects, but he’s probably right after that, somewhere about ten in the Cubs farm system. This is probably conservative, but that’s how I tend to be with new additions.
If you’re absolutely in love with Cade Horton, by the way, you’d want to note the comparisons to Dylan Cease. Both short right-handers, actually pretty similar, simple deliveries, both of whom took off when they started throwing a ton of sliders. Cease also has good spin rates, a cut-carry fastball and a vertical-heavy slider. But the key for Cease in 2022 has been absolutely incredible execution and command; it’s a good thing for Horton to strive towards.