Hit a few line drives with Ernie Banks’ bat at the Louisville Slugger Museum on Monday, so I guess that makes me Mister Cub Junior now? Let’s break down the second-to-last day in the minors for the Cubs, which unfortunately included a Tennessee Smokies loss in Game Two of the Southern League Championship Series …
Honorable Mention: Cole Roederer was one of just two Smokies to reach base twice, raising his playoff slash line to .250/.429/.500. The former second-round pick also finished the regular season on a hot streak, so you just have to love the confidence he’s going to take into 2023 … Matt Mervis doubled and bloop-singled, leaving him with 78 extra-base hits for the season. Would love to see that get to 80 today, which would also keep his batting average and slugging percentage in Iowa above .300 and .600, respectively … Kudos to Scott McKeon, who was asked to fill-in at Iowa for the end of the season, given Esteban Quiroz’ call-up to Chicago. McKeon is 11-for-29 on the Triple-A assignment, fitting in seamlessly after some struggles in A-ball this season. I have to think this buys McKeon an outside chance at winning a job next Spring Training, which is pretty awesome work by him.
Five: Eduarniel Nunez
It was probably generous slotting Nunez in the five spot, given that he hit a batter and allowed a single in his lone inning of work in a 7-1 game, but I wanted to talk about him nonetheless. Because after those two hitters reached base, Nunez struck out the side on 11 pitches, ten of them strikes. He’s not a name that a lot of people know, despite the fact that he can run it up to about 99 mph. The results have never quite matched the raw stuff, but he is a guy that pitching coaches have brought up to me as someone to keep an eye on.
Nunez is 6-foot-2, but he has a very low release, getting his lower half into a crouch and releasing from a low 3/4 arm slot. The slider was genuinely plus last night, but is more fringe-average generally. While we talk a bunch about guys on the border of getting a 40-man spot for Rule 5 eligibility, Nunez is in the next tier: he’s in that group you figure will get put on the Triple-A roster this offseason, protecting him from the minor league phase of the Rule 5 Draft. But there’s also only so many of those spots…
Four: Wyatt Short
The diminutive lefty now has a 2.53 ERA since July 1, and a 2.10 ERA since transitioning to a starter role in late August. Yesterday he was about 88-89 with the fastball, about 80-82 with the slider, with everything playing better up in the zone due to his vertical approach angle and command execution.
I’m not going to try and sell you on Short as a likely big-time Major League contributor here, but he’s always been a favorite of mine to watch, and I’m excited for him with success in this enhanced role. Short is set for minor league free agency at the end of the season, and he should be able to find a 2023 AAA starter’s job somewhere, even if not with the Cubs.
Three: John Hicks
With all the attention in Triple-A deservingly going to Alexander Canario and Matt Mervis these days, John Hicks has pretty quietly been Iowa’s best player for most of the season. I was trying to find the best “last X games” split, but honestly, there’s a bunch to choose from. Last 36 games: .992 OPS. Last 71 games: .934 OPS. Basically, everything after the first 10 games was extremely good. The Cubs will almost surely try to bring Hicks back for his age 33 season in 2023 as catching depth, but I suspect that the journeyman and his agent will analyze the entire landscape and look for a spot that might offer a likelier midseason Major League opportunity. While he didn’t reach the Majors this year, I think the Cubs-Hicks partnership was successful for both sides.
Two: Alexander Canario
Went opposite field for his 36th home run of the season, and could have had 37 if the wind wasn’t blowing in so strong from left. At this point, this really sums up my thoughts on the Cubs and Canario:
One: Riley Thompson
Thompson was fantastic as Tennessee’s starter, turning over a 1-0 lead to the bullpen that they quickly relinquished. It reminded of Thompson’s no-hit gem to secure South Bend’s 2019 championship, and it was a good bounce-back for Thompson after a rough start in his previous outing. His eight strikeouts tied a season-high, and he he’ll finish his season having thrown five shutout innings in four of his final five starts.
Watching it back, Thompson had really good feel for his curveball, locating that as a strike early in counts and also able to throw it into the dirt when ahead in the count. The curveball likely helped a huge number of swings and misses on in-zone fastballs, leading to a 36 CSW% in the outing. He got a swing and miss on both a changeup and slider, too, showing a five-pitch arsenal that looked really confident. He was still up to 96 mph in the fourth inning, though I don’t have data on the velocity over the entire start.
I do not anticipate Thompson is added to the 40-man roster this November, which will mean that he’s one of the Cubs most likely to be selected in the Rule 5 Draft. Don’t look at his season long numbers and scout the stat line; teams are going to see the repertoire changes after his stint on the Developmental List and be very happy with what they see. A poach-and-stash in the bullpen is a real possibility.
As for the Smokies, they’ll try again to win the Southern League Championship tonight at 6:15pm CT. This one is for all the marbles. Winner gets the ring. And what a match-up: