2022 Cubs Rule 5 Protection Decisions: What Do the Cubs Do With Minor League Pitcher of the Year Luis Devers?

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2022 Cubs Rule 5 Protection Decisions: What Do the Cubs Do With Minor League Pitcher of the Year Luis Devers?

Chicago Cubs

Let’s not mince words at the top: Luis Devers is the most interesting and difficult Rule 5 protection decision of Jed Hoyer’s tenure with the Cubs.

As Brett noted earlier today in the offseason road map, later this month, the Chicago Cubs will have to decide which Rule-5-eligible prospects to add to their 40-man roster, so that there is no risk of them being poached in the December Rule 5 Draft.

On the face of it, the decision on Devers seems easy, as we’re talking about the 2022 Vedie Himsl Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year. This was a guy who posted a 1.91 ERA for an entire season, got considerably better after a promotion from Low- to High-A, and didn’t allow more than one run in his final 12 starts.

In a recent profile at Baseball America, South Bend pitching coach Tony Cougoule described Devers as “a true pitcher in every sense of the word.”

So, then, what’s difficult about the Rule 5 decision, you might ask?

While I’m the first to tout Devers as one of the minor leagues’ best at execution and maximizing his stuff, the best baseball decisions are made by analyzing the process and not the results. They exist in a broader context that further complicates matters. We need to talk about those — which will help introduce us to this series of posts about the decisions Hoyer and Carter Hawkins face in the next two weeks — before we can tackle Devers’ case specifically.

As we’ve talked about before, the Cubs are facing something of a roster crunch this offseason. Even if you’re bearish on the future of the Cubs’ large number of guys on the 40-man bubble, the Cubs also have to leave some flexibility with a large number of 40-man spots as they prepare an offseason of spending. (Injured players taking up offseason 40-man space doesn’t help, either.) The offseason calendar is important to consider here — the Cubs will leave their non-tender candidates through the Rule 5 protection deadline, as they’ll serve as the guys to create space for prospective free agents.

Helping the Cubs, though, is the fact that the Rule 5 Draft didn’t occur last year. To varying extents, every team is facing a 40-man crunch, with two classes of players who feel too good to leave exposed for the draft. Inside the industry, there’s a lot of discourse if this might actually lead to a less active Rule 5 Draft, as teams will have less 40-man flexibility as a result of their own prospect hugging. Perhaps, just perhaps, the threshold for actually drafting a player will be higher than ever before.

Which I think leads us back to Devers, and how MLB organizations will evaluate him as a MLB option, both in 2023 and moving forward. Because remember, the decision here is not about whether the Cubs want to keep Devers. Of course they do! The decision is about whether placing him on the 40-man roster is going to be necessary to keep him.

To think about those other team evaluations, I wrote a quick(ish) scouting report on Devers:

Physical Description: Signed in 2017 out of the Samana peninsula in the Dominican Republic, Devers was seen as a lower-bonus prospect, athletic and projectable at 6-foot-3, but with pitchability standing out over stuff. That projection is still being realized, but work last offseason helped bump his average fastball velocity more than three miles per hour in 2022, sometimes reaching the mid-90s.

Devers’ most unique skill is an ability to play with the timing of his delivery in a way that only few in professional baseball achieve. There are endless variations he’ll go with, and the lack of drop-off in stuff from his quick-pitch motion is a real plus. Batters are constantly uncomfortable, and he comes from a pronounced over-the-top arm angle that’s less common these days. It wasn’t hard to see why A-ball hitters could not do much with him.

Skills You’re Excited About: There’s one decidedly plus pitch here, a changeup that Devers will throw at any time and out of any delivery style. It’s a parachute changeup, tunneling very well off his fastball, but achieving a bit of that Bugs Bunny action mid-flight. The pitch offers tumble and fade, but I think it’s the velocity separation and guile with which he uses it that makes the pitch play more than its raw movement characteristics (which is why I probably sit 55/60 on the pitch more than the 60/65 you’ll see in other places).

Swing Skill: After sitting in the high-80s with his fastball in complex ball in 2021, Devers was up to the low-90s, and reaching the mid-90s in 2022. A bet on Devers is a bet, in large part, in velocity training. The Cubs see the path to consistent mid 90s with weight room work, and he’ll show significant arm-side run on the pitch as well. The command of the pitch is good, but the life on it is just okay. This is the pitch that will see the most variance from observers.

Development That Needs to Happen: The Cubs worked with Devers to get his breaking ball to be good enough to be a fully integrated third offering, but even still, the pitch is fringe-average and likely needs reworking. It’s a curveball that behaves a bit more like a slow slider, getting depth from gravity and offering a fair amount of sweep. I think it can work as a slurve if he gets the velocity up, but he might end up with a new grip and shape entirely.

So this is where we get to the question of Devers’ 40-man candidacy.

As you read above, it’s a guy with one definable above-average Major League offering, and while I see the hopes for the others and still rate Devers as a top 35 prospect in the system, I wouldn’t yet project Major League success in 2023 (or even 2024). The question that I think evaluators will ask: we’ll grant you that his pitchability is too good for the A-ball level, but does his stuff profile as ever getting to Major League average?

This is probably the one case in the system where I’ll admit, right now, I don’t have an opinion. I’ll appeal to authority here, and respect the decision that Hoyer, Hawkins, and Craig Breslow make. If they protect him, it’s a spot he earned on the mound, which anyone can respect, and it’s a bet that maybe he can help sooner rather than later. If they don’t protect him, it really does show how the Stuff Revolution in baseball has won, and it’s a bet that no other MLB team can realistically park him in their big league bullpen in 2023 straight out of A-ball.

Next time: the locks to be protected from the Rule 5: Kevin Alcántara, Ben Brown, and Brennen Davis.

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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.