So I Guess the Cubs Now Employ The World’s Currently-Hottest Starting Pitcher?

When the Cubs signed 34-year-old veteran Roenis Elías to a minor league contract a week ago, we noted the extreme success he was having in LIDOM (the Dominican Winter League). That success has now toppled over into that league’s historic territory, as Elías pitched another gem last night in the playoffs: six shutout innings en route to Aguilas’ 6-0 win.

It continued a pretty notable and amazing streak:

Yes, you read that right. It’s now 37.2 innings in a row for Elías without an earned run. He’s the hottest pitcher on the planet, you might say! Here are the game logs for this streak, as they can be pretty difficult to find:

12/27: 6 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 7 K

12/22: 8 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 5 K

12/14: 6 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 5 K

12/6: 5.2 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 7 K

11/29: 6 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 9 K

11/23: 7 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 8 K (runs allowed in 1st inning)

It’s notable the Cubs signed Elías to a minor league deal during this streak, and probable that their international scouting team took notice of a jump forward in the lefty’s skills. While it would be very strange for a player to find new career heights in his mid thirties, Brett noted in his write-up of the signing that 2022 was Elías’ return from a torn UCL that, combined with the pandemic year in 2020, means he’d pitched very little since 2019. There’s not the same mileage on his arm as your average 34 year old.

So I think there’s two interesting questions to ask here: 1) what might the Cubs have seen in Elías to make him a priority minor league signing?, and 2) what role might they envision him for?

I made it a point to watch Elías pitch in last night’s playoff game to get a handle on what the lefty brings to the table.

Luckily, the MLB.tv broadcast offered some quick help in breaking down the arsenal:

The curveball is definitely the star offering, the pitch that he builds at-bats around. You can sense batters looking for it with two strikes, but they’re still helpful against its sharp, diagonal late break. It’s interesting the broadcast quotes the pitch around 82-85 mph, when it’s always averaged 77-78 in the Majors. Is that a misprint, or has the pitch evolved in a serious way? I do think Elías plays with the pitch a lot — it’s hard not to think of Cuban countryman Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez when you watch him — so I think I saw too many variances of the pitch to have an answer.

Elías throws his changeup more often. It’s a firm mid-80s offering that he has a ton of comfort with locating on the arm side corner. Its command and execution were more notable than its movement properties in this watch, but overall an above-average offering.

The fastball didn’t particularly impress me last night; he got away with a lot that ended up as lazy fly outs. The pitch’s combination of spin rate, velocity, and vertical movement suggest it should have solid life, but he didn’t operate as up in the zone as he’d probably like. It looks pretty darn good at the 0:14 mark in this, though:

The most interesting question for me is how the Cubs intend to use Elías in 2023. He pitched as a reliever for most of the 2022 season, but his move to the rotation started with the Mariners Triple-A team on August 21 and has continued in LIDOM.

Given the success he’s had this winter, it would not be a surprise if Elías and his agents searched for an organization that would allow him to continue to pursue the starting role. But when you look at the Cubs — flush with starting depth (Wesneski, Assad, Sampson, Kilian) but with just one MLB left-handed reliever (Hughes) right now — it wouldn’t seem they are that organization. So that’s interesting.

I’d guess we’re looking at three potential paths for Elías when Spring Training arrives:

  1. He works in camp as a starting pitcher before taking a place in Iowa’s rotation.
  2. He works in camp as a starting pitcher battling for a middle/long relief role. This is the role that I’ve expected Adrian Sampson to take, but Elías could battle him for it in camp.
  3. He works in camp strictly as a lefty reliever. He’d primarily serve as Brandon Hughes insurance, or give the Cubs a second lefty option for the pen (along with recent waiver claim Anthony Kay) if they don’t sign another to a MLB contract.

Whatever the role, you’ve gotta think the Cubs are very happy to have landed Roenis Elías when they did.

And while, yes, it’s unlikely that Elías is a meaningful difference maker for the 2023 Cubs, his status as Pitcher of the Winter does suggest enough upside that he’s one to watch in Mesa this February. And I’d certainly recommend keeping an eye on him the next time he pitches for Aguilas this winter. It’s quite the treat.

written by

Bryan Smith is a Minor League Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @cubprospects.

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