Five Stars of the Cubs Farm, 4/19/23: Pitching Leads the Way, Horton and Kilian Shine
Allow a fan and minor league nerd to gush about the development of Justin Steele here for a minute. Steele required Tommy John surgery amidst a breakout in 2017, back when his now-forgotten curveball was his best pitch. He returned from TJ about as quick as anyone in 2018, throwing a little harder than before. 2019 didn’t go great between injuries and bad luck. In 2020, he learned the slider, and it became his best pitch so quickly. In 2021, he broke out as a reliever, but the Cubs were willing to put starting pitching back on the table. He went down, threw really hard, mixed in a few more changeups. In 2022, they figured he could back the velocity off a little bit and focus on getting more cut movement on his fastball. He’s avoided barrels since.
The player development apparatus is in existence for stories like Justin’s, an obvious talent dating back to his high school days, but someone that needed about three re-inventions before discovering the best version of himself. We asked for a decade for a good homegrown starter. And now we have one. Using Justin as inspiration, let’s check out a day in the minor leagues led by the system’s pitchers:
Daniel Palencia left the Tennessee game after this pitch, which the dugout caught and quickly sent out the team’s trainer. These situations aren’t always what we think they are, but you’re not wrong to be thinking it. Just wishing the best for Daniel.
Hitter Mentions: Nice game for Brennen Davis, who entered this night with a horrible batting line, improved strikeout rate, but .130 BABIP. That number will go up, but it will also demand Brennen hits more balls on the button like last night. Had been mostly lazy fly outs before … Kevin Made walked twice last night, meaning he now has more walks in nine games in 2023 than he had in 58 games in 2021. There’s definitely development happening … Fabian Pertuz swiped three bags for South Bend as well, the most he has since the DSL in 2018. Pertuz is one of the smarter players in the system, has a real approach at the plate and makes sound defensive reads … Pablo Aliendo showed me something on a game-tying sacrifice fly that was almost a game-winning oppo grand slam. The increased strength is definitely manifesting in his contact quality.
FIVE: Richard Gallardo
South Bend is in Great Lakes this week, which features a top five MiLBtv broadcast in all of minor league baseball, and the radar gun gives us a chance to update our Gallardo scouting report. Richard threw a lot of strikes in this one, showing off five pitches in the process: 93-95 four seamer, 91-93 two seamer high 80s changeup, low 80s slider, high 70s curveball. Nothing features quite enough bite or life to currently project big leaguer, though I like the ability to throw strikes with the breaking balls. He’s probably 6-foot-3 and all-the-way filled out now, but he’s also just 21, so I think it’s fair to dream on one more step forward in raw stuff.
FOUR: Iowa’s Bullpen
It was not the most fun looking night to hit in Buffalo, New York, and in general, pitchers on both times were a little down in velocity as a result of the cold. So we’re not going to draw any real conclusions from performances here. Jeremiah Estrada threw only fastballs from his stint on Chicago’s taxi squad, Manny Rodriguez continues to do good work in closing opportunities, and Ryan Borucki and Tyler Duffey are dependable veterans.
THREE: Walker Powell and Jake Reindl
Powell came in emergency relief of Palencia, and what else would you expect from the best execution guy in the system than four hitless relief innings. Powell’s stuff is, I’ve said before, a bit beneath Major League quality. But the slider and curveball are both pretty solid, and I think he’s interesting when it’s basically 60-75% breaking ball usage. He can throw them in any count
As for Reindl, this video says it all:
TWO: Caleb Kilian
Buffalo mostly had their bats on their shoulder yesterday — again, it was cold — and Caleb responded. He garnered eighteen called strikes, throwing strikes two-thirds of the time and generally working from ahead in the count. Kilian showed six different pitches, toying a little more with a slider that was responsible for one of his three swings-and-misses and one of four strikeouts. I still think we see too many four-seamers in most Kilian outings, but I did appreciate that he threw his hardest one (95.2) on his second-to-last pitch for a strikeout. I would go with more sinkers — the pitch had a 50 CSW% in this one — where I think he’ll see some seam-shifted wake effects from it being a low-spin pitch.
Two solid outings in a row for Kilian, who looks to have successfully put that disasterous Opening Day outing in the rearview and moved on. My expectations are permanently more tempered than in 2021, but I think he can be a helpful depth starter (with some potentially interesting relief potential) for years to come here.
ONE: Cade Horton
Continuing to ace the test, this time with four hitless innings:
And some added context on the outing:
In truth — and this tells you something important I think — I didn’t think it was that great of an outing from Horton. His fastball lived all night in the middle third, with 16 of 31 fastballs finding the middle third of the plate, and Augusta just couldn’t touch it. The slider was mostly the loopiest version of itself; that pitch reminds me a bit of Kerry Wood’s back in the day, remember how his would get loopy and then all of a sudden he’d lock into the ones with late bite and it was off to the races? I think it’s possible he was mixing in a few curveballs even, as a few pitches dipped into the high 70s, and he did throw one changeup I really liked. This was a mostly right-handed lineup, and those hitters just don’t stand much of a chance.
Mostly, the outing just tells you this isn’t the right level for him. That’s not a criticism for the Cubs, as I can totally understand why they’d break a guy with such limited pitching experience in Low-A, especially when it offers warmer climates and higher odds to build confidence. You’ll note the three walks and raise an eyebrow, but I wouldn’t — he was throwing strikes all night, just had a couple occasions of barely missing on full counts. The good news is that I think Cade’s going to look way nastier in South Bend this summer than he does now.
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As a final aside, a quick word on Michael Arias, the Pelicans starting pitcher who went on Tuesday night, and is the Pelican to really make an impression on me this week. Definitely a name you want to know. Arias struggled in his first outing with feel, but had it in his second time out: 4 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 8 K. I knew his lightning-quick arm and ex-infielder arm slot produced a really live fastball, but I learned in this outing that he has this really nice changeup with good late sink. It produced four strikeouts and you can see it a bit here: