Five Stars of the Cubs Farm, 5/10/23: Jensen in Relief, Caissie’s Bomb and Ben Brown’s Gem
Cade Horton’s debut in South Bend did not go well yesterday, with three home runs allowed in just 3.2 innings. After previous Horton gems in Myrtle Beach, I discussed how hitters just weren’t hitting his fastball in the zone. And I wonder, now, about the feedback loop that reality creates in a pitcher’s head. For a month, Horton was able to miss with relatively down-the-middle fastballs and still get whiffs. Does that build an acceptance about that pitch being an okay mistake?
I wonder if this is a downside to his conservative Opening Day assignment to Low-A. Did that force an adjustment back to a mentality that already existed in Horton last June in the College World Series (that the middle third is not okay). He’ll be fine, as the elite athleticism lends to good delivery repeating, which usually leads to pretty good command (to go with really good raw stuff). But succeeding in South Bend might mean flipping a switch that hasn’t been on in 11 months.
Let’s find a few details from a really fun day in the Cubs’ minor league system…
Honorable Mention: Jordan Nwogu had arguably his best game of the young season, going 2-for-3 with his fifth home run of the season. Nwogu is probably the type of hitter most negatively impacted by the pre-tacked ball being used in Double-A this year: new to the level, with a swing that will meet its match against good high fastballs. Those tacky baseballs will naturally have better carry up in the zone, turning slightly above-average heaters into decidedly plus ones. It’s been a struggle for Nwogu so far, and pitchers have been aggressive against him. A little more damage should yield more respect, which should in turn lead to more walks and more value at the dish.
FIVE: RYAN JENSEN
Always great news when a new role — one that has been anticipated for Jensen for quite some time — looks so good and natural right away. It appears the moves to activate D.J. Herz and promote Kohl Franklin pushed Ryan Jensen out of the Tennessee rotation, prompting a move to the bullpen that has seemed fait accompli for a few years now. In his first try as a reliever, Jensen was dynamic: 6-up, 6-down, 4 by strikeout, with a 36 CSW%.
Jensen particularly dominated the lefties he faced, and it appears he’s going to lean heavily on breaking balls against them: cutters and curveballs leading the charge (he also got a whiff on probably the best changeup I’ve seen him throw, which I’ll have to screengrab at a later time). Righties saw a lot of sinkers, which were coming about 96 mph from what I saw on tape. I think he’ll trend up closer to 100 as the season goes on, and I think this role puts Wrigley on the table in the second half.
FOUR: PORTER HODGE AND MICHAEL ARIAS
Hodge struggled in three of his first four outings in Double-A after a really good Spring Training. But he seems to be rounding into form in his last two outings. While Hodge was walking too many in those first few games, he was throwing strikes the whole time at a pretty solid rate. This tells you that he’s still learning what works with two strikes at this level, particularly against left-handed hitters that have touched him up for a .901 OPS — probably trying to be a bit too precise. Things looked much more comfortable yesterday, and I suspect Hodge is going to have success as his BABIP luck comes back into normal territory. Still a top 15 prospect for me in the system, though the relief risk talk will increase now that’s reached the upper levels.
I’ll only quickly note on Arias that I almost wrote him up for my piece on Monday about prospect breakouts, despite his at-the-time 6.94 ERA. I’ve been impressed enough with the three-pitch mix to think he’s probably at the back end of the top 50, even if I think it’s overwhelmingly likely that he’s a reliever down the line.
THREE: EZEQUIEL PAGAN, FABIAN PERTUZ AND YOHENDRICK PINANGO
Let’s talk Pagan here, who is off to a pretty incredible start after starting the season late due to offseason knee surgery. The 22 year old is now 18-for-39 in 11 games with South Bend, with just five strikeouts in 44 plate appearances. If you’re unfamiliar with his past work, the former 13th-round pick out of Puerto Rico was probably Myrtle Beach’s most consistent hitter last year after PCA left town. He’s left-handed and wiry, the kind of athlete the Cubs might describe as a “loose mover,” with very good hand-eye coordination. It’s a bit similar to Darius Hill up in Triple-A, a heckuva ballplayer that also carries some tweener risk in his profile: not quite strong enough to project for power, not quite athletic enough to threaten big steals and high BABIP’s. He’d be a good candidate for the Arizona Fall League at the end of the year, where I think the Cubs could put him next to more highly-regarded prospects and see how the tools stack up.
TWO: OWEN CAISSIE
Not yet 21 years old, it’s pretty amazing to see the success Caissie is having this year against 24 year old pitchers using tacky baseballs, with the wRC+ up to 168 over 114 plate appearances. Smarter men than me have found there’s a correlation between a prospect’s top-end exit velocities and their future power potential, which I’m pretty sure means that Caissie’s 117 mph nuke last night suggests he’ll be a future Home Run Derby champ in the bigs (or something).
Caissie is just hitting everything hard these days, with a line drive rate incredibly north of THIRTY percent. The strikeouts are going to be mentioned all year, but his rate has dropped each week as the season has went along, and he deserves plenty of credit for succeeding despite a 40% K rate. I’ll also note that Caissie seems again more athletic and playable in right field to me, with the combination of all these factors leading to a breakout that I think deserves a spot in most top 100 prospect rankings.
ONE: BEN BROWN
Shortly before yesterday’s noon first pitch, The Athletic’s Eno Sarris tweeted this:
And then Brown went out and absolutely shoved: 5 innings, 2 hits (one of which popped out of an outfielder’s glove), 0 runs, 3 walks, 10 strikeouts. He got 16 whiffs in this one, seeing more swing and miss and more velocity as the outing went along. He was 93-97 with the fastball, threw his unicorn curveball up to 88 mph, and had more success with his revised slider than he has all season. Don’t worry that it was the baseball leading the success in Double-A, it was instead the result of a pitcher that has taken a jump. He’s top four in the system for me.
With Kyle Hendricks about ready for a return to the Majors, it’s probably unlikely we see a Brown spot start in the bigs at any point soon. Instead, I think the Cubs will transition to thinking about how to have Brown break into the Majors as a reliever (like Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson did) first, and then back into a starting role either late in the season (if the team has fallen out of the race) or in 2024. Brown would be a real weapon out of the bullpen even right now, where I suspect he’d be about 95-98 with the fastball with two good breaking ball options.