The title sounds like a joke, but it was not. In fact, I was quite serious about the whole affair. One of the critiques of the Cubs farm system is that it has not produced one starting pitcher in the Theo era. It has produced some pitchers received in trades in Carl Edwards, Kyle Hendricks, Neil Ramirez, and Justin Grimm. Gerardo Concepcion is the only reliever signe by Theo to get a cup of coffee in the bigs, and it really was a cup of coffee.
Last night, two pitchers were on display in the Cubs system who could change that in the next couple of years. Both have had forearm issues this year, but both are looking to move past those problems.
For Oscar de la Cruz, the 6’6″ righty was making just his fifth start of the year and his second for South Bend. His forearm strain occurred in spring training and he was shut down until mid-June. He began a throwing program and made his first start in the Arizona Rookie League before two starts in Eugene for a total of 11.1 IP. He made his first start for South Bend on the road at Great Lakes. He pitched 4.2 innings with 7 Ks regularly hitting between 93-96 on the gun in addition to throwing his plus curve.
In his home debut against Fort Wayne, de la Cruz faired fairly well. He cruised through the first three innings with only a single against him and he struck out the side in the third, giving him 6 at that point. He looked relaxed, the ball came out of his hand easily, and his curveball looked vicious. In the fourth, he ran into some trouble. A single, walk, and hit by pitch set the stage for the only run off Oscar. Alan Garcia singled to right field. The man on third scored easily but the next runner was gunned down at the plate by Eddy Martinez.
At this point, de la Cruz had thrown 56 pitches through four innings. I thought he might be good for two more. He came out for the fifth inning and went 1-2-3 with another 2 Ks to make for 9 on the night. Oscar did not return for the sixth, finishing with 69 pitches and a 2-1 lead. The Cubs would lose in the 15th inning.
Overall, it was the second time I had seen Oscar pitch this year and he was impressive. He works quickly, he was pitching to both sides of the plate and up and down. His curve looked fluid, though I did notice he slowed down his arm action a couple of times, but its break made that irrelevant. He did not throw his changeup much. I would have really liked to have seen him get to 80+ pitches, but that can wait for another day. This outing was extremely successful.
As for Dylan Cease, his forearm strain came on June 11, his fifth start of the year. After 4.2 IP and 7 Ks, Cease called for the trainer and manager to come to the mound. He reached up and touched his shoulder with the ball, left the game, and didn’t reappear until July 29, missing two starts.
His return start had strict pitch counts and it did not go well. He walked four batters, struck out one, and left after only 1/3 of an inning.
Last night the pitch counts were still in effect.
After just two batters and two strikeouts on just eight pitches, I was fully ready to declare him healed and ready to return to full action. Then, some pitching problems set in.
All year long, Cease’s only issue in pitching, to me, is that he works a lot of deep counts. He tends to miss high and away or low and away. Such was last night. After the two Ks, he gave up a walk, a stolen base, a single (which scored a run), and another stolen base before striking out the last batter. It seemed to take forever. I was wrong about how long forever was.
In the second inning, Cease kept failing to put hitters away. He gave up a walk, a ground out and a line out before walking his third batter on the night. Every hitter worked deep into the count against Cease. After the second walk, Cease had met his pitch count (50) and was taken out of the game by pitching coach Brian Lawrence. Duncan Robinson got the next hitter to strand the runners and Eugene would go on to win by a score of 3-2.
Physically, Cease looked great! The ball came out of his hand very smoothly, there was no differentiation between his fastball, curve or change arm actions. It was everything you could have asked for except for the three walks and 2 singles.
His wildness might just be chalked to up to rustiness. After missing two weeks and only facing five batters the previous start, efficiency, and command are hard to come by at short-season A. On the other hand, that is what he is at this level to do. I think the big thing to take away is that he is healthy. Once you have that, then you can work on other things.
I will tell you something that I will remember most about Cease’s start. The way he attacked the first two hitters of the night was the most vicious and efficient pitching I have seen by any Cub minor leaguer this year. He was pounding the zone with 97-98 mph fastballs. There was nothing those two hitters could do to combat that. The rest of the night, he appeared to be nibbling.
Bottom line – Be more vicious in the zone.