Last year, Oscar de la Cruz skipped rookie ball and came out of nowhere to become the Cubs MiLB breakout starting pitcher. He had 73 Ks in 73 IP for Eugene. He shot up the prospect lists eventually entering the top ten. While he has spent most of this year on the DL, de la Cruz recently returned to active duty in South Bend.
Heading into this year, I thought that Preston Morrison and Trevor Clifton would do well but not necessarily be breakouts. In fact, I thought Morrison would skip South Bend and start the year at South Bend. I was a bit wrong on that one. Morrison had a 6+ ERA in April and rebounded to have a sub 1.00 ERA for both June and July. Clifton, on the other hand, was the Cubs MiLB Pitcher of the Month in May.
Not every pitcher I picked to breakout has this summer. Adbert Alzolay had a great April and August but in between has been rough. Ryan Kellogg took a while and has a 1.99 ERA in the second half. Dylan Cease and Bryan Hudson have been beset by minor injuries and walks respectively. Jose Paulino had a great first half at Eugene but has struggled at South Bend in August. Bailey Clark, a 2016 Cubs draftee out of Duke, has been looking good in abbreviated starts in Eugene. He has been in the low to mid-90s in most starts.
Then, there are three pitchers who I did not see coming at all this year.
Manny Rondon has been the ace of Eugene in the second half. The 21-year-old lefty has made 10 starts and has posted an ERA of 1.11. He’s struck out 39 batters in 48.2 IP and has walked only 16. Opponents have only hit .228 against him.
Jose Albertos is the second. While he only “officially” pitched four innings this summer, he was dazzling in spring training and extended spring training. He shot up the prospects charts despite pitching in one game. Here is what MLB Pipeline had to say after placing him at #9 out of the Top 20 prospects.
He looked spectacular in his U.S. debut in 2016, striking out seven in four one-hit innings. He came down with soreness in his forearm shortly afterward, so Chicago decided to shut him down until instructional league as a precaution.
Albertos doesn’t have a ton of projection remaining in his 6-foot-1, 185-pound frame, but he doesn’t need it because his present stuff already is impressive. He operates with a 93-95 mph fastball and can reach 97, showing the ability to throw it for strikes on both sides of the plate. He’s still refining his secondary pitches but already flashes a well above-average changeup and a solid slider.
More advanced than the typical teenaged pitcher, Albertos has good command of his pitches and can add and subtract from them. He’s years away from Wrigley Field at this point, but he has the upside of a frontline starter if he can stay healthy.
While Albertos perfectly fits the definition of a breakout pitcher, his limited amount of work disqualifies him. Everyone will see him coming next year.
Zach Hedges, now at Tennessee, has been outstanding this year. A 26th round pick in 2014, Hedges was selected for his projectability. While he did have his slider in college, he also had a frame that could add some weight which would add to his fastball. He began 2016 by adding lean muscle which resulted in an uptick on his fastball to 94/95. Combined with what I think is a plus slider, Hedges became a much more volatile pitcher. His fastball has a lot of late movement and, as a result, Hedges is primarily a ground ball machine.
At Myrtle Beach, the Azusa Pacific product had a 2.47 ERA in the first half for the Pelicans. He made 12 starts and struck out 47 in 73 IP. After averaging almost 7 innings a start, Hedges was promoted to Tennessee in late July. He has made 6 starts for the Smokies with a 2.36 ERA. At the rate he is going, Zach could start 2017 at Iowa, not too from Chicago.
To me, Zach Hedges is easily the breakout pitcher of the year. No one saw his dominance coming. Usually, AA is the litmus test for prospects. Hedges seems to be doing just fine. I think next year, Hedges may have something else up his sleeve. He’s going to go home after the season, work hard on his body and on his game to improve. I am looking forward to seeing what he comes up with. I will also look forward to how well he does in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. He is an easy prospect to like. Hopefully, this year will put him on some prospects lists this winter.