By Todd Johnson
It has been a strange year for Dylan Cease. Coming into the year, he was the most highly touted Cubs pitching prospect. Armed with an upper 90s fastball and a mid-70s curve, Cease wasted no time annihilating most of the Midwest League in April. In 5 starts, he pitched 23.2 innings with a 1.90 ERA while striking out 37. Opponents hit a measly .177 against him. The only issue Cease had was he issued 15 walks.
For his efforts, Cease was named the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Month and he earned Midwest League Pitcher of the Week after he no hit Great Lakes for 6 innings.
However, come May, things were not as rosy as April. His first start was his normal 5 inning affair as he struck out 6 and allowed one run on three hits. His second start saw him struggle. In only 3.2 IP, he threw 89 pitches. He struck out 7, but gave up 6 hits. On May 18, his season changed quickly when he rolled his ankle covering third base. He tried to pitch again but was removed from the game after only 1.2 IP and 36 pitches. Cease would not return to pitch for almost a month.
To miss a month cannot be easy for a pitcher. It’s almost as if you would be starting spring training over when you returned. And that is how the Cubs have handled Cease in his return. He only threw 36 pitches in 1.2 IP when he came back on June 11. On June 16th, he went two innings and threw just 28 pitches. I thought they maybe the Cubs could have stretched him out a bit more, but there could have been other factors that night that I might not now, or maybe two innings was his agreed upon limit to build him back up. The next time he pitched was in the MWL All-Star Game on the 20th as he got in 1 inning of work.
Yesterday, I looked forward to seeing how long of a leash Cease would be given. A rain delay before the game did not help matters any. I just hoped he would not be scratched when play began.
Cease came on in the bottom of the first and looked, well, like Dylan Cease. Being a strikeout pitcher, he sometimes has a tendency to throw a lot of pitches in an inning, especially the first. Such was the case last year in the first half at Eugene, and such was the case in the first inning. His fastball sat 94-96. He struck out 2, 1 of them looking, but walked one. In all, 22 pitches was a pretty high count. He would not come close to that in an inning the rest of the day.
Right now, Cease is pretty much a two pitch pitcher. His fastball looked much better in innings 2-4. He was efficient as he was able to command it better than in the first. When his curve comes in at 74, that has to be extremely head shaking for the opposing hitters. But that’s what he does. That’s who he is. When Cease can get ahead of hitters, as he did in the second, third, and fourth, he has a 1.74 ERA. When he falls behind hitters, his ERA jumps to 6.23.
Consequently, Cease went 10 pitches, 12 pitches, and finally 8 pitches to finish his day. He did not allow a hit. He did walk 2, but he struck out 5, picked off a runner off of second, and touched 97 in the fourth.
I thought he pitched really well after the first. That is what he needs to do going forward. If he can be efficient, strike guys out, and go deep into the 7th inning, look out! I tend to think that 100 innings pitched at this level is a good solid amount to build up arm strength. Right now, Cease is at 42.1 IP with about 12- 13 starts left. It can be done without taxing his arm. 5-6 IP a night would be perfect.
Today was only four innings, but it showed that he is slowly being built back up to be let loose in July. It also reaffirmed the promise of that arm.
Cease’s next start will likely be Friday the 30th against Lansing.