Not everything is written in stone. Before spring training even began, Teddy Eley and I profiled who we thought would be assigned to the Iowa Cubs, Tennessee Smokies, Myrtle Beach Pelicans, and South Bend Cubs. We thought we had a pretty good handle on each roster, who the players to watch were, and who might be in each rotation. Then Spring Training performance and a couple of injures threw a monkey wrench into some of those predictions.
One pitching prospect in particular is exceeding all expectations this spring. No, it’s not Dylan Cease, though he is having an excellent camp. So, too, are Jake Stinnett and Trevor Clifton. But the player that is opening the most eyes is 18-year-old Bryan Hudson out of Alton High School in Illinois.
The 6’8” left-handed pitcher was selected by the Cubs in the third round of the 2015 MLB Draft, largely on the strength of what was said to be one of the best curves in the draft. In high school, he was mostly a two-pitch pitcher — an upper 80’s fastball and that devastating curve that actually moves more like a slider at times.
Hudson signed quickly with the Cubs and reported to the Arizona Rookie League, where he spent most of his time shagging flies, throwing with outfielders between innings, and fine-tuning his delivery. He also worked on developing a changeup. He saw limited action — 6.2 innings over 5 appearances — but put up a 2.70 ERA and struck out 5 in that time.
While the Cubs selected Alton based at least partially on the curve, he is also an excellent athlete. Alton High coach Todd Haug said of Hudson:
“…he’s got the physical ability and has passion and competitiveness and baseball IQ and all of that, quite honestly the first time the Cubs saw him was in basketball season. They sat in there watching a basketball practice with him dunking basketballs and realized this is not your typical one-dimensional unathletic pitcher. This guy’s an athlete.”
Coming into 2016 I assumed, along with most other people, that Hudson was bound for short-season Eugene. My thought was that the Cubs would take their time with him and that Hudson would need to work on his changeup and gain game experience. Even Fan Graphs concurred:
His fastball sat in the upper-80s for most of his senior year in high school, but reports from the team have him 91-93 in instructs. Though his ceiling is pretty high, he has a lot of work to do on his delivery, command, and changeup to dream of reaching it. His command is iffy at best, and he doesn’t have the cleanest mechanics on the mound, with a very arm-dominant delivery. While he’s an athletic guy overall, his sequencing and direction are not where they need to be yet, though pitchers of his size should be given a bit of leeway since it can take longer to figure things out.
This spring, Hudson has blown that projection to smithereens.
In addition to the work on his delivery and changeup, Hudson added a little lean mass to his 6’8” frame. While the learning curve was steep last year, his ability to adapt and adjust — likely aided by his athleticism — is helping him to exceed expectations.
He spent some time pitching up a level with South Bend two weeks ago, then the Cubs threw him into a couple of AAA games with the Iowa roster. Hudson more than held his own against the more experienced players and has not given up a run in his last five outings between the two levels.
To be quite honest, I don’t know if Eugene will be the right place for him. Yes, he needs experience and he needs to polish up that third pitch. But you don’t want him to get bored doing it, either.
As with any prospect — Dylan Cease is at a similar juncture in his development — you want the individual to grow at a healthy pace. You also want to push them, challenge them, and make them learn to adapt. The question for Hudson — and Cease — is where that growth will take place. I am extremely confident both will stay at extended spring training in April until it gets warmer.
By the time mid-May rolls around, decisions will have to be made. Where does Hudson go and how many innings do the Cubs expect to get him this year? Will it be a mixture of Eugene and South Bend? Will he be a piggyback starter this year or will he be rolled out to open games?
Hudson’s performance is forcing the Cubs to address a lot of questions, but that’s a good problem to have. How the organization answers those questions and sets the young pitcher’s development path should be an interesting storyline to follow the next two months.