Oscar de la Cruz just turned 21 in March. That’s pretty young for a pitcher, but this will already be his fourth year pitching in the Cubs organization. Signed in 2012, the former shortstop has not had an easy road as a prospect. In fact, most people did not know of his existence until last spring. He burst onto the scene in 2015, going from nowhere into the top ten on most prospect lists thanks mainly to a devastating downhill fastball that punished bats. This year, due to minor injuries, he will start the year in extended Spring Training before he heads to South Bend.
For de la Cruz, failing as a position player is turning out to be the best thing for his overall growth. It may not have seemed like a very good idea when he first began pitching for the Cubs’ Dominican Summer League team in 2013, though. His four starts that June spanned 2.1, 4, 1.2, and 3 innings, and he gave up 3, 0, 4, and 1 run, respectively. A 6.55 ERA in just four outings was not an obvious sign of future success, but the Jekyll and Hyde nature of those starts did reveal some promise.
In order to really capitalize, however, some adjustments were needed for the then-18 year old. When he came back in 2014, de la Cruz was not the same pitcher. He really only had one bad outing where he gave up 6 runs, but for most of that summer he averaged 5.36 innings per start over 14 starts. In 75 innings pitched, his 1.80 ERA was built upon the facts that he struck out 64, walked only 19 and held opposing hitters to .199 average. Yet, no one said much about him back in the US. He was, for the most part, a ghost.
It was in spring training last year that I began to hear whispers about de la Cruz. Those mainly came from this video…
2015 was a statistically successful year for de la Cruz, one that sent him rocketing from three feet high to rising into the top ten on most prospect lists. At 6’5” and now approaching 220 pounds, he quickly became a guy everyone wanted to see. In his third start, he went six innings and struck out nine. In one August start he struck out thirteen. He did have a couple of bad starts in his 13 appearances, and consistency seems to be an area of future concern, but he is doing this mostly with a fastball. In 2015, de la Cruz pitched 73 innings, had a 2.84 ERA, struck out 73, and walked only 17. Opponents scraped to hit .211 against him.
Baseball America described his attributes perfectly in this profile from last November:
Physicality is de la Cruz’s calling card. Some club officials project he could be as tall as 6-foot-6 and could push 250 pounds when he finishes growing, and he has a fast arm. His fastball sits in the 92-93 mph range but bumps 97 regularly when his delivery is in sync and he’s getting extension out front. At his best, his fastball features above-average life, movement and angle to go with its velocity, making it a potential double-plus pitch. His curveball flashes plus and pushes 80-81 mph. He’s still learning to throw his changeup with proper arm speed. Competitiveness is an asset for de la Cruz, who has shown a mean streak on the mound.
Yes, he is still growing, and yes, he is still working on his secondary pitches. But a “double-plus pitch?” You don’t hear that too often in scouting circles, if at all. As the old baseball adage goes, “If they can’t hit your fastball, they can’t hit your fastball.” That has certainly been de la Cruz’s M.O. I don’t know how much longer he can get by with that Brandon Webb type of heavy fastball, but he will be breaking a lot of bats with it in the Midwest League this summer as he works to develop his curve and change.
It’s not yet known how long he will be at Extended Spring Training, but the Cubs usually err on the side of caution as they don’t want to bring players back too soon and do the whole thing all over again.
When de la Cruz does arrive in South Bend, he will be a big presence on the mound, and an intimidating one as well. He has one of the most volatile arms in the entire Cubs system. And what I find most intriguing is that he is still growing, both physically and in terms of his skillset, and could be a top-of-the-rotation type starter who is built to handle 200+ innings a year. The Cubs need more of those guys in their system.