Before The Plan, before Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora and Jorge Soler, the Cubs came to terms with Cuban defector Gerardo Concepcion during the winter of 2012.
At the time, the Cubs were chasing Yasiel Puig, along with the aforementioned Soler. The less-heralded Concepcion was the first to sign, inking a five-year deal that guaranteed the left-handed pitcher $6 million with a $3 million signing bonus. The Cubs had to be beside themselves as it was one of the new regime’s very first “big moves.”
Only twenty years old, Concepcion was coming off of a lot of success playing for Industriales of the Cuban National Series. He earned Rookie of the Year honors in 2011 after winning 10 games with a 3.36 ERA in 21 appearances. In 2010, his age-18 season, he pitched in 47 innings for the Cuban Junior National team with a 3.06 ERA and 39 strikeouts while allowing zero home runs.
Speculation ran rampant that the Cubs overpaid for Concepcion and the front office somewhat agreed. It was a luxury they were willing to risk with the international rules about to change. Pundits didn’t think he had a high ceiling. Jim Callis projected Concepcion as a back-end starter and ranked him 19th in the Cubs system. Ben Badler noted that “some scouts” saw his upside as a potential No. 5 starter. The Cubs had to know the signing was a risk, but knew they had little to lose when faced with a lengthy rebuild and a losing team.
Here’s what Jed Hoyer had to say about the signing:
“He’s certainly advanced when it comes to feel for pitching, but I don’t want to put expectations on him. Let’s get him to the minor leagues and let him get out and perform, we’ll figure that part out when we do that.”
An advanced approach and solid numbers in his home country? Sounds like a great signing who only needs to be slightly groomed, not one who will toil in the minors for five and a half years. But hey, welcome to the majors Gerardo Concepcion! No longer a back-end starter, he pitched well in both AA and AAA this season as a reliever and showed flashes in his first stint in Chicago.
For a couple years, however, it looked like Concepcion was going to be quite the bust. After finalizing his deal in late March, he was sent to the Cubs low-A affiliate in Peoria, and he was straight up terrible. The advanced feel for the game seemed to be lost in the cornfields of southern Illinois as he looked like a prospect who didn’t belong on the mound. Over 52.1 innings, he gave up 70 hits, walked 30, and only struck out 28, which led to a 7.39 ERA.
His numbers were drastically improved the following season, but that’s because he only pitched three innings before having his season shut down with a back injury.
When Concepcion got back on the mound in a full-time role, it was at A-ball in 2014. A second time through the league and no longer younger than the average player there, his 3.89 ERA over 41.2 innings was still far from elite. He started showing signs of improvement outside of the earned runs, however, as his walks per 9 innings decreased drastically (3.2 compared to 5.2) and his strikeout rate almost doubled (from 4.8 to 8.2).
And then he started the yo-yoing that left us wondering if he’d ever amount to anything with the big league club. Promoted to high-A in 2014, Concepcion threw 15.1 innings with a 1.17 ERA and similar BB/9 and K/9 to those above. It was a pretty small sample that was balanced out by his time in the Arizona Fall League that year, where he pitched another 15.1 innings with a 5.87 ERA, nine walks, and only seven strikeouts.
Concepcion then repeated high-A for 12.2 innings at the start of 2015, but was promoted after posting a 3.55 ERA and a solid 9.9 K/9. Things appeared to be trending in the right direction…until the see-saw tilted again at AA Tennessee.
He pitched 31 innings with 29 walks, 45 hits, and an 8.24 ERA and 2.337 WHIP. He allowed 8.2 BB/9 and only posted 7.1 K/9; are you surprised he was even given another shot? ‘Cause I kind of am. This is how he finished the season, too. The good news is that his performance kept him safe from the Rule 5 draft this past offseason. The great news is that he turned it around between then and now.
His second go-round at AA? Zero earned runs over 17.2 innings pitched with only four walks, five hits and 17 strikeouts. After being promoted to AAA Iowa, the walks ticked up a little bit again as he issued 10 over 17.1 innings. Concepcion was able to limit his damage by striking out nearly one batter per inning and he maintained a very acceptable 2.60 ERA.
Now, after a roller-coaster ride worthy of Cedar Point, he’s in Chicago and already has 2.0 scoreless innings pitched with two strikeouts having only allowed one hit. It makes you wonder how long he can keep it up. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for Concepcion or the front office to follow all the movement. It’s nothing short of incredible.
Having too much confidence in Concepcion at this point would probably be unwise unless you are feeling a little frisky. Predicting how he will perform moving forward could be cause for insanity if the trend of his career continues. Is it only a matter of time before the clock strikes midnight and he turns back into a pumpkin, imploding in spectacular fashion with the Cubs? Or is he capable of overcoming his own history and put it all together to turn into a solid reliever for years to come? Either way, it’s exciting to see him get the chance to make a difference for the best team in baseball.
Good luck, give ’em hell, and let’s hope the ups and downs are finally over. The Cubs will need another lefty arm in the pen at some point this season, and it could save them a couple of prospects if it is Concepcion.