The Cubs haven’t had much success developing pitchers they’ve drafted, but two young players who could change that futility in the next couple years were on display Friday night. Both Oscar de la Cruz and Dylan Cease have had forearm issues this year, but both are looking to move past those problems.
de la Cruz was making just his fifth start of the year and his second for South Bend. His forearm strain occurred in spring training and he was shut down until mid-June. The 6-6 righty began a throwing program and made his first start in the Arizona Rookie League before two starts in Eugene for a total of 11.1 IP. He made his first start for South Bend on the road at Great Lakes and pitched 4.2 innings, compiling 7 K’s and regularly hitting 93-96 mph on the gun in addition to throwing his plus curve.
In his home debut against Fort Wayne Friday night, de la Cruz fared relatively well. He cruised through the first three innings with only a single against him and he struck out the side in the 3rd, giving him 6 K’s at that point. He looked relaxed, the ball came out of his hand easily, and his curve looked vicious. In the 4th, however, he ran into some trouble. A single, walk, and hit by pitch set the stage for the only run de la Cruz would allow. Alan Garcia singled to right field and the man on third scored easily but the next runner was gunned down at the plate by Eddy Martinez.
At that point, de la Cruz had thrown 56 pitches through four innings and I thought he might be good for two more. He came out for the 5th inning and went 1-2-3 with two more strikeouts to give him 9 on the night. Though he was looking nice, de la Cruz did not return for the 6th, finishing with 69 pitches and a 2-1 lead. The Cubs would go on to lose in the 15th inning.
This was the second time I had seen de la Cruz pitch this year and he was impressive. He worked quickly, pitched to both sides of the plate and up and down. His curve looked fluid, though I did notice he slowed down his arm action a couple of times. Even so, its break made that irrelevant. He did not throw his changeup much but that’s not much of a concern. I really would have liked to see him get to 80+ pitches, but that can wait for another day. This outing was extremely successful.
Cease’s forearm strain came on June 11, his fifth start of the year. After 4.2 IP and 7 K’s, Cease called for the trainer and manager to come to the mound. He reached up and touched his shoulder with the ball, left the game, and didn’t reappear until July 29 after missing two starts. His return start was dictated by a strict pitch count and it did not go well. He walked four batters, struck out one, and left after only 1/3 of an inning.
Last night the pitch counts were still in effect. After two strikeouts to two batters on just eight pitches, I was fully ready to declare Cease healed and ready to return to full action. Then some problems set in.
Cease’s only issue this season, to me, is that he works a lot of deep counts. He tends to miss high and away or low and away. Such was the case last night. After the two strikeout, he gave up a walk, a stolen base, a single (which scored a run), and another stolen base before striking out the last batter. It seemed to take forever. I was wrong about how long forever was.
In the second inning, Cease kept failing to put hitters away. He gave up a walk, a ground out and a line out before walking his third batter on the night. After the second walk, Cease had met his pitch count (50) and was taken out of the game by pitching coach Brian Lawrence. Duncan Robinson got the next batter to strand the runners and Eugene would go on to win by a score of 3-2.
Physically, Cease looked great. The ball came out of his hand very smoothly and there was no differentiation between his fastball, curve, or change arm actions. It was everything you could have asked for, except for the three walks and two singles.
His wildness might just be chalked to up to rustiness. Efficiency and command are hard to come by at short-season A-ball and missing two weeks and only facing five batters the previous start probably didn’t help. On the other hand, that is what he is at this level to do. I think the big thing to take away is that Cease is healthy. Once you have that, then you can work on other things.
I will tell you something that I will remember most about Cease’s start. The way he attacked the first two hitters of the night was the most vicious and efficient pitching I have seen by any Cub minor leaguer this year. He was pounding the zone with 97-98 mph fastballs and there was nothing those two hitters could do to combat that. The rest of the night, though, he appeared to be nibbling.
Both pitchers showed varying degrees of the potential that has fans salivating over them. It’ll be a while before either makes his way to Wrigley, but hopes are high.
I took a lot away from their outings Friday, but here’s the bottom line: Be more vicious in the zone.