As burly Dominican Oscar de La Cruz strolled to the dugout after yet another strikeout to end the top half of the 5th, he left no doubt in my mind who is the top pitching prospect in the Cubs system. In his start on Friday night against the Ft. Wayne Tincaps, de La Cruz went five innings, striking out nine batters while allowing just a single run on one walk and a hit batter. A very impressive performance, particularly considering it was just his fourth start since returning from injury, and he did it all in 69 pitches.
When the 21-year-old took the mound in the top half of the 1st, I could already see the appeal. De la Cruz has a wide waist to go along with sturdy legs, and at 6’4” and 200 pounds, he looks like the prototypical workhouse. Coming from a 3/4 slot, de la Cruz has a slight head whack and a back-and-forth rock in his delivery, but his arm action is clean. I saw nothing in his delivery that made me think it would prevent him from starting in the future.
De la Cruz’s stuff was different from what I had heard beforehand. According to reports from last year and in Arizona, his fastball usually sits in the mid 90’s. On Friday night, however, his fastball was parked in the 89-91 range, topping out at 93 mph. This could be related to him just coming back from an arm injury, but it is certainly something to keep an eye on as being equipped with a mid-90’s heater raises his overall profile.
Nevertheless, de la Cruz’s fastball was still very impressive as it featured arm-side tail — that he used to sneak in on the hands of lefties and hit the outside corner against righties — with some sink when thrown low in the zone. The offering is heavy, and even when batters made solid contact with it, it was tough for them to put in the air. According to my count, he generated five swings and misses with his fastball.
His best pitch of the night was his curve, which came in two varieties. The first was thrown in the 76-78 range with more of a slurvey, sweeping action that he would locate for strikes. His other curveball was slightly slower, in the 72-74 range, which he used when he wanted to bury it more. With tight rotation and 11-5 movement, both of these offerings lead me to project his curve as a plus pitch in the future. He can already locate it well, both in and out of the zone, and low-A hitters had no chance against it. There were five more swings and misses on it, as well as countless hitters left confused as de la Cruz dropped it in for strike three (see 2:14 of video).
Finally, the big righty has a fringe changeup that he rarely used. The pitch was in the 80-81 range and showed arm-side movement but lacked tumble. He has a lot of work to do to make the pitch project as average, but he did locate it well.
Video via Will Siskel of the Baseball Prospectus Prospect Team
Overall, despite the velocity being down, it was a very impressive performance and de la Cruz’s stuff is just too strong for hitters at this level. He’ll need to improve his changeup if he wants to stick in the rotation as he progresses through the system, but everything else is there: The body, a strong out pitch (curveball), and a plus fastball if his velocity comes back. Although he allowed a few hits, not one Ft. Wayne player made strong contact. As I walked out of Four Winds Field on Friday night, I left knowing the Cubs have a potential middle-of-the-rotation starter a couple of years away.