In 2015, Oscar de la Cruz skipped rookie ball and came out of nowhere to become the Cubs MiLB breakout starting pitcher. He had 73 K’s in 73 IP for Eugene and shot up the prospect lists, eventually entering the top ten. While he has spent most of this year on the DL, de la Cruz recently returned to active duty in South Bend.
Heading into this year, I thought Preston Morrison and Trevor Clifton would do well but not necessarily be breakouts. In fact, I had predicted that Morrison would skip South Bend and start the year at Myrtle Beach. I was a bit wrong on that one. Morrison had a 6+ ERA in April and rebounded to have a sub-1.00 ERA for both June and July. Clifton, on the other hand, was the Cubs MiLB Pitcher of the Month in May.
Not every pitcher I picked to break out has done so this summer. Adbert Alzolay had a great April and August but in between has been rough. Ryan Kellogg took a while to get going has a 1.99 ERA in the second half. Dylan Cease and Bryan Hudson have been beset by minor injuries and too many walks, respectively. Jose Paulino had a great first half at Eugene but has struggled at South Bend in August. Bailey Clark, a 2016 Cubs draftee out of Duke, has been looking good in abbreviated starts in Eugene, throwing in the low to mid-90’s in most starts.
Then, there are three pitchers who I did not see coming at all this year.[beautifulquote align=”right”]The 21-year-old lefty has posted an ERA of 1.11 over the course of 10 starts.[/beautifulquote]
Manny Rondon has been the ace of Eugene’s staff in the second half. The 21-year-old lefty has posted an ERA of 1.11 over the course of 10 starts. He’s struck out 39 batters in 48.2 IP and has walked only 16. Throwing in the low-to-mid-90’s, Rondon has used fastball command and changing speeds to keep hitters off balance this summer. To wit, opponents are are batting only .228 against him.
Jose Albertos is another sleeper. While he only “officially” pitched four innings this summer, he was dazzling in spring training and extended spring training. He shot up the prospect charts despite pitching in one game. Here is what MLB Pipeline had to say after placing him at #9 on the Top 20 prospects.
He looked spectacular in his U.S. debut in 2016, striking out seven in four one-hit innings. He came down with soreness in his forearm shortly afterward, so Chicago decided to shut him down until instructional league as a precaution.
Albertos doesn’t have a ton of projection remaining in his 6-foot-1, 185-pound frame, but he doesn’t need it because his present stuff already is impressive. He operates with a 93-95 mph fastball and can reach 97, showing the ability to throw it for strikes on both sides of the plate. He’s still refining his secondary pitches but already flashes a well above-average changeup and a solid slider.
More advanced than the typical teenaged pitcher, Albertos has good command of his pitches and can add and subtract from them. He’s years away from Wrigley Field at this point, but he has the upside of a frontline starter if he can stay healthy.
While Albertos perfectly fits the definition of a breakout pitcher, his limited amount of work disqualifies him from being called such. Everyone will see him coming next year.
Now at Tennessee, Zach Hedges has been outstanding this year. A 26th round pick in 2014, Hedges was selected largely for the projectability inherent in his 6’4″, 190 lb. frame. While he did have a nice slider in college, his build was such that the Cubs felt he could easily add some weight and a few ticks to his fastball. Sure enough, Hedges began 2016 by adding lean muscle, which resulted in an uptick on his fastball to the 94/95 range. Combined with what I think is a plus slider, Hedges became a much more volatile pitcher. His fastball has a lot of late movement and, as a result, he has become primarily a ground ball machine.
The Azusa Pacific product had a 2.47 ERA in the first half for the Pelicans, during which he made 12 starts and struck out 47 in 73 IP. After averaging almost 7 innings a start, Hedges was promoted to Tennessee in late July. He has since made 6 starts for the Smokies with a 2.36 ERA. At the rate he is going, Hedges could start 2017 at Iowa, not too far from Chicago.
To me, Zach Hedges is easily the breakout pitcher of the year. No one saw his dominance coming. AA is usually the litmus test for prospects and Hedges seems to be doing just fine at that level. I think he may have something else up his sleeve for next year too. He’s going to go home after the season and he’ll work hard to further improve his body and his game. I am looking forward to seeing what he comes up with. I will also look forward to how well he does in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.
Hedges is an easy prospect to like. Hopefully, this year will put him on some prospects lists come winter.