The Cubs have 19 prospects* eligible to become minor-league free agents five days after the World Series ends, but only two of them are likely to be chosen for the 40-man roster. That would be Jhonny Pereda and Colin Rea (who still has two options). It seems that the Cubs like Philip Evans and his bat enough to give him an outside shot, but there’s really no place for him to go. Some of those not rostered will re-sign with the Cubs, others will surely go find new homes and, ideally, clearer paths to the majors.
Then there’s the question about what to do with 24-year-old Oscar De La Cruz.
The big 6-foot-4 righty out of the Dominican first popped up on everyone’s radar in 2015 at Eugene when he struck out 73 batters in 73 innings. Over the next three summers, he flashed a mid-90’s heater and a beautiful 12-to-7 curve that baffled hitters. The only issue was that he could not stay healthy.
He threw just 39 innings in 2016, then 56.2 the following year. Then he got in 77.1 before testing positive for a masking agent and receiving a suspension. His talent wasn’t affected by the time off and his health might have actually been impacted in a good way.
De La Cruz was allowed to do rehab work while suspended and he looked great at Myrtle Beach in April. He made three starts, striking out 17 over 15 innings and posting a 1.20 ERA. He looked ready to resume his career.
De La Cruz got back to work at Double-A Tennessee on May 3 and spent the next six weeks as a starter. Though opponents hit just .208 against him, he had a 4.30 ERA over eight starts. That had a lot to do with walking 20 and striking out just 39 over 44 innings.
At the ballpark tonight checking out #Cubs pitching prospect Oscar De La Cruz. FB 90-94 with mid-70s CB and mid 80s CH. Struggled early finding CB release point and lives down with 2-seam FB. Great angles. FB played some up. CH could play too. pic.twitter.com/qxtwUrifVK
— Chris Blessing (@C_Blessing) May 11, 2019
The second half of 2019 would bring about a dramatic change, as De La Cruz headed to the bullpen. That option had long been there, mainly to avoid injury, but also to be able to use his talents more efficiently. It took some time for him to adjust and figure it out. In July, he struck out 22 in 14 innings but had a 6.75 ERA. In his eight appearances that month, he surrendered three or more runs three separate times.
In August, however, De La Cruz looked like he belonged in the ‘pen. Mick Gillispie, the Smokies’ radio and TV broadcaster, praised the righty and his stuff at every opportunity throughout the month. With a 2.35 ERA and 20 strikeouts to just two walks for the month, it looked like his relief career might be taking off.
Here’s the issue with that: After his suspension in 2018, the Cubs removed him from the 40-man roster. As a result, De La Cruz can become a free agent on November 4 if the Cubs don’t place him back on the roster.
The Cubs would surely like to retain De La Cruz’s services for 2020, but are probably not willing to burn a roster spot to do so. That’s quite the dilemma. Some team is going to take a risk on De La Cruz if he is a free agent. He’s too talented and too young for them not to try.
At the same time, the Cubs now have new guys in charge of the minors and that may see something they really like as well. Do they run the risk of letting De La Cruz walk as a free agent or do they lock him back up on the 40-man? It likely comes down to whether the new guys think they are able to make him better than he was in August.
The starter ship has sailed, but the 2019 version of Oscar De La Cruz might just be getting out of the dock. It won’t take long to find out exactly what course is being plotted.
*Gioskar Amaya, Corey Black, Charcer Burks, Roberto Caro, Erick Castillo, Trevor Clifton, Taylor Davis, Oscar De La Cruz, Enrique de los Rios, Phillip Evans, Johnny Field, Chih-Wei Hu, Erick Leal, Luis Lugo, Dixon Machado, Jhonny Pereda, Colin Rea, Manny Rondon, Alex Wilson