The Cubs have completely overhauled their farm system in less than two years, with 11 of their top 14 prospects from MLB Pipeline’s rankings joining the system via trades and the last two drafts. I find Lance Brozdowski’s list at Marquee to be more accurate, but he’s still got 10 of 14 entering the organization via those same channels. Pitchers make up a big chunk of the recent changes, with three arms in particular getting a lot of attention as potential members of the Cubs’ rotation next season.
Hayden Wesneski came over as part of the most surprising trade the Cubs pulled off ahead of the deadline, sending righty reliever Scott Effross to the Yankees. After a rough first outing with Iowa that came on 10 days’ rest, Wesneski has settled in nicely and is flashing some very serious stuff. His most recent outing in Indianapolis saw him allow just one hit with five strikeouts and a walk over five scoreless innings.
I-Cubs broadcaster Alex Cohen gushed about Wesneski’s “frisbee” slider baffling the Indy batters, as you can see below. This will play at the next level, folks.
Hayden Wesneski fools folks pretty badly. pic.twitter.com/H3l7H0XolD
— Itsacon (@thats_so_cub) August 19, 2022
“There’s not a ton of development opportunities that punch you in the face, which I think is a credit to him and where he’s coming from,” Cubs AGM and VP of pitching Craig Breslow told reporters. “But we see a guy with maybe some tweaks we can make around the margins. You know, we’ll take a close look at usage and recommendations. But it’s a guy that’s easy to target, just given these things.”
Breslow called his new charge “a strike thrower who came into stuff,” which is where you get to those little tweaks. Part of that comes from adding a four-seam that touches 98 after working mainly with a sinker until somewhat recently. The usage Breslow is talking about likely means how to best sequence pitches to get the most out of that wicked slider and keep big league hitters from being able to spit on it.
As strange as it may seem, avoiding walks isn’t necessarily about throwing more strikes. You can pump strikes at the lower levels of the game and get away with it because hitters aren’t as advanced, but that doesn’t last forever unless you’re Jacob deGrom or get a very generous Greg Maddux strike zone. The key is being able to pair up certain pitches to keep hitters guessing, which may be the final step in Wesneski’s development.
Caleb Kilian is another big-time strike-thrower who is learning to deal with an uptick in his stuff, particularly velocity that has jumped from low 90s to mid-90s while occasionally touching triple digits. As Sahadev Sharma noted in The Athletic, Killian has worked with I-Cubs pitching coach Ron Villone to correct some mechanical flaws that have cropped up this season and caused some command issues.
“He’s in a great place physically and mentally,” Breslow said of Kilian. “You know, there’s pressure that comes with being a kind of highly touted pitching prospect and getting to the big leagues and maybe things not going as exactly as planned. But I think, even like the All-Star break gave him the chance just to catch his breath coming back. And it’s just getting back to kind of his identity.
“We tried to simplify things for him, and said kind of, ‘Caleb, when you’re at your best, who are you?’ And the answer was like, ‘I’m a guy who pounds the strike zone with a really heavy sinker.'”
It feels like the Cubs have a really good handle on what they need to do to push Kilian and Wesneski forward, but righty Ben Brown still has a bit of mystery about him. His fastball sits around 95 and can touch 98, then he’s got a power slider and a curveball, though evaluators believe he needs a changeup to beat lefties and maintain a starting role.
“Obviously, we have in front of us the goal of keeping him healthy, keeping him developing, but we also saw some development opportunities,” Breslow explained. “And we’re not going to be the first organization to say, ‘Hey, he would benefit from adding a changeup or separating the breaking balls.’ But, I think we’ve demonstrated some success in those endeavors.”
The Cubs have most certainly had developmental success when it comes to making delivery changes, with Effross dropping down to sidearm being the most famous of late. Ryan Jensen‘s shortened arm stroke is another and I think we’ll hear more about Kohl Franklin reworking his repertoire over the offseason. Elbow surgery kept us from hearing more about Codi Heuer working to differentiate his fastballs, but that’s something to watch in the future.
For Brown, however, it sounds like the folks on the pitching side are still trying to figure out exactly which tack to take.
“Intuitively, a lot of people think changeup,” Breslow added. “But that doesn’t have to be the only way.”
While honing the offspeed stuff is the most obvious tweak, it’s not as simple as it sounds. As we’ve seen from Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele, and others throughout the organization, it can take a long time to get a feel for the change and it may never really work. Steele has spoken about working on that pitch some more in the offseason, so maybe he and Brown can get together at camp to swap secrets.
To me, the most promising through line here — and it’s one that extends to other pitchers in the org — is that the Cubs are finding guys with stuff and then working to figure out how to harness it. That’s distinctly different from the previous strategy of trying to squeeze every ounce of potential out of pitchers whose ceilings were a fair bit lower.
Now all that’s left is for these guys to all come up to Chicago and shove. Pretty simple, right?