Who knew that Yan Gomes was the glue that holds this Cubs team together? Many fans and some of my blogger peers still worship the ground Willson Contreras walks on, but give me Gomes 10 out of 10 times. I said the same thing last year, all winter, and through the first month and change of this season. In his first start since returning from the IL, Gomes led the Cubs to a 10-4 victory over the Cardinals. Justin Steele was certainly happy to see the veteran behind the plate.
"He's just an unbelievable human being."
Justin Steele on Yan Gomes. pic.twitter.com/Hs6yjKT2oa
— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) May 11, 2023
Gomes is outproducing Contreras this season in half the at-bats and the Cubs are 13-7 (.650) with Gomes behind the plate. Perhaps those fans and bloggers should remove their blinders and hold the team’s current starter in the same rarified air that they still hold the ex. One look at the Cardinals’ run prevention with Contreras behind the plate is all the proof you need. Jed Hoyer and his front office entourage obviously prefer the defense Gomes provides, but the veteran’s offensive output has been a pleasant surprise.
Gomes is averaging one home run every 12 at-bats and though that’s not sustainable, it’s worth noting that he’s reached double-digit home runs in every season where he’s had a minimum of 350 at-bats. He’s on a pace to hit a career-high 29 taters if he gets that much work this season. Sure, he’s five years older than Contreras and more apt to break down. Skipper David Ross will manage his workload, however, and he knows a thing or two about playing at an advanced age.
Chicago was 2-6 while Gomes was injured. Wednesday’s win proves his value to the team.
Midwest Farm Report
The Cubs absolutely stole Ben Brown from the Phillies, and the lanky righthander already looks major-league-ready. Brown made his second start for Triple-A Iowa on Wednesday and was lights out.
A 10-strikeout day for No. 4 prospect Ben Brown! pic.twitter.com/GP67ZKlKXv
— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) May 10, 2023
You’ve got to hand it to Hoyer for his ability to poach some of the best young players from other organizations.
- Brown was acquired in exchange for David Robertson. He’s pitched 61.2 innings over two seasons for Tennessee and Iowa with 91 strikeouts. He has yet to lose a game as a Cub, and this season he’s allowed just two earned runs in 30.2 innings. Brown looks like a future ace.
- Pete Crow-Armstrong came to Chicago from the Mets for Javier Báez. He’s had 564 plate appearances since arriving with 19 home runs, 74 RBI, and 41 stolen bases. PCA is also the best defensive outfielder in the system if not all of baseball. If you have some time to kill, I highly recommend following Crow-Armstrong’s career through all of our posts here at Cubs Insider.
- The Cubs got Owen Caissie from the Padres in the Yu Darvish trade. Caissie is my personal favorite among all of Chicago’s outfield prospects. The talk of moving him to first base is preposterous because he has a cannon for an arm. Caissie has 24 home runs, 107 RBI, and 14 stolen bases as a Cub, and his .830 OPS is notable. If the 20-year-old has one flaw, it’s that his strikeout rate is a little too high.
- Kevin Alcántara was acquired in the Anthony Rizzo trade and he looks like a younger version of Kris Bryant. You could say Alcántara has the highest ceiling of any minor league outfielder except Crow-Armstrong, though I prefer Caissie.
- Speaking of Bryant, the Cubs acquired Caleb Kilian and Alexander Canario for the third baseman. Kilian looks like a stereotypical four-A player, but Canario bashed 38 home runs across four levels in 2022 before getting hurt in a DWL game. His strikeout rate is a little high, but he offsets that with power and a decent walk rate.
- Hayden Wesneski has been a little erratic this year but has the ceiling of a No. 2 or 3 starter. The Cubs acquired Wesneski from the Yankees for Scott Effross last year. He’s never going to have elite strikeout numbers but Wesneski induces a lot of soft contact. He’s stingy with the free passes and does a decent job of keeping the baseball inside the park.
- Codi Heuer has some of the earmarks of a future closer, and he was acquired with Nick Madrigal for Craig Kimbrel two seasons ago. He hasn’t pitched since 2021 and just started a rehab assignment with the I-Cubs. I prefer Heuer as a high-leverage setup reliever because he doesn’t have an elite strikeout rate. Madrigal profiles as a career utility player, but he has the hit tool to be one of the best role players in baseball. A roster crunch will eventually make Madrigal expendable, however.
Big League Chew
Steele improved to 6-0 on the season in Wednesday’s win, and it appears as if the Cubs have a non-deviating management plan for the young pitcher. Steele has yet to face more than 27 batters in a single appearance since last June. Part of that is due to his high pitch counts, but it’s a strategy that’s paying huge dividends. Steele is 9-2 since that start with a 1.91 ERA across 122.2 innings. He’s allowed zero earned runs in six of those 21 starts.
Steele works with two primary pitches, a cut-ride fastball and a slider. He does have a sinker, curveball, and changeup, but he’s thrown those three a combined 20 times this year entering Wednesday’s start. It’s interesting to note that his overall usage of the sinker has dropped precipitously over his career. In 2021, Steele threw the sinker 20.4 percent of the time, and last year that rate fell to 7.8.
- Entering Wednesday’s start, Steele used his four-seamer 60 percent of the time. Its average velocity is 92 MPH with a 2,394 RPM spin rate. He hit 95 MPH on three occasions Wednesday evening.
- Steele uses the slider in 35.4 percent of his offerings. He averages 82.8 MPH on that pitch with a spin rate of 2,658 RPM.
Conventional wisdom dictates that two-pitch starters are lacking relative to their peers with more diverse arsenals. That might not be the case, however. The Rays and Astros are among the best in baseball when it comes to starter management. Shane McClanahan, Tyler Glasnow, Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, and Lance McCullers Jr. all work with mostly two-pitch combinations. Pitchers with the most egalitarian mixes will be down towards 50 percent with their top two primary offerings.
“Working those two pitches off of each other, they are two elite pitches, and if he’s just in the zone and pounding it, you see the results and you get the soft contact,” Kyle Hendricks said. “As far as the soft contact, attacking, I would like to be more like him now in that way, to be honest with you. He’s just absolutely getting after it. It’s so much fun to watch his development and being one of the top starters in the game now.”
When it comes to Steele and his workload management, the Cubs may simply be following a league trend. Carmen Ciardello of Fangraphs posited in an article from 2021 that starters who throw their two primaries at least 80 percent of the time faced fewer batters per appearance. It’s interesting because that’s right about the time that Steele started limiting his use of his sinker.
I like to think that Steele has ace potential and he carries a swagger similar to Jon Lester, but Lester was at his best as a No. 2 starter. The Cubs have some great arms in the minors that include Brown, Cade Horton, Jordan Wicks, and Jackson Ferris. Steele will eventually slide down as those players matriculate to the majors if they’re successful. It’s a good problem to have and shows that Chicago’s front office has been as successful at developing pitchers as it has been in acquiring impact bats via trade.
Note: Sorry I have been absent here recently but I have been dealing with some medical issues. I do want this to be a daily column, health permitting.