Cubs fans are plenty familiar with Jorge Soler. While Soler is struggling mightily this season with putrid outfield defense, poor baserunning, a surprisingly weak bat, and an offense-killing BABIP (.213 as of this writing), his scintillating September 2014 debut and his magical run versus St. Louis last October have earned him a place in Cubs lore, if not yet in the everyday lineup.
But while Soler is a part of the daily Chicago Cubs conversation, it wasn't all that long ago that his future seemed tied to that of a fellow Cuban import and early 2012 signee: lefty Gerardo Concepcion. In fact, the article announcing Concepcion's signing in March 2012 made frequent mention of Soler's likely impending arrival. Although Soler ended up with a $30 million guarantee spread over nine years, Concepcion's deal in which he received $3 million upfront with an additional $3 million spread over six years was nothing to sneeze at, particularly considering that it came with a 40-man roster spot.
It was clear right off the bat that Concepcion's adjustment to professional ball in the United States would not be a smooth one. Given the promising assignment to being his professional career in full-season ball, Concepcion went to the Midwest League in mid-2012 and was rudely welcomed by opposing lineups as he allowed a 7.31 ERA over 12 starts while walking more batters than he struck out.
After his disastrous debut, the Cubs yanked on the reins in 2013, giving him just 3⅔ innings in the Arizona Rookie League as back problems also derailed his season. When 2014 rolled around, Concepcion went back to the Midwest League and was a different pitcher. The 22-year-old struck out nearly a batter per inning, dropped his walk rate, and posted a respectable 3.89 ERA with peripherals that portended even better run prevention ability (3.34 FIP). Promoted to High-A Daytona to close out the season, Concepcion posted nearly identical peripherals but stranded runners at an exceptional rate en route to a 1.17 ERA.
But something important happened: Concepcion moved to the bullpen. That said, Concepcion did not occupy a typical bullpen role in 2014 as he averaged more than two innings pitched per outing despite not making a single start that year.
In 2015, his ugly walk rate reared its head though his strikeouts also skyrocketed. Despite the troubling walk rate at High-A, the club promoted him and saw Concepcion fall apart at Double-A as his 8.24 BB/9 crippled his season. His 8.24 ERA seemingly ended his prospect career.
And then 2016 came around and caused us to question everything we thought we knew about Concepcion (again). After throwing only a single inning per appearance in 2015, Concepcion returned to throwing multiple innings in his appearances in 2016 and the results were excellent: a reinvigorated walk rate (8.66 K/9), a minimized walk rate (2.04 BB/9), and a disappearing BABIP that led to zero earned runs surrendered at Double-A before a promotion to Triple-A last week.
All of this begs two questions. First, how in the world did Concepcion turn things around? And second, could he be an option to help the 2016 Cubs as they make their push for October?
Taking the questions in order, Concepcion's turnaround is a classic success story in two parts. First, Concepcion largely figured out how to pitch in the zone, minimizing his walk rate that had once threatened to sabotage his career. That cannot be overstated. Second, Concepcion moved to the bullpen and experienced the velocity jump that scouts, coaches, and front office types hope will happen. Whereas he worked in the high 80s as a starting pitcher prior to his conversion, he now sits in the low 90s with enough juice to reach back for 94 or 95 when need be. Concepcion has transitioned from being a relatively soft-tossing southpaw starter with poor control to being a potential in-house LOOGY (Lefty One Out GuY).
So if he's a potential LOOGY, could he make an impact in 2016? Maybe. While I wouldn't bet against it entirely, I wouldn't expect it either. Working for Concepcion: in 25 plate appearances this year against him, lefties are hitting .040/.040/.080. That's 1-for-25 with a double...and a 48% K%. Woah. Also to his advantage: he hasn't just been a LOOGY with righties batting .108/.233/.162 against him. The stuff is working and he is not walking batters. Additionally, I'm sure that the front office would love to find an in-house LOOGY late in the year instead of paying a premium to find one from a non-contender.
Cutting against him? We only need to go back to late 2015 to see Concepcion scuffling to a career-threatening level and the Cubs' current lefty relief options -- Clayton Richard and Travis Wood -- have both been adequate and come with Major League track records that include playing key roles in the 2015 playoff push.
It's not impossible to think that Concepcion could help out this season and it's certainly a big win for the scouting and player development departments that he's even back in the conversation.
Would you like to see Concepcion make an appearance this year?