Pitching, pitching, pitching today. That’s good, but you know that Neil Young was wrong: in addition to love, young arms can break your heart.
In previous years when I got to the prospects ranked in the bottom half of the top ten, I was talking about players who had a chance to be real stars. This year were looking at players who are more likely to have a ceiling of a solid regular. The system is still deep with talent, there just aren’t a lot of high ceilings here.
All of the articles in this series can be found in this Storystream.
10. Jen-Ho Tseng. RHP. B:L/T:R. 6’1”, 195. DOB: 10/3/94. International free agent (2013), Taiwan.
This is going to get repetitive, but the Cubs have a lot of pitchers who could end up as back-of-the-rotation starters. The good news here is that Tseng is among the best of them and the closest to the majors. Tseng was named the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year last year and if you remember, while he was in Chicago he was told that he was going to make his major league debut the next day. Tseng got roughed up by the Mets and only lasted three innings. He allowed up five runs on five hits, including back-to-back solo home runs in the third inning, On the positive side, he struck out six and walked just one.
Tseng’s second major-league game was two weeks later and much more successful as he threw three scoreless and hitless innings in relief against the Cardinals and got his first major-league win when the Cubs won in extra innings. That was the game that Taylor Davis got his first career RBI with a double in the top of the eleventh.
But the reason that Tseng was named Minor League Pitcher of the Year was not his two appearances in the majors, but his 15 starts in Tennessee and the nine he made in Iowa. For the Smokies, he went 7-3 with a 2.99 ERA which earned him a promotion to Iowa on the Fourth of July. He was even better in Triple-A, going 6-1 with a 1.80 ERA. Between the two levels, Tseng was 13-4 with a 2.54 ERA over 145⅓ innings. He struck out 122 batters and walked just 38. By the way, it was the second time Tseng was named Minor League Pitcher of the Year, having previously earned the award when he was with Kane County in 2014.
When it’s on, Tseng best pitch is his changeup, which helps out his fastball which is low 90s without a lot of movement. He also has a fringe-average curve and cutter. But really, Tseng’s biggest strength is his command and control. He knows how to locate his stuff and now that he’s moved up the system, he’s getting to throw to catchers who know how Tseng can mix up his repertoire to keep batters off balance. Without a real strikeout pitch, Tseng probably allows too many fly balls and in the majors, he might be prone to extended cases of gopher-itis. He did give up those back-to-back jacks to Dominic Smith and Travis d’Arnaud.
Tseng’s other strength is his durability. As far as I can tell, he’s only made one trip to the disabled list, missing just a month in 2016. He’s surpassed 100 innings every year he’s been in the minors and was over 150 last year, when you add in his major league innings. It seems like a simple thing, but a durable back-of-the-rotation starter can bail a team out of a lot of emergencies.
Tseng will probably start the season in Iowa and will be the first pitcher on call when someone misses a start.
Al has been a big fan of Tseng for a while and you may want to review what he wrote about him on the eve of his first major league start.
Here’s Tseng striking out Mark Canha in Iowa.
9. Nelson Velazquez. OF. B:R/T:R. 6’0”, 190. DOB: 12/26/98. Drafted 5th round (2017), P.J. Education HS (PR).
The Cubs made Velazquez the first position player they took in the draft last summer as they gambled on some very impressive tools. Velazquez took a while to sign, agreeing to a $400k overslot bonus on the final day of the signing period. A bad hamstring delayed the start of his minor league career further, and then he struggled after the layoff.
But by the time August rolled around, Velazquez showed some of the best power in the Arizona League (rookie ball). He hit eight home runs in just 110 at-bats, which was only one fewer than the league leader, despite only playing half the season. Velazquez also hit two home runs in the AZL Cubs six playoff games.
Velazquez showed a strong arm for right field, grading out at a 60 on the 20 to 80 scale. He didn’t run much because of the hamstring issue, but in high school he was pretty quick, earning another future 60 for his speed. Cubs VP Jason McLeod called him “the toolsiest guy we drafted.”
Velazquez sometimes struggles with off-speed stuff away, like many young sluggers do. He finished last season with a line of .236/.333/.536, although that batting average was depressed by the .122 he hit in July. He hit a much more promising .289 with a .407 OBP in August.
Velazquez will go as far as his ability to make contact will take him. If he learns to make consistent hard contact and lay off of bad pitches, there’s a future all-star in there. If he doesn’t, well, we all know what happens to sluggers who can’t lay off stuff in the dirt.
It can’t be stressed enough that Velazquez is young, raw and a long way away from the majors. He’s a long-term prospect. But he’s going to be the best reason to watch the Emeralds this summer and he might even make it to South Bend by the end of the year. I know I’ll be watching.
Here’s some video of Velazquez batting in Arizona. He doesn’t do anything special in it, but you get a sense of what he looks like and his swing.
8. Alex Lange. RHP. B:R/T:R. 6’3”, 197. DOB: 10/2/95. Drafted 1st round (2017), Louisiana State.
First of all, the next three names on this list are all pretty much equal to me. In fact, in my first draft I had Lange sixth and Hatch eighth, but after thinking it over (and briefly having Little sixth), I decided on this order as I was writing it up. But Lange, Little and Hatch, besides making a pretty great law firm, are all pretty even to me. So I don’t want to hear any complaining about how Lange should be ranked higher. I’ll admit that maybe he should be ranked sixth.
Lange had a very successful career at LSU, but his best season was his freshman year when he went 12-0 with a 1.97 ERA. He was good in his next two seasons and was even a second-team All-American in 2017, but he never repeated that freshman season.
Lange’s best pitch is his curve, and it’s easily a plus pitch. His fastball can hit 94 mph, but he can’t always throw it for a strike. But when he’s got the curve working, the fastball can look better than it is.
One issue with Lange is that he really doesn’t have a third pitch. He has a changeup, but he pretty much junked it in college because it wasn’t very good and his fastball and curve were good enough to get college hitters out. But if he’s going to be a starter in the major leagues, he’s going to need to learn to throw a change or some third pitch.
The lack of a third pitch is why many observers think Lange is headed to the bullpen. The Cubs themselves have compared Lange to Justin Grimm, who also was forced to move to the pen out of a lack of a third pitch. It he does go to the pen, however, he’s pretty close to major-league ready right now. That curve is a major-league pitch. However, I expect the Cubs to try to make a starter out of him.
The other issue with Lange is his health. While very durable in college, the Cubs found something in his physical that caused them to lower his bonus. While neither side is saying what the problem was, Lange ended up getting the smallest bonus of any first-round pick in 2017.
Lange made four starts for the Emeralds last summer, going 0-1 with a 4.86 ERA. He struck out 13 and walked just three in 9⅓ innings. His season ended early as he left the Ems to return to LSU to work on his degree. This is a move I strongly applaud. In any case, with all the innings he threw at LSU, it was probably for the best anyway.
Here’s Lange pitching for LSU against Mississippi State. He gets off a couple of those terrific curves.
7. Brendon Little. LHP. B:L/T:L. 6’1”, 195. DOB: 8/11/96. Drafted 1st round, (2017), State College of Florida, Manatee—Sarasota.
The Cubs took Little with their first pick in last year’s draft, three picks ahead of Lange, and he has the most upside of any of the pitchers I ranked today. He’s a good-sized left-handed pitcher with a fastball that can hit 96 mph with movement and sits in the 92-94 range. He’s got a 12-6 curve that’s potentially a plus pitch and a changeup that projects out to be solid average. That’s a No. 3 starter in the majors and maybe even a No. 2.
Unfortunately, Little struggles with control on his fastball and he can’t always throw the curve when he wants to. Those struggles with control were evident in his brief minor league debut last season as he walked nine batters in his 16⅓ innings in Eugene. In six starts, he was 0-2 with a 9.37 ERA. That’s a small sample size, but it’s a bad sample. He did strike out 12 batters.
Little will go as far as his ability to repeat his delivery and throw strikes. It’s not the easiest thing to do and Little clearly has the most work to do of the four starters profiled today. But he’s a year younger than Lange and the Cubs will undoubtedly give him the time and instruction needed to learn some consistency. Baseball America compared him to Gio Gonzalez, a pitcher whose lack of consistency can be frustrating but who can also dominate for long stretches.
Here’s Little getting a strikeout for the Ems in August. You can see the terrific curveball, but also a wild pitch and other pitches in the dirt.
6. Thomas Hatch. RHP. B:R/T:R. 6’1”, 190. DOB: 9/29/94. Drafted 3rd round (2016), Oklahoma State.
I decided to rank Hatch above Lange and Little because I asked myself if the Cubs were to trade two of this trio, which one would I most want to keep? I decided on Hatch. although I’m not completely sure why. He is the closest to the majors of the three and he probably has the highest floor of the three, so maybe that’s why. Or maybe it’s just because I’ve seen him pitch a lot more. I hope not.
Hatch was the Cubs first pick in the 2016 draft and they shut him down for the season after they signed him. He’d already thrown a lot of pitches his junior year at OSU and he didn’t pitch at all the year before with an ulnar collateral ligament injury that did not require Tommy John surgery. The Cubs wanted to make sure his arm was ready for the rigors of minor league ball before throwing him into the lion’s den.
So Hatch made his minor league debut this season with the Pelicans and superficially, it looks like he struggled. He went 5-11 with a 4.04 ERA and he gave up a fair number of unearned runs as well.
But digging deeper into the numbers and from actually watching him pitch myself, I rather liked what I saw. He made 26 starts and threw 124⅔ innings in his first professional season and didn’t miss a start, as far as I can tell. He struck out 126 batters in those 124⅔ innings, so that’s better than one an inning. His 50 walks were too high, but that’s only a minor red flag. What was even better was that he kept the ball down and allowed only two home runs all season and none after July 3. He had a crappy strand rate, but I don’t think that’s because of poor composure on the mound. I just think he was unlucky in that area.
Hatch’s best pitch is a sinking two-seam fastball that comes in at around 90 mph and that hitters tend to drive into the ground. He also has a fastball that can sit at 92-94 mph. A solid average slider and changeup gives him four pitches to work with. He needs better control of all the pitches, but he does keep them all down in the zone so mistakes aren’t punished the way they could be.
Hatch’s ceiling is probably as a No. 3 pitcher and more likely a No. 4, but he’s likely to reach it unless his UCL acts up again. He should be challenged in Double-A Tennessee this season and could be at Wrigley as soon as 2019.
Here the final strikeout of Hatch’s 13 K performance on May 28 against the Mudcats. That was his career-high—the second-most strikeouts he had in one game was seven. You get a good look at the two-seamer for the third strike.
Tomorrow: The top five!