DJ Herz by Todd Johnson
We’ve already seen the Cubs farm system rise in the national rankings and there’s significant optimism about the organization’s players making significant improvements heading into 2022. But what are those improvements players are making behind the scenes? I reached out to hitters (Part 1) and pitchers (Parts 2 and 3) to discuss their goals and player development plan for 2022.
Starting Pitchers on the Rise
2021: Chris Clarke boasts one of the best pitches in the organization – his dynamic curveball- but he showed off his entire arsenal in limited innings last season. Clarke’s 2021 season started with injuries, but he threw 50 innings with High-A South Bend.
2022: Clarke didn’t speak about where he is likely to be assigned in 2022, but evaluating it from the outside it’s easy to see how close the 6’7” righthander is to Wrigley. He would be a strong candidate to start for AA Tennessee and an advanced arsenal gives him a tremendous chance to move up the ladder quickly. In order to best prepare himself for the rigors of the season, Clarke is making massive strength gains (“up from 213 last year to 235lbs”) and focusing on the efficiency of his pitching motion. The righthander is “working through my mechanics to deliver the ball as efficient as possible and keeping it consistent with the breaking stuff. [My] goals are to stay healthy all year and compete every pitch,” Clarke said.
2021: I don’t know if anyone in the Cubs system had a quieter successful starting run in the entire Cubs system than Joe Nahas last season. Nahas spent all last season as a 21-year-old across three levels. He began the season coming out of the pen and a piggyback starter in Myrtle Beach, where he was very successful (2.70 ERA in 23 1/3 innings with a 32.4% K%). His performance and a need for innings provided Nahas the opportunity to start for South Bend. In Hi-A, Nahas threw another 54 2/3 innings with solid performance (3.95 ERA with a 20.8 K% while cutting his BB% to 6.8%. One mid-season promotion proved not to be enough for Nahas and he pitched a handful of outings for AA Tennessee. He had a rough go in his second AA outing (4 2/3 innings with 9 runs [6 earned] and only 1 K), but his body of work suggests Nahas is ready to tackle the level again in 2022.
2022: Nahas is preparing himself as someone who is not content with just one successful season. He’s ready to tackle the higher levels the Cubs challenged him with last season. He lives by his motto, “Hard work beats talent”. Living in Arizona this offseason, Nahas feels his training gives him additional preparation time. His pitching goals this offseason are to continue to refine his curveball, especially with the shape of the pitch. Just like last season, Nahas comes armed with five pitches, four seam fastball, two seam fastball, curveball, slider, and split-changeup. You can bet that Nahas has his goals lined up for next season. According to the righthander, “Consistency in training and discipline in my routines will help me reach my goal of making my way to the show and staying there” Nahas said.
2021: After getting shoutouts for his strength and conditioning during the pandemic, Tyler Schlaffer proved that his hard work off the field helped him translate it to results on the field. The 20-year-old righthander made his way to Myrtle Beach as a mid-season promotion. The natural cut on his fastball has led to questions about whether he’s incorporated a cutter into his arsenal. According to Schlaffer, he only throws three pitches, fastball (regularly operates 94-97 mph with cut), curveball, and a changeup. The changeup should rank as one of the best in the Cubs system. His total line of 4.65 ERA, 22.1 K% (8.65 K/9) in 40 2/3 innings doesn’t jump off the page, but between the impressive stuff on the mound and his strength gains, Schlaffer deserves serious consideration as a breakout candidate in 2022.
2022: Schlaffer’s Myrtle Beach debut only inspired him to keep up his work in the training room. He’s one of the many Cubs prospects who moved to Arizona to continue their training. His goals entering offseason are to continue “working on getting bigger and stronger in the weight room”. Schlaffer knows, however, that work in the training room is only important if it can help him on the field. The young righthander is well aware and ready for what 2022 brings. His Spring Camp goals are to “just keep performing and developing my stuff to maximize my starts wherever I end up,” Schlaffer said.
2021: Fans eager to see Luke Little’s rocket left arm had to wait a little longer than anticipated as the pitcher had a reduced workload early in the season. When he did make his debut, Little came as advertised with 19 Ks in 11 innings pitched for the Arizona Complex League. The hulking lefty comes at hitters using his long levers to his advantage to generate upper-level velocity. His scouting report prior to the 2021 season told the tale, high velocity, but control and command issues. In professional ball, he kept the walks to a manageable level and the hope is that this trend continues.
2022: Little is coming into this season ready to show what his left arm can do. He’s entering camp with three pitches – fastball, slider, and changeup – but his main focus is being out on the mound. “The main goal is [to] really just to stay healthy all year. I was very limited on innings last year so this year I just want to focus on staying healthy throughout the whole season and getting as many innings in as possible,” Little said. Fangraph’s Kevin Goldstein quibbed that “this is what they look like” when describing Luke Little. There’s a good chance that fans get to see that this upcoming season.
2021: You couldn’t have scripted the 2021 season much better for a pitcher who was a tenacious worker during the pandemic canceled 2020 season. In a matter of a few short months, Davidjohn (DJ) Herz transformed from breakout candidate to Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year. The credit of this goes to Herz, who got rave reviews for his work behind the scenes in remaking his body. He came prepared for the rigors of the 2021 season. His changeup was a revelation earning some “plus-plus” grades for the pitch action. After a few weeks, “Herzday” became a weekly/bi-weekly minor league tradition that made Myrtle Beach Pelicans and South Bend Cubs must-watch outings. His season line of 3.31 ERA, 131 K in 81 2/3 innings (14.4 K/9; 40.4 K%) was stellar and made him the Pitcher of the Year.
2022: Asking DJ, he’s hardly content to rack up the one Minor League Pitcher of the Year award. “[The Cubs] told me nobody’s ever won [Minor League Pitcher of the Year] two times in a row here and they told me to go get it again,” Herz said. “I think that’s going to be my biggest goal, trying to do that like Brennen did for [winning] Minor League Player of the Year.” In order to reach that lofty goal, Herz knows there are plenty of steps along the way. He wants to keep his ERA below three and keep his strikeout rate above 14 K/9. He also knows control and command will be the biggest ticket to help him as he moves up the levels. His 4.85 BB/9 in 2021 is tolerable with his stuff, but he’ll need to tighten it up against more advanced competition. Herz is also looking to gain more consistency with his spike-curve that showed flashes of being a dominant pitch. He’s made significant progress this offseason. “I did three [pitch] labs all just focusing on the curveball to get the spin efficiency back in the 80s. We were successful with it and we were able to figure out what was going on [with the curveball in 2021],” Herz said. “I just needed to hold my palm as long as I could to the first base side instead of pronating my hand too early.” Armed with potentially a bulldog attitude on and off the mound, mid-90s fastball, plus-plus changeup, and a resurgent curveball, Herz is ready to reach his lofty goals this season.
Big Improvements in 2022
The Cubs organization has struggled to develop starting pitching over the last decade, but if you’re bullish on the development that’s not the case anymore. After last season’s trade deadline, the writing is on the wall, opportunities are there if you perform. Which starters do you think take the next steps in 2022? Make sure to check out Part 1 and the upcoming Part 3 of the Spring Preview series diving into the goals and improvements Cubs players are making this offseason.