Walker Powell – Picture by Todd Johnson
Most of the pitching stories this summer tended to follow breakouts Luis Devers and Porter Hodge. Their dominance at two levels was very newsworthy and they each had won Starting Pitcher of the Month from the Cubs. But there were other storylines that probably needed to be expanded and that we probably should’ve delved into a little bit more. Those included the career arcs of Walker Powell, Tyler Santana, Wyatt Short, and the new guy, Kevin Valdez.
The most interesting thing about Powell and Santana were both signed as free agents after the 2021 MLB draft. Powell came from Southern Mississippi while Santana pitched at Jacksonville University.
For Powell, his path just to get signed was inspirational after overcoming two major surgeries. For Santana, his route to the minors was not as arduous as Powell’s, but it was impressive nonetheless. I wrote about both last year over at Cubs Central.
As for this year…
Powell started out the year in Myrtle Beach and it wasn’t quite clear what his role was going to be. I think the Pelicans threw him in a variety of situations and he wound up piggybacking most of the early year. He was quite successful in doing so and soon got a promotion to South Bend In May. But the strange thing for Powell was that he kept getting better at each affiliate in 2022.
The Cubs worked on improving Powell’s velocity. When he signed, he normally sat 89 to 91 and flashed that curveball and good command. That command did not go away as his velocity increased 2 to 3 miles an hour on average. By mid summer, he was sitting 93 sometimes touching 94. I’m sure he’s going to continue to get stronger over this winter just based on his success because he’s going to be at Triple-A to start 2023.
For Powell, his June was pretty magical at South Bend as he wound up heading up to Tennessee where he was sort of pushed into the rotation and that was the best thing that ever happened to him. He did some piggyback starting and, like in Myrtle Beach, he did whatever the Cubs needed him to do.
It was in August that Powell began to draw a lot more attention because he was at Double-A, the league with the most talent in the minors. His ERA of 0.45 in 20.1 innings was Jake Arrieta-like. He dominated by locating his fastball and keeping hitters off balance. And what I also liked was that he pitched inside. He’s not just a guy with some plus pitches, he knows how to move the ball around the strike zone. He is a pitcher. And in a system that’s been devoid of starting pitchers, his performance is clearly not a fluke. How good can he be next year at Triple-A Iowa? That’s what we’re going to find out.
As for Tyler Santana, I can remember harping almost every Tuesday throughout the course of June and July that he needed to be promoted and it never happened. The 24-year-old right hander moved into the starting rotation for the Pelicans midsummer and just dominated in that role. He won the Carolina League Pitcher of the Month for August despite being placed on the injured list with a week to go.
For the year, Santana has a 2.28 ERA in 98.2 IP. I still don’t understand what the holdup was in not moving hm to South Bend considering that he actually pitched there in 2021 and did extremely well in relief with a 1.50 ERA in 18 IP. I thought for sure he would be back there to start this year and it was going to be just a matter of time to go back.
As for Kevin Valdez, he got the rare promotion in season from the Dominican Summer League to Arizona. After posting a 1.63 ERA in 8 starts in the DSL with 38 Ks in 27.2 IP, he struggled a bit the first few outings in Arizona, but he seemed to pitch well for his last two starts. He’s a big kid at 6-foot-4 and 185 pounds and I’m interested to see a video on him at some point this winter. And that lack of video may be the reason why he might be the most underreported story at any level.
We could also include Wyatt Short who started out the year as a reliever in Tennessee and pitched well enough to earn a promotion to Iowa where he had his ups and downs. In August, he was pressed into the starting rotation on a bullpen day and he pitched much better in that role. In fact his last three outings have seen him pitch 15 innings and give up just two runs and I’m interested to see more. Wyatt is a free agent after the season. He’s not going to be added to the 40 man, but his recent performance might be enough to bring him back in a system that’s still struggling to get starting pitchers to Iowa for at least another 4 to 6 months to start 2023. He might be an important fill-in or a link piece and who knows what will happen with a second chance and a full offseason to prepare for a new role.
I will be back tomorrow with a look at some storylines about relievers that were a bit underreported this year.