Daniel Palencia by Todd Johnson
After years of struggling to find qualified minor league arms to log major league innings, it’s clear that the Cubs pitching development has taken significant steps. You can’t overstate how important the ability to have arms like Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson, Javier Assad, and Jeremiah Estrada succeed is on the outlook of an organization. Not only are they carving out they key MLB roles (Steele in the rotation, Thompson as a multi-inning fireman, Estrada as a potential high-leverage bullpen piece, and Assad as depth or swing starter), but none was a first or second round selection. It’s worth acknowledging that Steele and Estrada were overslot high school arms with bonuses in the six figures, but still didn’t command the multi-million dollar commitment of a selection in the top 30 picks. Teams like the Dodgers, Rays, and Astros that succeed with their pitching infrastructure do so with breakthroughs that come from players outside the top 40 selections or top international free agency signings.
2022 was a year where those Cubs pitching infrastructure improvements began to garner national attention and it’s because players outside of the upper-level prospects took steps forward. I reached out to five pitchers during the offseason and spring camp that fit the bill of those who we could see make serious headlines.
Starting Pitchers on the Rise
2022: According to my viewings and the data provided to me elsewhere, Noland threw four main pitches, curveball, four seam fastball, sinker, and a slider. The four-seam sat 90-92 mph with slight relative cut (5 inches of horizontal movement towards a righty while the average MLB fastball runs 7 inches towards a right handed hitter). His sinker sat 90-93 with 10 inches of run. He also featured two breaking balls in his curveball (83-85 mph) and his gyro slider (85-89 mph).
2023: After four years battling lineups in the SEC, Noland is set up to tackle the professional ranks. In order to do that both he and the Cubs feel he’ll need to employ a changeup. Noland described that he’s making strides in his changeup to pair with his sinker. However, translating success from college to the pros takes more than just pitch design. Noland discussed how he and the Cubs laid out an offseason plan in order to reach his 2023 goals. “Strength wise, I’ve been focusing on getting lower body strength, to help with my delivery. Goal wise, I’m just focused on having a productive offseason and building a base to be healthy and effective during the season”, Noland said.
2022: Pitching data and metrics are a great equalizer. No matter what league a player pitches in, as long as there’s reliable data and consistency in the baseball, pitchers can succeed at the next level. Division II baseball is no joke and in back-to-back drafts we watched the Cubs select an intriguing arm from a DII program with Riley Martin (Quincy University) in 2021 followed by Brody McCullough in 2022. McCullough showed out across four seasons at Wingate University, especially 2022 (2.40 ERA, 110 K to 24 BB in 63 2/3 innings), but it was his five start experience in the Cape Cod League that propelled him to MLB Draft pick. During his CCBL stint, McCullough worked with Driveline’s pitch visualization tool. Across 20 innings, the righthander racked up 30 Ks to 8 BB and showed five pitches. His 2022 season ended with 7 successful pro innings in Arizona and Myrtle Beach
2023: McCullough’s foray into Driveline data was just the first step. Both the Cubs and the pitcher, himself, believed there was more left in the tank. Sure enough, there was. Heading into his first full pro season, the next steps became obvious. “Main goal being velocity. All the data seen in the pitching lab suggests that more velocity is possible. I used the core velocity belt to help with this. I was happy with the results of the velocity as it was 94-96 throughout instructs”, McCullough said. “Everything felt smooth and more compact”. In addition to just velocity training, McCullough is training for the rigors the minor league season. “I am beginning the Cubs offseason workout plans and am excited to see how that prepares my body for next season. Goals for this offseason are to stay consistent with my core velocity belt routines in order to make the mechanical adjustments second nature. I am excited for the 2023 season as I get a chance to show what I can do over the course of a full season”, McCullough concluded.
2022: Last season was an up and down year for a Thompson. He battled wildness and logged two stints on the Developmental List, but still showcased some of the best stuff in the entire system. It was clear that Thompson needed to make a big move if he wanted to harness his repertoire.
2023: From the outset, Thompson outlined a plan to take control of this upcoming season. Thompson began training with one of the most respected performance science gurus in the game, Yankees Director of Player Health & Performance Eric Cressey at his performance center, Cressey Sports Performance. According to Thompson, “I hit training this off-season really hard. Kept my arm in shape the whole time so I could add two pitches to my arsenal. While I was down at Cressey Sports Performance, I got the opportunity to tweak my slider grip that I had learned in the middle of the season last year. Really spent some time working on it, and now I feel like my slider is in a way better position now and a much more viable pitch, and it’s already much better and much more consistent. I have a little bit to go to really own the pitch but it’s much better now. The other thing I did was learn a sinker. The ability to keep right handed hitters off my four seam is just going to make the rest of my arsenal better. That is my big change this off-season, going from a three pitch mix to now having 5 solid pitches that I can use to game plan different types of hitters”. Unlike many other pitchers in the organization, Riley Thompson isn’t part of the sweeper slider revolution. He confirmed his slider is a gyro or “bullet” slider with strong downward movement and he’s working to model the movement of one of the true greats in the sport. “It’s a more gyro slider like [Justin] Verlander’s, who’s shape I’m trying to emulate”, Thompson said. Expecting any pitch to transform over the offseason into one that generated a 34.6% whiff rate against MLB hitters like Verlander’s slider did in 2022 would be asking for a lot, but Thompson isn’t suggesting that. A revamped slider is just another fierce weapon in his arsenal. As he gears up for the start of the season, Thompson provided one more tidbit. His goal is to throw his changeup more and with the same confidence he had with it during his best season in 2019.
2022: Prior to the 2022 season, then-Fangrphs writer, Kevin Goldstein described Luke Little as a prospect that possesses the traits MLB teams look for by saying that’s what they look like. Not only did Little showcase physical prowess, but he largely made-good on the expectations on the mound. Across 22 starts and 65 2/3 innings, Little racked up a 35.4% K-rate and a K-BB% of 22.1%. A pitcher’s K-BB% is a great tool to evaluate a pitcher’s ability to generate Ks balanced against control and command. Minor league stats aren’t useful in isolation, but can provide context along with other factors. For further context that K-BB% is in a similar range as Jordan Wicks (23.1%). Little used three pitches, fastball, slider, and changeup and throughout the season we at North Side Bound heard there was optimism as pitches began to improve.
2023: Little spent the offseason working to get ready to hit the ground running this spring. He also provided some notes on what he wants to do with his arsenal. According to Little, “Pitch design we’ve been really focusing on getting more depth on the change up which is basically a splitter now. And slider looking to get more shape on that. Fastball trying to get more ride. And main focus on the gym has just been to get my body ready to throw for 6 more months with a higher innings cap”. For someone who is a huge proponent of the Cubs system incorporating more splitters, that note was extremely exciting.
2022: Last season was a definite coming out party for Palencia who came over in the Andrew Chafin deal in 2021. No one in the system has the same level of stuff as Daniel Palenica. He throws an elite fastball. And when we describe it as elite (an “80” in scouting terms), we don’t just mean velocity. Palencia sits in the upper 90s and touches 102 as a starter, but it’s the ride up in the zone that makes it truly elite. He also throws an slider in the upper 80s to low 90s along with a curveball in the mid 80s. Palenica also dabbles with a changeup.
2023: The hope for Palencia are high and he has the tools to hit those expectations and then some. “This year I’ve been working on separating my curveball from my slider. I’ve improved my changeup a lot. I’m still working on improving my command, being more dominant in the corners like I’ve been doing in my last few games”, Palencia said. However pitching is more than just stuff and putting the ball in a particular location. It’s a process that involves mound presence, confidence, and resilience. Palencia is keenely aware and he’s ready to employ the intangibles to take is game to another level. According to Palencia, “I want to continue being that man. At the beginning of season last year I had a confidence problem, but little by little I was recovering it. That’s when I started to have better games, and I want to keep it that way. I worked this year on my strength and mobility. I think that’s the main point of being a pitcher, being someone strong with a lot of mobility, that’s what has helped me with my speed, I just try to be better than me every day, keep learning things every day. My goal this year is to meet my small short-term goals that lead me [to a] great goal, to be in the big leagues and not only that, to stay there. I want to be someone great. I want to make history. I want a world series ring. I want a family. Every day I think about how to achieve [those goals]. I know I’m going to achieve it, I just have to be consistent”, Palencia concluded. When does the season start? Daniel Palencia is mentally ready to go.
Big [League] Improvements in 2023
The adage that the Cubs organization struggled to develop pitching is a thing of the past. These five pitchers are among the list of arms in the system ready to continue to show the Cubs pitching corps is no joke.