Prospect Report: Cam Sanders

The 2018 draftee has top 10 prospect upside and is showcasing electric stuff this season

Cam Sanders via Rich Biesterfeld (@Biest22)

How acquired: MLB Draft, 12th Round, 2018

The Cubs’ 2018 draft is shaping up to be one of the most dynamic in the last two decades. Sanders had mid-90s velocity and a big curveball coming out of LSU in the 12th round. Most prospect publications thought he had high-leverage reliever upside if everything clicked, but that his control could hold him back. In fact, Sanders was most notable for being the son of former major leaguer, Scott Sanders. Cam Sanders debuted with 16 2/3 innings across the AZL and at Eugene in 2018 before a strong season in 2019 (2.94 ERA in 21 outings [20 starts] with 84 Ks in 101 innings) for then Low-A South Bend. Sanders used his time during the pandemic to his benefit. Cam Sanders garnered incredible feedback after his 2021 spring camp success. Cubs contacts were impressed with Sanders‘ improved command and ability to maintain velocity to the fifth inning (reminder this was spring camp so it was the equivalent to spring training for the major league squad).

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Mechanics and Control

Sanders starts his motion with a quick step-back before initiating his throwing motion. His windup is abbreviated and similar to his throws from the stretch albeit without the rock back initiation. He appears to gather himself well at the top of his motion. Sanders features a longer arm stroke, but one that appears to hide the ball through the arm path well. He does have a habit of falling off to the first base side (though that leads to some impressive K-struts). His mechanics showcase an athletic, fluid delivery.

Though the control has taken a significant step forward, it still can come and go. Some of this should be put within the context that this is the first professional ball Sanders has played in 18 months. His control averages out to be solid, but can flash above-average at times. His command is still a work in progress, but like his control, can also flash above-average. There are innings where Sanders can put multiple pitches where he wants them in or out of the strike zone. When he does that, hitters can do little with them.

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Pitching Arsenal

4-seam Fastball: Sanders had velocity in 2019, but it fluctuated in the 91-97 mph range. So far this season, Sanders was 96-98 mph in his first outing and 93-96 mph in his second. His third saw him hit 98 mph, but few other reports on his velocity are out there from that start. This pitch plays well up in the zone, but he’s still able to dot it on the outer half of the plate. I feel like this pitch is average right now, but needs to be better commanded. It has the potential for much more, especially when it can play of well-located curveballs.

Curveball: Sanders features a big breaking ball in his curveball. There is some impressive vertical movement where the pitch appears to start up around a hitters shoulders before dropping into the zone. This is a knee buckler at it’s best and still produces whiffs. It can be difficult to control due to it’s movement, but appears to be an above-average offering

Slider: The slider offers good movement with tight vertical break and a bit of horizontal movement off the plate to righties. This is also Sanders’ most inconsistent pitch right now. At times it will flash plus and other pitches it acts as a waste pitch. With more repetitions, the slider has the potential to be a true plus offering, playing off both his four-seam and 2-seam fastball.

2-seam fastball: The 2-seamer is where I get truly excited about Sanders’ potential. His 2-seam has excellent movement into righties and when he throws it in the top of the zone, it can absolutely eat up batters. Elevated 2-seam fastballs is a strategy employed by the Cubs at the major league level with great success. His 2-seam is a plus pitch when commanded up in the zone. Down and away it’s more above-average, but the fact that he is able to do both gives it a plus grade from me.

Changeup: I only saw a handful of changeups. But when Sanders threw them, they had good depth and solid fade away from lefties and into righties. It’d say this pitch is right now an above-average offering, but I do think it could play better down the line.

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Future Projection

Cam Sanders is on the rise. In my 2018 draft review, Sanders was majorly slept on. His report read “A guy who may surprise likely in the pen. He keeps making adjustments (that curve could be something special) as he climbs the ladder.”. Sanders is far outpacing those projections. He is showcasing 5 pitches and flashes enough command to dominate AA hitters at times. Sanders has frontline starter potential. That’s an overused term as there are very few starters in the major leagues with that level of consistent performance. His command (and as always health) will be crucial as he continues to navigate advanced AA lineups, but if it comes together consistently this summer, Cam Sanders is an arm that should be ranked comfortably within the Cubs top prospects.

Prospect Report: Michael McAvene

Former college closer turned pro starter with plus-plus fastball and above-average breaking ball is set to debut 2021 with five pitches

Michael McAvene via Rich Biesterfeld (@Biest22)

A special thanks to Michael McAvene for providing insights into the progress he’s made over the offseason

How acquired: MLB Draft, 3rd Round, 2019

Flash forward from a time before 2018, and you’d be shocked at the selection of Michael McAvene. Not only was McAvene a former Tommy John survivor, but he was a college reliever. Both demographics, which historically the Cubs to shied away from. However, McAvene has a special arm, and the time was right to take more chances to find a higher ceiling of talent. So far, Michael has made right on that chance. In the limited opportunity he’s been able to play in-game, McAvene has shown off the triple digits (plus-plus) fastball and the above-average slider. Those tools alone give him an excellent opportunity to develop as a dominant reliever. The Cubs and Michael are hoping for more, and they’re both about to see it. Michael McAvene is excited to start 2021 with a total of five pitches.

Mechanics and Control

Unlike most relievers, McAvene utilizes a windup without men on base. If he is to continue developing as a starter, using the windup should allow him to comfortably continue that in a starting role. He has a durable build, which should be capable of handling the rigors of a rotation role. The effort in the delivery is something to watch coming out of the shutdown. It was high effort with a headwhack in 2019. He utilizes a tilted delivery where he twists his body before bringing his arm through in a low 3/4 slot. The mechanics are repeatable and consistent in viewings.

When McAvene is “on”, he’ll pound the strikezone. He did an exceptional job at limiting walks in professional ball with a 5:1 K:BB ratio (small sample size of 12 2/3 innings). It’s still control over command at this point, but I like Michael’s chances for average control and average command. That will be more than enough to succeed at higher levels if he continues to build out his repertoire as planned.

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Pitching Arsenal

Fourseam Fastball: This is one of the best pitches in the entire organization. It runs in the upper 90s and touches 100, but it’s far more than just velocity. It is an explosive pitch with exceptional ride up in the zone. He often will pepper the lower part of the strikezone and I think that’s something that should be fixed. McAvene can succeed when he’s off-target. However, since he was primarily throwing two pitches in his debut if he missed both location and hitters were sitting on the pitch, it did find some barrels. The addition of other pitches will only help to improve the fastball since hitters should no longer be able to sit on it. All told, this pitch rivals any fastball in the system. This is a plus-plus pitch (one of the rare plus-plus grades in the organization).

Slider: The slider is above average. Its current iteration plays up better in more limited outings (1-2 innings), but that may change with an increased repertoire. It has good vertical movement and does have some horizontal movement away from righties (two-plane break).

Curveball: McAvene did throw some curveballs during his brief debut, but this pitch has now been morphed into a spike-curve. No grade on this pitch

Changeup: I only saw a handful of changeups. They were below average from 2019. He did use one to steal a strike. There was a velocity separation, but lacked strong “fade” seen in more developed offerings. McAvene has rarely had to throw one in college so the development of this pitch was pretty basic.

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Future Projection

The full repertoire in 2021

According to McAvene, he now has added a 2-seam fastball and a spike-curve. Additionally he’s worked to get his changeup in a “pretty good spot”. You can see the pitching infrastructure’s plan during the shutdown: use this opportunity to build out robust arsenals. McAvene joins Ryan Jensen, DJ Herz, and Riley Thompson (among many others) as a spike-curve adopter. Bryan Smith of Bleacher Nation previously noted the spike-curve and developing changeup. The Cubs are clear believers in the 2-seam, which McAvene is also now employing.

Overall report

Michael McAvene is a pitcher who began in the Cubs system with two main pitches. He now enters 2021 ready to break out five. Until we see the new pitches in-game it’s hard to judge them. The optimism is that Michael’s curve come out above-average and plays off that plus-plus fastball. Throw in an above-average slider and an average pitch between the changeup and 2-seam and the recipe is there for a legitimate starting pitching prospect. In 2021, fans should pay attention less to the amount of innings McAvene throws, but rather on the quality of his new offerings. While the pandemic robbed both fans and players of minor league baseball in 2020, there are still some encouraging development signs from Cubs prospects. Michael McAvene is ready to show off far more than his elite fastball when baseball resumes this summer.

Prospect Report: Riley Thompson

Starter with strong spin rate fastball is set to debut a new “spike-curve”. He may have more velocity in the tank and looks the part of a starter with “Vulcan changeup”.

Riley Thompson via Clinton Cole (@cdcole55)

A special thanks to Riley Thompson for providing some insight into his development

How acquired: MLB Draft, 11th Round, 2018

Riley Thompson was an above slot signing ($200k) by the Cubs in their impactful 2018 draft. His time at the University of Louisville wasn’t marked by success on the statline (6.82 ERA in 33 innings during his draft year), but the Cubs saw the foundation for a pitcher with strong pitching metrics coming from a college team known for developing successful pitchers.

Though he boasted excellent spin rates, a riding fastball, new changeup, and an excellent curveball, development never ends for a player who dreams of impacting a major league ballclub. According to Thompson, he’s working on his fastball development and incorporation of a new curveball leading into 2021.

Mechanics and Control

Thompson is an athletic pitcher who works with a quick tempo. He uses an over-the-top delivery, which at times could be described as “aggressive”. It has some effort to it including a pronounced headwhack, but it seems fairly repeatable. He comes with a prior injury history (Tommy John surgery 2015), but a solid durable frame. He has a pretty decent chance to start.

For as “aggressive” as I described Riley’s mechanics, he has average control. He’ll usually be around the strikezone, which allows his stuff to play up. Thompson’s command of his pitches lags a bit behind, but it’s more fringe-average than below average. A player with his profile could still succeed even with the command as it is, but he has a good chance to improve. When Thompson is on (like in his 9/14/19 5 inning, 10 K, no hit masterpiece in the MWL playoffs), you can see what he can do when he’s clicking with three pitches and average or above-average command

Pitching Arsenal

Fastball: Thompson will throw low-to-mid 90s with impressive raw spin numbers. The fastball generally sets up his offspeed pitches, but it can sit on it’s own when he’s commanding it well. He struggles a bit to get it on the inside corner to righthanders (where it really plays off his changeup). It’s a successful offering when he goes up in the zone. In isolation, the fastball is an average pitch with average command, but it really truly can’t be viewed in that way. I’d say it’s an above-average offering when played off his secondaries.
Riley described his improving fastball traits during shutdown. Considering he already boasted excellent raw spin, this pitch will be one to watch in 2021.

2019 Curveball: Thompson’s traditional grip curveball is still a dynamic pitch (especially when locating the fastball). It’s a true power curve with high spin, however the shape of the pitch has more horizontal movement than a 12-6 direction (mirroring the directions on a clock; pure vertical drop). A modification in shape could allow it to tunnel with a riding fastball up in the zone.

2021 Curveball: According to Riley, he’s worked hard to develop a new “spike-curve”. Spike-curves or knuckle-curves are immensely popular pitches recommended often by the Chicago Cubs Research & Development (R&D) gurus. Thompson says it has a true 12-6 shape now and plays off his new fastball traits. It takes a lot of trust in R&D and the player to move on from a plus pitch, but if the pitch is as promising as advertised then this curveball will be an electric offering.

Changeup: Riley adopted a different grip for his changeup nicknamed a “Vulcan-change”, resembling the Vulcan greeting from Star Trek. This new grip has shone to be a successful adoption with a penchant for fading into righthanders. Batters won’t live long and prosper when this pitch is clicking (I will not apologize). There’s a significant velocity deviation from the fastball. I don’t have the numbers on it, but it appears to “kill spin”. A changeup with low spin is a challenge for hitters facing high-spin pitchers like Thompson. I find it’s an above-average pitch.

Future Projection

Scouts even outside the organization believe that Riley Thompson has a chance to be a long-term starter. According to Matt Dorey, Thompson has made strong progress during the shutdown (likely related to his fastball and curveball development) and should get a chance to start at AA in 2021. If he succeeds, Riley may see innings in Iowa or even Chicago later in the season. It’s not impossible to see him moved to the pen later in the year to manage innings. Thompson represented a high-ceiling selection out of the 2018 draft. Thus far, Riley Thompson is making good on that decision.

Prospect Report: Ryan Jensen

Premium velocity righthander is scratching surface of potential

Ryan Jensen by Rich Biesterfeld (@biest22)

How acquired: MLB Draft, 1st Round, 2019

The 2019 Cubs draft featured a remarkably different strategy than recent memory. They were projected to pick numerous safe college bats in the first round such as Michael Busch, Kody Hoese, and Logan Davidson. But the Cubs plan entering the draft was to debut a riskier plan. Even on Twitter there was a mild surprise as Jeff Passan announced the Cubs were taking high school right hander, Matthew Allan. High school righthanders are one of the riskiest demographic in the draft so to even see the Cubs prominently connected to a player in that profile raised eyebrows. Instead Rob Manfred stood up at the podium to announce… Ryan Jensen, RHP from Fresno State University. What just happened?

What just happened was the Cubs had started a long-overdue process to go all in on player development. They’d be willing to accept some higher risk if it meant higher reward. And Ryan Jensen is that type of profile. Possessing a similar build to 2020 #3 overall pick, Max Meyer, Jensen offers significant upside and a fallback as a potentially elite reliever.

Mechanics and Control

Jensen begins from the windup with a step back with his left leg before gathering himself. He’s fairly balanced through the hand break before exploding towards the hitter. He holds the ball off to an angle behind his body. It’s difficult for a righty to pick up, but left handed batters get a long look at it. Despite coming from a 6’0″ frame, the motion is a lot of arms and legs and there’s some effort there. I’m not concerned with the frame. A lot was made of his shorter stature (I’m 5’5″, for reference, so all of you above 5’10” might as well be trees to me), however with the progression of pitching staffs in MLB becoming less reliant on innings, a greater focus on impact stuff, vertical approach angle (how “flat” a pitch appears as it crosses the plate), and athletic deliveries can allow shorter pitchers to succeed. See below for screen caps of Ryan Jensen’s delivery.

Jensen struggled with command during his first two years at Fresno State. Racking up 72 walks in 111 innings, Jensen turned the table in 2019. In 100 innings during his junior year, he only walked 27 batters. The timing couldn’t be more perfect as he stormed up draft boards. Any semblance of control dissipated in pro ball, but I wouldn’t put much stock into future projection from 12 innings at Eugene. The talent is there to have average control and command. I’d currently put a below-average future projection on command, but the stuff can be so electric that it could still play in a big way.

Pitching Arsenal

Fastball: Jensen is the rare pitcher who could probably succeed on one pitch (if you count his 4-seam and 2-seam as one). For the purposes of this evaluation we won’t. Jensen sits upper 90s deep into starts with his four seam fastball. It’s a straight pitch, but when pitching up in the zone it can be an effective weapon. In shorter stints, Jensen is closer to triple digits.

2-Seam: This is currently Jensen’s best pitch. It still sits mid 90s, but features late life moving in to righties. The Cubs have had success incorporating 2-seam fastballs into pitching repertoires, especially when they can play off plus sliders. The natural sink from this pitch is pretty impressive. I have this as a plus pitch right now.

Slider: Jensen’s slider can be absolutely nasty, but the command is so erratic. In short outings at Eugene, Jensen would pair upper 90s fastball with a hard slider in the 88-90 mph range. It really fell off the table. It flashes plus, but the command right now gives me pause.

Curveball: From his Fresno St days, Jensen would throw a slower breaking ball that looked like a weaker curve. I didn’t see any evidence of it when he got to professional ball, but it appears that the Cubs are focused on Jensen incorporating a new breaking ball into his arsenal. Combining the following two quotes from The Athletic’s excellent reporting, this curveball is coming along.

Jensen threw around 60 simulated innings during the shutdown and experimented with changeup grips and shaping a new curveball.

Patrick Mooney of The Athletic (subscription required and encouraged)

Ryan Jensen, has an electric fastball, but the Cubs are thrilled about the development of his secondary pitches, a focus this past summer. The expectation is he’ll bring a much-improved breaking ball to the mound this season.

Sahadev Sharma and Patrick Mooney of The Athletic (subscription required and encouraged)

Edit: According to Bobby Basham, Chicago Cubs Director of Player Development, in an interview with confirmed the pitch is indeed a spike-curve

[Jensen] has used this spike curve and with that guy, anything that comes out of his hands is going to be power, right?

Bobby Basham, Chicago Cubs Director of Player Development

Changeup: A work in progress, but important for his future development. Even a below-average changeup pairing with the movement off the 2-seam and slider would benefit his profile. No projection at this time.

You can see what the Cubs pitching development infrastructure is working with Ryan Jensen to build: A four-seam fastball/curveball and a 2-seam/slider/(ideally)changeup to each play off each other. If that combination sounds familiar, it’s very similar to Adbert Alzolay’s repertoire in the later stretches of 2020 after he added his 2-seam and slider.

Future Projection

As I said in the review for Brailyn Marquez, I would still bet on Jensen landing as an elite reliever with the info presently available. But it’s so difficult to predict future role without 2020 game footage. Until we see how the new breaking ball and changeup play in live at-bats, we have to just evaluate based on the fastball(s)/slider combo. There’s some big time potential there, but it’s incredibly challenging to succeed in the starting rotation with just two(ish) pitches. Ultimately 2021 will help decide Jensen’s future. If he’s utilized his time in quarantine to hone his mechanics and pitching repertoire, Jensen has significant potential as a starting pitcher. The reports trickling in during the shutdown are encouraging. I can’t wait to see Ryan Jensen in action in 2021.

Prospect Report: Davidjohn Herz

High-upside lefthander is starting to incorporate three pitches with plus potential.

DJ Herz by Stephanie Lynn (@SRL590)

How acquired: MLB Draft 2019

Davidjohn (also goes by DJ) Herz came into the organization in the 8th round of the 2019 draft. The Cubs have placed an increased emphasis on higher upside selections in the draft. This strategy came with risks as the Cubs selected a bevy of players who would be described as raw and/or had a prior injury. Herz represented the former as clips available leading up the draft showcased projectability and a three-pitch mix that was was far more about “flashing” above-average pitches than repeating it on the mound. The Cubs identified Herz as an ideal pitcher to bring into the player development system with the upside as an impact pitcher who features a bulldog mentality on and off the mound.

For more backstory on DJ Herz, check out this article featuring an interview with DJ.

Mechanics and Control

Previously posted based on 2019 video: DJ Herz comes at the hitter with a lot of moving parts. It’s an athletic delivery, but one that is inconsistent. Herz uses a crossfire arm action that adds to deception to the hitter and eats up lefties. There is a very inconsistent foot strike (where his foot lands). In an ideal delivery, a pitcher will repeat his mechanics. Where a pitcher lands with their lead foot is vital to maintaining control, let a lone command. What Herz does succeed with is his ability to gather himself at the top of his windup. This offers hope that he can have more repeatable mechanics in the future, especially when factoring in that he was a three-sport athlete in high school.

2019 Mechanics

2021 Mechanics

2021: Herz’s delivery has come a long way since being drafted in 2019. It still has a lot of moving pieces to it, but it’s an athletic delivery. There are elements that he repeats well. Herz’s particular motion adds deception, which allows his low to mid 90s fastball with late life to play up. He gathers himself well and his hand break is consistent. In the follow-through Davidjohn will often fall off the mound to the third base side, but when he’s right he at least finishes in a balanced position. Despite long legs, one area for improvement is a longer stride to elicit better extension. Where Herz is still improving is his inconsistent foot strike. There are starts where it becomes apparent that he struggles with it. In recent starts, his mechanics are far more repeatable.

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Herz has taken strides this year to improve his control and command. In multiple outings, it is obvious that Herz is in control over both his fastball and one off-speed pitch in-game. At times he is capable of commanding all three pitches in an outing, but that is an area of growth. At 19 in his first foray into professional ball, I’ll avoid capping Herz’s projected control and command. He has the tools to succeed with multiple pitches and at least average command in the future.

Pitching Arsenal

Fastball: Herz executes his fastball well. At the top of the zone, his four-seam fastball offers solid ride. He is able to elevate the heater as well as paint the outside corner when he is at his best. The fastball is sitting in the low-to-mid 90s at present, but in an interview with , Herz noted he believes there is more velocity to come. I have this as an average pitch right now, but it has significantly more upside in the future. When commanded well, Herz flashes plus with this fastball, especially as he’s successfully played elevated fastballs off his spike-curve and lower fastballs of his changeup.

“I was sitting 93-95 just in the bullpen in the lab. I’m hoping by [2021], I’m at 97-98.”

DJ Herz

Changeup: Herz has spent considerable time working to hone this pitch during the shutdown. His changeup is whiff inducing and able to both land in the strikezone and fall off the table generating feeble swings. The shape of this pitch varies, but at it’s best there is good depth and fade (into righties). This is an above-average pitch at its best.

Changeup for a strike
Changeup for the whiff
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Curveball: I’ve already written about DJ Herz’s work with fellow Cubs pitching prospect, Chris Clarke to develop his new spike-curve. Herz’s effort to craft this pitch appears to have paid off well. Herz spoke this spring about how he was getting good bite on the curve, but having trouble to locate it. Those issues continued into his first start of the season. Since then, DJ has had considerable success utilizing the pitch as both an option in and outside the strikezone. His command of the curveball still wavers, but he has entire outings where he relies on the pitch. This spike-curve is a a heavy power offering with a 12-6 action. It already sits as above-average, but the curveball has plus potential.

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Future Projection

DJ Herz is in the middle of a breakout performance this summer and a huge bright spot in an organization that has historically struggled to develop pitching. Herz was originally drafted with concerns about a future reliever profile, but with improved mechanics and the ability to showcase three pitches for strikes, he has largely quieted those concerns. As a 19-year-old in his first season of full season ball, there will be ups and downs with his performance this season, however with his deceptive delivery, bulldog mentality on the mound, and average (or better) command of three exciting pitches, DJ Herz boasts some of the highest upside in the entire Cubs system.

Prospect Report: Yovanny Cruz

Young arm with three average pitches. He’s a long way from Wrigley, but one to watch in 2021.

How acquired: International Free Agency 2016

When you think about Cubs pitching prospects with a legitimate chance to become a mid-rotation starter or better, Yovanny Cruz should be one to consider. Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2016 during the two year penalty window on international free agency, Cruz doesn’t receive the fanfare of bonus baby, Richard Gallardo. Don’t let the more modest signing figure ($60,000) fool you, there is a lot to like about the young righthander.

Mechanics and Control

Yovanny has a very smooth delivery. He uses his high waisted 6’1″ frame to deliver pitches around the strike zone. His high walk numbers are surprising, but he often will just miss a corner and put himself in worse counts. Another tendency is Cruz can get into the habit of relying on hitters chasing a slider instead of challenging them in the strike zone. Sequencing at the lower levels of affiliate ball isn’t concerning and should improve even as he reaches the upper levels of the minors. He can get out of whack at times, but in several instances he was able to quickly get a ground ball with his heavy sinker or a strikeout on his slider. If “it breaks”, Cruz has shown the ability to “fix it” mid-inning.

Pitching Arsenal

Fastball: Cruz’s velocity has increased steadily and now sits 92-96, but has peaked in the upper 90s. I haven’t seen this in game, but MLB Pipeline reports he hit 99. Unfortunately, by all accounts, it appears to be a low spin offering. Cruz is young enough that some time in the pitch lab could do wonders. The Cubs pitch design gurus can help Yovanny create more spin, especially with his solid feel for spin with his slider. Spin isn’t everything and the total movement pattern (horizontal and vertical movement) is equally important to the pitch. Another method to consider may be to have him change his fastball to include a “cut” dynamic. With Cruz’s more over the top delivery, this may play better than his current fastball.

Changeup: I like the pitch and think it plays pretty well, especially for his level. It has above-average potential, but needs far more consistency. Even just an average changeup can play if he can develop his fastball and slider into plus pitches.

Slider: It’s a good secondary pitch and probably the one closest to plus. He shows a solid feel for it and will throw it to lefties and righties. When he gets in a jam, he’ll go to his slider often to get swings an misses. Overall there’s good spin here and that’s promising for future in the development of Cruz’s repertoire.

Future Projection

It’s imperative to see where Yovanny Cruz is once baseball is back. Everything was trending upwards heading into 2020. He will flash three average-to-plus pitches and shows enough projection that there’s more to dream on.