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.