Cubs prospect notebook: Observations and takeaways from Arizona camp
MESA, AZ — On the backfields of the Cubs Spring Training complex every morning just after 9 a.m. MST, the future of the organization roams in groups based primarily off age between one of six meticulously groomed fields.
I had a chance to observe and interact with some of the Cubs’ top prospects in between their on-field work, signing autographs for fans and joking around with teammates. Here are some main takeaways:
Caleb Kilian, RHP
The star of the 2021 AFL Championship, Kilian’s offseason focus has been tweaking his changeup. He previously adopted a “vulcan” grip on the pitch, which requires a pitcher to wedge the ball between his middle and ring finger to force the hand to move inward upon release, creating that classic fading action. But after trying multiple grips in the Cubs Pitch Lab, he and the organization have settled on a 2-seam oriented changeup that he throws off 1 seam — like Kyle Hendricks — to better tunnel off his sinker. Tunneling is the idea of having two or more pitches look similar on their trajectory to the plate before moving in different directions by the time they hit the catcher’s glove.
One-seam spin helps create a modern pitching concept called “seam-shifted wake” on the ball as it moves towards the plate. Without digging too much into the weeds on the topic, this concept has essentially validated the idea of “late break.” Scouts for years have assertively said they can distinguish between pitches that possess more late break than others based on the thousands of pitches they see and hitter reactions. And now with some of the modern pitch measurement tools, data has begun to back up their point.
Ed Howard, IF
Howard’s mantra this preseason seems to be a focus on the present moment, with little interest in talking about his past season or the offseason adjustments he has made. Upon observation, one of those adjustments seems to be a slight adjustment to his front foot during the load phase of his swing (before a hitter starts to aggressively rotate and their bat comes through the zone).
Howard’s swing has always shown a tendency to get his front foot down early, which can often sap some of a hitter’s power and create an inefficiency in how much energy is transferred up their kinetic chain and into the ball. Although conclusions about a hitter can only be drawn after seeing data to back up a generality like this, if Howard does in fact carry this hover of his front foot into game action, there’s a reasonable chance he could tap into more power and higher exit velocities.
Luke Little, LHP
Little threw about 15 pitches in a side session Monday, Feb. 28. Little works solely with a slider and fastball, both of which have exceptional velocity and movement. These bullpens are not full intensity for pitchers (therefore they do not resemble in-game velocity) but the visual speed of Little’s fastball suggested he was sitting 5 or more mph hotter than any other pitcher on the adjacent mounds.
Listed at 6-foot-8, 220-pounds, Little looks even larger. He is a massive human, with an incredibly simple delivery that utilizes his natural tendency to hinge — imagine sitting into a chair but trying to keep your back flat — incredibly well. Thanks to Rob Friedman, aka PitchingNinja, Little popped on scouts’ radars after touching 105 mph.
Jordan Wicks, LHP
Wicks has undergone a bit of a pitch mix change this offseason. Last season, what data registered as his slider acted more like a cutter and what data registered as a curveball actually acted more like his slider. He also threw a pair of fastballs, a 4-seam and a 2-seam variation, both of which blended together.
This season, Wicks suggested his repertoire has been changed. He’s pushed towards more of a true curveball with a slight spike of his left index finger to help induce topspin and his slider has an emphasis on lateral movement. He also cut his fastballs back to just a 4-seam, doubling down on a pitch that averaged about 3-4 inches more vertical movement than the average major league 4-seam fastball. (Vertical movement helps a fastball resist the downward force of gravity, helping the pitch to have a “rising” effect, which makes it especially effective up in the zone.)
Kohl Franklin, RHP
The 2018 6th-round pick will throw 15 pitches live to hitters Saturday, March 5, for the first time in over a year after an injury-riddled 2021 season. His last extended stretch of games came in 2019 when he posted a 2.31 ERA with the Class A short-season Eugene Emeralds. He told me his mix will still be fastball-curveball-changeup.
Franklin also raved about the yoga he and many other Cubs prospects who stayed with the organization for their extended offseason camp have done. He mentioned Ryan Jensen, Joe Nahas, Brandon Hughes and Koen Moreno specifically when asked who partakes. Recently, the group moved into pilates.
The listed weights of players on MiLB’s website and other places can often be deceptive, often because player’s weights can drop drastically throughout the course of a season. For example, here are three players followed by their listed height-weight: Ed Howard (6-foot-2, 185 pounds), Cristian Hernández (6-foot-2, 175 pounds) and James Triantos (6-foot-1, 195 pounds).
Yet watching all three presents a much different picture.
Howard appears to have muscled up since his time at Myrtle Beach. He looks taller than 6-foot-2 and appears heavier than 185 pounds. His stature is imposing.
Hernández is probably 1-2 years off from physical maturity, yet the exit velocities he has posted in the Dominican Summer League are exceptional for his age. This could lead one to believe the efficiency of his swing — how well he transfers the energy he puts into the ground all the way through his body and to the ball — is high.
Triantos’s lower half is the opposite of Hernández’s. He’s thick and built like a tree trunk, incredibly explosive and powerful for his size. He looks like a running back more than an infielder.
Minor league players underwent physicals this week, with height and weight measurements being taken. These will eventually make their way onto MiLB.com and give us updated perceptions of how effective offseason strength and conditioning has been for some of the Cubs top minor league talent.
Andy Weber, IF
Speaking of body composition, Weber said he has struggled to hold his weight through the grind of a long season but he’s currently sitting just over 190 pounds. He’s hoping this year will be different than prior years where he drops weight consistently as he amasses 500+ plate appearances.
Weber also mentioned that he and housemate Chase Strumpf indulge on ice cream to help add calories to a given day. Kilian also mentioned ice cream being a guilty addition to his four-meal, multiple snack diet. While the fridges at the Cubs complex are stuffed with Muscle Milk and Gatorade’s Bolt 24 electrolyte supplement, maybe freezers are necessary to store Edy’s and Halo Top.
More on the Cubs farm system with VP of Player Development Jared Banner: