Being a first round draft pick means playing under a fair bit of pressure and some serious expectations. Brendon Little learned that quickly in 2017, when he struggled in his brief Cubs debut. His velocity was down and he had trouble finding the plate. His curveball looked amazing on occasion and at other times it looked utterly pedestrian.
He had an ERA north of 9.00, but only pitched 16.1 innings in that abbreviated debut season. This spring, he will be under a microscope as the Cubs and their fans try to get a look at exactly what is happening with Little’s left arm.
While he did pitch at the University of North Carolina his freshman year, Little only saw 4 innings of action before a scintillating summer circuit in the Cape Cod League where he struck out 29 in 22 innings, all in relief. In order to parlay that performance into a quicker path to the pros, Little transferred to the State Junior College of Florida for 2017. There he struck out 133 in 85 innings, all as a starter. Those are some eye-popping stats.
The thing to keep in mind with Little is that his ceiling is quite high. But his floor, which is where he currently stands, is in need of work. He went from facing junior college talent to short-season professional ball, a huge jump that is going to take some time to adjust to. The fact that he already had a full season of college ball, shut it down for a month, and restarted to just 40-50 pitches a night can be also be taken into consideration.
Everything about Little’s Eugene performance stood in stark contrast with his previous work. His WHIP and home runs allowed both skyrocketed and he had four wild pitches after not throwing one all spring. Something was not right. Whether it was a new pitch or grip he was working on, it was obvious that he was not the same pitcher.
Here’s what MLB Pipeline said shortly before the draft about what kind of pitcher Little can be:
When Little is on, few left-handers can match his stuff. His fastball usually ranges from 91-95 mph when he starts, ticks up a couple of notches when he relieves and arrives with steep downhill plane. His curveball is even better, an absolute 12-to-6 hammer in the low 80s when he stays on top of it.
Little faces the usual bullpen versus rotation questions because there’s effort in his delivery and he doesn’t consistently repeat his mechanics. He’ll have to clean that up to remain a starter, and he’ll also have to continue to refine his seldom-used changeup. If he winds up a reliever, he could become a power lefty closer.
1st Round Pick 2017 (27th)
State JC of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota
Leveling Up for 2018
Little was throwing mostly in the upper 80’s with his fastball at Eugene and he got hit pretty hard. He needs to get back to throwing 91-95 like he was in college. He’ll also need to improve the command of said fastball and keep working on developing his third pitch.
Depending on how he performs this spring, Little stay back for extended spring training or he could begin the season in South Bend. He should end up at low-A either way, provided he works through those issues with the fastball.
How Little starts this spring might be one of the most anticipated things about camp. With a stacked rotation of starting pitchers at South Bend, the Cubs can afford to take their time with him. However, they invested $2.2 million in that left arm and will want to see him showing signs of growth over the next few months.