No one could have guessed back in spring, or even prior to late July if we’re being honest, that Rowan Wick would be occupying a high-leverage role in the Cubs’ bullpen. After all, he’s only logged a total of 201.2 innings on the mound and is still getting a feel for his craft. And we’re not talking just professional innings, but pitching at any level since Little League, period. Initially drafted as a catcher before being converted to the outfield, Wick has only been pitching since 2015.
The hard-throwing righty started out in the Cardinals organization, where he struggled make contact — 94 K’s in 260 plate appearances at A-ball in 2014 — despite showing a good deal of power. As the strikeouts continued to mount, the Cards decided the only way Wick was going to continue his professional career was by generating whiffs from opponents rather than falling victim to them himself.
“When they told me I was going to pitch, it was kind of, ‘OK, this is my last shot,’” Wick told FanGraphs back in March. “At that point, you’ve got to buy in, right? I’d started as a catcher, then went to the outfield, and now I was a pitcher. After that, you really can’t make any more moves. It was either pitch or go home.”
Though he showed promise, the conversion process was an understandably frustrating sequence of fits and spurts. He simply wasn’t able to do enough to impress an organization rife with high-end pitching prospects and was claimed off waivers by the Padres in 2018. Wick quickly shot through the less crowded San Diego system later that season and appeared in 10 games for the Dads over the final month.
Now 26 and getting his first real taste of extended action for a competitive team, Wick is making the most of his opportunity and looking like the kind of steal who may one day appear on a “Best Cubs trades” list. That’s because the Padres saw fit to send the righty to the Cubs this past offseason in exchange for minor league third baseman Jason Vosler.
A decent hitter with a little pop, Vosler was blocked in Chicago by Kris Bryant, and is now blocked quite firmly in San Diego by some Manny Machado guy. But hey, enough about that, let’s get back to how Wick and Anthony Rizzo are helping to make the Cubs feel very good about making deals with San Diego.
At 6-foot-3 and around 235 el bees, Wick still has something of a catcher’s build. Same goes for his arm stroke, which is short and quick like he’s trying to get the best possible pop time to throw out a would-be base stealer. That high 90’s fastball just explodes on hitters and really sets up a curveball and slider that are still still developing.
Much of his success with the breaking stuff, the curveball in particular, has come from experimenting with different grips and finding one that best suits his throwing style. Which really means throwing it like it’s not really a curve at all. As MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian explained, Wick opted for a spike or knuckle curve (there’s a wealth of additional info in that link, so go check it out) after working through several different options in the Cubs’ vaunted Pitch Lab this spring.
“It was like, ‘Yeah, this is the one that has the best spin and the best efficiency and all that,’” Wick explained to Bastian. “It was a good velo, so I stuck with that. Really, you just throw it like a fastball, you know what I mean?
“You don’t have to think about making it break or anything. The grip just does it for you.”
He’s still pretty raw and that shows at times, but Wick is flashing the potential to remain at the back end of the ‘pen even when Craig Kimbrel, Brandon Kintzler, and Steve Cishek return (though the latter’s hip issue is a pretty serious concern). That didn’t look to be the case when he gave up three runs, two of which were earned, on four hits and one walk while striking out exactly zero of the 10 Pirates he faced on July 1.
Not that it really mattered, since that 18-5 shellacking was a complete joke right from the start. It was also the last action Wick would see with the Cubs for three weeks, since he was optioned the next day as Kyle Hendricks was activated from the IL. All he’s done since is dominate every opponent he’s faced.
Wick went 6.2 innings over his next seven appearances with Triple-A Iowa, allowing no runs and striking out 10 while walking just one and allowing only two hits. So when Carl Edwards Jr. — who was somewhat ironically traded to San Diego — was optioned to Iowa, Wick was a pretty obvious choice to replace him.
All the former catcher has done since is ride that compact arm stroke to nine consecutive scoreless appearances (8.2 IP), over which he’s allowed just two hits while striking out 13 batters and walking just three. That stretch was capped by a masterful performance in which he completely dusted the Reds for two innings, striking out four of the seven batters he faced to preserve the Cubs’ lead.
Wick = Lit pic.twitter.com/ZrlULfhnSU
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) August 11, 2019
There’s ample reason to believe this is all just a fluke and Wick is bound to set sail for Regression Island here soon, but there’s evidence to suggest this is who he is. Or at least who he can be. He’s young enough to still have several prime seasons in front of him, not to mention he’s got plenty of room to further dial in his command and the feel for his breaking stuff. And when you fire 96 mph fastballs that just explode out of nowhere, you have some leeway to ease that learning, uh, curve.
Wick can’t be expected to maintain this incredibly high level of play forever, but the best part is that he doesn’t have to. The Cubs have other high-leverage relievers in Kimbrel and Kintzler, maybe Cishek as well, who can shoulder the heavier loads once they return. So Wick getting that experience right now and gaining confidence as a result means he’s got a chance to really shove when facing the bottom of an opposing order in, say, the 6th inning.
You have to wonder how the Padres are going to feel about having one of their former players coming up big for the Cubs down the stretch and (fingers crossed) into the postseason. Wait, never mind, they’ve gotten pretty well used to that over the last several years.