When a woman asked me at Cubs Convention which affiliate Jerrick Suiter had been assigned to, my initial reaction was to wonder silently whether such a player was in the system at all. A quick perusal of my long-term memory and a prompt from Myrtle Beach Pelicans broadcaster Noah Cloonan reminded me that the Cubs had plucked Suiter from the Pirates during the minor league portion of the Rule 5 Draft in December.
That’s where I’d heard of him, though it was only a result of having edited Todd Johnson’s piece on the Cubs’ selection of Trevor Megill in MLB portion of that draft. Which is to say that my knowledge of Suiter was limited to seeing his name as little more than a footnote. My initial research revealed little statistical promise, though I learned that the 6-foot-2, 250 pound Suiter is from Valparaiso and played briefly for the Indianapolis Indians as part of his tenure in the Pirates organization.
Back to those stats, which don’t do anything to explain why the Cubs would take even a relatively small risk. Suiter has a .697 OPS over 2,275 minor league plate appearances, more than enough to dispel any concerns over small samples, and his performance in college (.610 OPS) and abroad (.704) offers no contradictory evidence. Nor is there hope to be found in his 29 total homers over 2,800 post-high school plate appearances, an alarmingly anemic tally for a corner man.
A swing change back in 2017 ($) appears to have added a little pop, as 20 of those homers have come since being promoted to Double-A that season. Four dingers came over just 103 plate appearances in the Australian Baseball League this winter, but you’ve got to take that with a grain of salt or three when accounting for the level of play. Even if the improvement is sustainable, though, it’s not indicative of anything really eye-opening in the future.
So why would the Cubs pick up a guy who seems to have plateaued as a hitter? Because they don’t intend for him to be a hitter moving forward. Not just a hitter, anyway.
As we learned Sunday, the Cubs’ development team felt they’d seen enough from 1.2 innings of mop-up duty with the Pirates’ Double-A affiliate last season to give Suiter a shot to reboot his career as a pitcher or perhaps a two-way player. It probably didn’t hurt that he’s shown off an absolute hose in the field. Including his time Down Under, Suiter’s got an insane 11 assists over his last 270 innings in right field and 25 assists over 1,610 total outfield innings. For the sake of reference, Bryce Harper’s MLB-leading 13 assists from right in 2019 came over the course of 1,318 innings.
— Indianapolis Indians (@indyindians) September 2, 2018
Though it was little more than a footnote during the Down on the Farm panel featuring Cubs’ director of player development Bobby Basham and senior director of player development Matt Dorey, my ears perked up at the mention of Suiter’s name. Dorey indicated that the advanced data culled from two brief outings with the Altoona Curve told them Suiter might really have something as a pitcher, which means looking at more than just velocity.
Perhaps they were intrigued by his ability to bend a wicked breaking ball, like this one to whiff Dante Bichette Jr.
( (> PLAYER
<) )> PITCHING
/ @jerricksuiter WHIFFS Dante Bichette Jr. to finish a scoreless eighth inning.
Better keep that ⚾️ pic.twitter.com/Y5zmhdKnRz
— Altoona Curve (@AltoonaCurve) September 1, 2019
The Pirates had apparently begun working with the 26-year-old righty in on his pitching already, so the Cubs are really looking to accelerate his development curve (no relation to Altoona) at this point. That means maintaining a level of comfort and putting him in position to make the most of the transition as quickly as possible.
“I think with anyone, you want to make sure you keep them healthy because it’s a transition and there’s a slow build-up,” Basham told Cubs Insider. “Start them in the place where they can succeed right away or there’s a little bit less pressure under the lights and then, because they’re probably a little more advanced because they’ve been position players, once they get their feet under them you can let them run.”
Pitching staffs are littered with guys who washed out as position players and then parlayed their strong arms into careers on the mound. Most of those transitions take place much earlier, like when a 13-year-old Adbert Alzolay gave up on third base after taking a liner to the chest, but Kenley Jansen stands out as someone who really took off quickly after making the move at a relatively advanced age. The same is true for Rowan Wick, who’s only been pitching full-time for four years after trying to give it a go as a catcher.
It’s clearly not as simple as just identifying guys with power arms, which even fans watching at home can see pretty easily. The key is to figure out which players would most benefit from such a big change and can also handle it from a psychological perspective. There could even be some strategic benefits to developing two-way players.
“Jerrick’s gonna get a little bit of an opportunity to continue to hit, so that’ll determine where he starts,” Basham explained. “Keep in mind, it seemed like with the Pirates, they’d already started that process a little bit. He was even doing a little bit of that in Australia as well.”
If he’s able to figure things out quickly enough, perhaps the best comparison for Suiter is former Cub Brooks Kieschnick. After debuting in 1996 as a left fielder and bouncing around unsuccessfully for a few seasons, Kieschnick made the switch and finished his career as a pinch-hitting relief pitcher in 2003 and ’04 with the Brewers. The comp falls apart when you consider that Kieschnick was a soft-tosser whose fastball hovered in the upper 80’s, but let’s stick with the notion that Suiter can hit a little.
— Australian Baseball League (@ABL) December 8, 2019
Even though rosters are expanding to 26 players for 2020 and beyond, the limit of 13 pitchers means teams are going to have to get a little creative. That’s doubly true when you add the wrinkle of the three-batter minimum. It stands to reason that teams could use a guy like Suiter who could potentially hit for himself in a multi-inning appearance or even pinch hit for the pitcher he’s about to replace. It essentially provides an extra bench spot.
I’m guessing the organization isn’t necessarily planning on that becoming a reality just yet, since Suiter first has to prove he’s a capable pitcher in a bigger sample. If that happens, though, the Cubs could gain a nice little competitive advantage without having to resort to trash cans or buzzing band-aids.