Promising AFL Performances by Pitching Prospects Ryan Jensen, Caleb Kilian Underscore Cubs’ Evolving Development Philosophy
Nelson Velazquez has been grabbing all the Arizona Fall League headlines lately and he added to his growing hype by going 2-for-3 with a dinger and a pair of walks on Wednesday to boost his average to .415 with a 1.252 OPS. That performance may have provided a little shade under which Ryan Jensen‘s stellar start went unnoticed, then Jensen overshadowed fellow righty Caleb Kilian in a combined shutout performance by the Solar Sox.
Jensen is currently ranked as the Cubs’ third-best righty pitching prospect and 15th overall, though he might be higher were it not for a lack of experience and a slow start to his career. Drafted 27th overall out of Fresno State in 2019, Jensen logged just 12 innings at short-season Eugene that summer. The 2020 season was lost to the pandemic and the delayed start to the 2021 minor league season meant it was well into May before he threw again in real competition.
His performance between high-A South Bend and Double-A Tennessee was sluggish at first and built to solid with a combined 4.16 ERA with 90 strikeouts and 31 walks. The Cubs were very careful with Jensen, limiting him to just 80 innings over 20 starts as they spaced out his appearances by at least six days on all but one occasion.
As a result of those restrictions, he was a perfect choice to build up more experience against fellow top prospects in Mesa. His first two outings didn’t go so well and he got hit pretty hard, but Wednesday’s performance offered more than a little promise. Jensen struck out five over four scoreless innings and touched 98 with his power sinker while mixing in a sharp slider and some low-80’s curves.
“Jensen’s best pitch is his heater, which has more velocity than a typical sinker; it finished off four of his five whiffs Wednesday,” MLB.com’s Jim Callis wrote about the effort. “He can push triple-digits with his four-seam fastball, but he considers it the least effective of his five pitches — he also has a changeup — it lacks life and gets hit.”
Gee, I’d say Jensen fits the bill for the “power arms” Jed Hoyer was talking about targeting in free agency. That’s not to say the 23-year-old is a strong possibility for the big league roster next season, though he is an example of the Cubs’ changing pitching philosophy. Rather than trying to find fully-formed college pitchers with more predictable paths and lower ceilings, they’ve targeted guys who have big-time stuff that just needs more polish.
For Jensen, that polish is coming in the form of gaining confidence in his secondaries and getting used to a new baseball. We may need to see more outings like Wednesday’s in order to really stamp this guy as a dude, but he certainly seems to understand what it’s going to take.
“I think that was the big thing for me, was just getting adjusted to those [MLB] baseballs. I’ve been working on my slider and changeup a lot, so trying to mix that in and just mix my pitches because I feel like sometimes I get too predictable with my pitches.”
If that doesn’t provide you with enough optimism, how about Kilian following Jensen with three shutout innings of his own, over which he struck out six with no walks. Kilian, ranked just above Jensen by MLB.com, had gotten off to a brutal start in Mesa with eight earned runs allowed on seven hits and five walks over his first two innings. Yikes.
The walks were particularly alarming because he had only issued four free passes in 15.2 innings upon joining the Cubs as part of the Kris Bryant trade and had only 15 walks in 116.1 total professional innings. In case you had forgotten, the other member of that KB deal was Alexander Canario, a slugging outfielder who sits at No. 12 on the team’s prospect list.
Listed at 6-foot-4 and just 180 pounds, the 24-year-old bulked up last offseason and can probably add even more to his frame if it makes sense for him. The added strength had him touching upper 90’s after sitting 90-95 during his college career at Texas Tech and he topped out at 97 on Wednesday. Maintaining that velo over the course of a start while continuing to dial in his curve, slider, and changeup could give him a shot at the rotation in Chicago next season.
While these impressive individual performances are really too small to be taken too seriously in and of themselves, they are examples of how the Cubs are evolving as an organization. In addition to the publicly stated philosophical changes mentioned above, they’ve revamped their development infrastructure from the ground up and have now conducted an overhaul of the front office.
New GM Carter Hawkins has been lauded for his expertise in player development, specifically when it comes to pitching. The Cleveland organization was known for that and now the Cubs should have more defined processes in place to improve their internal systems. New AGM Ehsan Bokhari came over from Houston, where progressive thinking and aggressive strategy led them to become leaders in pitching development as well.
Bokhari designed Houston’s pitch-grading system and has a Ph.D. in quantitative psychology, which might seem superfluous until you think about how it applies to his new role. Quantitative psychology uses statistical modeling to analyze human psychological processes, which is really just a fancy way of saying that Bokhari can dig deep into the hows and whys and, ideally, help to explain them down the line in a way that makes sense.
“There’s no secret,” Hawkins explained during his introductory presser. “What the Indians were able to do really, really well is to take all the information that’s out there — and there’s a ton of it, and all of it’s really good — but synthesize that into digestible information that a player can get on board with, a coaching staff can get on board with, a front office can get on board with, and getting everyone to move in one direction.”
It’ll be a while yet before the Cubs reach the point where we can adequately assess everything they’re doing right now, but I really like where they’re at in this particular facet of the organization.