Chicago Cubs manager David Ross is naturally focused on the here and now with his team.
But a benefit of the lockdown meant Ross spent time past fields at the Cubs campus in Mesa, Ariz., and gained a glimpse of the future. Some of those players even found time at Cactus League games, and they could soon help the Cubs. Outfielder and top prospect Brennan Davis should notably arrive for his major league debut sometime this year.
At the end of the big-league camp, Ross commented on Davis’ good effect in six spring training games, running well in the outfield and hitting two home runs in eight batting.
“It’s hard to judge guys from a little spring training like this, but you can tell he’s just starting to get that body filling and looking the part,” Ross said. He said, “He had a great season last year, continues to build on that and hopefully we will see him soon.
“He’s a guy who’s one of those futuristic pieces that you watch and watch him develop and work very hard on this season.”
Davis was not alone in standing out. Outfielders Pete Crowe-Armstrong and Owen Cassie, infielders James Triantos and shortstop Ed Howard also had their moments. Cassie specifically went 5-for-9 in the Cactus League with two doubles and an RBI.
With the minor-league season starting last week, it’s time to clear the notebooks from past areas of the complex – including two pitchers worth keeping an eye on at Triple A.
Yohendrik Pinango and his ‘God-given’ hammock
Yohendrik Pinango has always loved baseball.
Growing up in Venezuela, he was constantly around sports. Pinango realized he had a special talent while attending the Future Stars Baseball Academy in Barquisimeto, Venezuela.
“While I was there, I began to see how it was day by day,” Pinango told the Tribune through an interpreter. “I knew I had the skills, I had the talent, but doing it every day, that grind — that’s when I realized I was passionate about it and I had the talent to move on.”
Pinango, ranked the Cubs’ No. 10 prospect by Baseball America and No. 20 by MLB.com, is known for his pure hitting ability. Baseball America rated him the Cubs system’s best power hitter and he has elite contact-hitting abilities, with the publication stating that he is a “consensus future plus hitter”. The left-handed outfielder said that from the time he was young and first getting into baseball, he always had a habit of hitting.
Pinango said, “I have the god-given ability to be a good swing, to be a good hitter, but it’s also something that, even if I have that ability, I work on it every day and start from then.” I was little when I was playing ball in the streets of Venezuela.
Pinango, 19, hasn’t had a typical off-season. He was hit by a baseball in late November and required surgery on his left pinky finger in December, which required the insertion of three screws. The strange injury was the first time Pinango had any health problems in his career, which made it difficult to deal with at first. But his doctor reassured him after the procedure that it would not affect his 2022 season.
By the beginning of March, he was 100% cured and went into the camp completely. The Cubs are full of outfield talent in the minor-league system, and Pinango should not be overlooked. He is starting the season at High-A South Bend, where he collected three hits in his first seven at-bats.
How Pitching Machines Produce Minor-Leggers
The setup was impossible to ignore.
Two pitching machines were installed on either side of the mound for minor-league batting practice. One was calibrated to throw left-handed sliders, the other right-handed fastballs. The varying speeds and angles challenged the timing of the young hitters.
And that’s why the Cubs have applied this BP approach to their minor leagues. They want to put them in an awkward position and let them figure it out.
Message to players: This is a challenge. Go figure it out and try to beat the challenge.
“In some of our batting practice settings old-school baseball just didn’t provide enough of a challenge,” minor-league hitting coordinator Dustin Kelly told the Tribune during camp. “So we’re setting up a constraint of a machine doing two different things. And it’s like, you guys, be athletes and figure it out and tell baseball and baseball’s flight that we’re going to focus too much on the mechanics. What are you doing against?
Kelly said that, as an industry, the emphasis on mechanics can be too much at times. They have seen with the top hitting prospects of the Cubs that they need to be challenged more. While regular BP is still used, sometimes more constraints need to be introduced. A two-machine setup was incorporated into a minor-league minicamp. It challenges each hitter differently.
“This fight to go back and forth creates a little bit of internal competition,” Kelly said. “Some people are really bad at it and some people are really good at it. And then it just organically creates a fun atmosphere.”
Cassie has a specific plan when she encounters those machines. When a left-handed outfielder encounters the left-throwing slider machine, he tries to move it to the middle, while he tries to stay back and steer the pitch from the fastball machine.
“For me everything is direction and I just try to keep everything in center field,” Cassie said. “The balls can’t go to center field, but my body is moving towards center field. … Doing these exercises in the field is good for recognition because we always get look, look, look – it’s just more There’s more repetition.”
Cayenne Ueckert is a reliever to watch
It was a week after the big-league camp ended in Mesa, and Keon Yukert still had a locker in the clubhouse.
Yukert, a 27th-round pick by the Cubs in 2019, was surprised to receive an invitation to major-league camp, let alone an opportunity to show the staff what he could do from the days the MLB season began.
The 25-year-old right-handed batsman impressed in four Cactus League appearances – aided by an effective two-seam fastball – hitting five and a batsman not running in a 3⅓ innings. With a stellar performance in Double-A Tennessee, where he had a 1.61 ERA in 24 appearances in 2022, Yukert is starting the season at Triple-A Iowa.
This is the first time he has pitched at that level and he is closer to the bigger companies than ever before. He got on the radar with the opportunity to show him what he could do in three-and-a-half weeks at the camp. If the Cubs need relief aid during the season, Uckert could make his way onto the 40-man roster and into the big leagues sooner rather than later.
“It means a little bit, like maybe they have plans (for me),” Yukert said. “But at the end of the day, if I don’t perform, it’s not going to end. So the biggest thing is just to be healthy and do what I want to do.”
Caleb Killian opens up a crucial pitch
It’s hard to go into a much better offseason than Caleb Killian’s ending 2021.
The right-hander, one of two players the Cubs acquired from the San Francisco Giants for Kris Bryant, made six perfect innings in the Arizona Fall League championship game to win the title. It served as a springboard into a crucial off-season in which pitch development became a focal point.
Unlike his curveball, which he got to spin harder and faster in five AFL outings, Killian could not get hold of his new variation. That work was carried over into the off-season, and it finally started to look good two weeks before reporting at the minor-league minicamp in February.
“For me, it’s just finishing the ball, finishing with the wrist at the very end and throwing it like a fastball instead of thinking about change, which was hard to get out of my head,” says Killian. he said. “The change is huge. A lot of hitters think this is the best pitch in the game, so now that I have a really good pitch, I think it will improve all my pitches.”
Killian used the Cubs’ Pitch Lab to determine which grip works best action-wise and then how to throw it well. He said the pitch lab data is helpful because he didn’t know he had a strange change grip last season. It was a very average pitch for him, sometimes helping him motivate the grounders, but he didn’t cover it much. Now Killian uses a circle change grip.
A better change to pitch his fastball would help Killian in Triple A, his first at that level.
“You have to have fastball command. It really goes a long way,” Killian said. “When you can command the fastball, you can have success and it makes other pitches better.”