During his talk at the 2017 edition of Saberseminar a couple weekends ago, Rick Hahn went through the process of trading a second star pitcher in under eight months, Jose Quintana. Hahn was initially unsure of whether to trade Quintana, but received an offer from an unidentified team that was enough to deal the prized lefty if no better deal arose. Having reached the initial threshold for dealing Quintana, Hahn went back to Cubs president Theo Epstein with what amounted to a take it-or-leave it, non-negotiable framework of Quintana for a prospect package led by outfielder Eloy Jimenez and pitcher Dylan Cease. Epstein agreed, and a few days later Quintana was starting for the Cubs.
It’s easy as pie to see why Eloy Jimenez was an absolutely necessary component of the deal. A few weeks before the deal, we ranked him as the eighth-best prospect in all of baseball, and he’s on an upward trajectory, possibly headed to the top five in the offseason list. Every team in baseball would want Eloy Jimenez in such a trade.
Dylan Cease, on the other hand, takes a bit of scratching beneath the surface. The Cubs gave Cease $1.5 million in the sixth round of the 2014 Draft, shortly after he underwent Tommy John surgery. He made his professional debut pitching abbreviated stints in the complex-level Arizona League in 2015, and followed that up with twelve starts of five innings or fewer in the short-season Northwest League in 2016. He pitched very well and flashed electric enough stuff that he was on the “just missed” group for the BP 101 coming into the 2017 season, which for a lower-drafted pitcher yet to make his full-season debut is quite an accomplishment. 2017 brought success in Low-A, but the Cubs continued to manage his innings carefully, and it’s not like he was the clear second-best prospect in the system miles ahead of Adbert Alzolay or Trevor Clifton, or Jeimer Candelario if you preferred a hitter. Why would Hahn prefer Cease to other Cubs pieces so strongly?
That question came back to me this past Tuesday seeing Cease in person with an obvious answer: this is a potential top-of-the-rotation pitcher. Yes, durability is going to remain an extreme concern until he actually throws a bunch of innings somewhere. Yes, the command is still wavering enough to be an issue. And yes, the change isn’t quite there yet. But with limited exceptions, this is just what you get from A-ball pitching prospects now, and with Cease you also get one of the most electric arms in the minors on a tall, projectable frame.
He’s touched 100 in the past, but was “only” 93-97 for me, mixing in a four-seamer with natural cut and a two-seamer with incredible arm-side run. His curve projects as an easy plus pitch, and some of the better overhand ones were jaw-droppingly beautiful. The change is, as I hinted earlier, a work in progress in terms of consistency, but a few times he pulled the string on it as an out pitch. He didn’t really tire until the sixth inning, which is pretty impressive for a pitching prospect nearing the end of his first full season, and he didn’t get frustrated as a porous defense let him down repeatedly in the third inning. Despite the flaws, Cease has all the makings of an elite MLB starter. Alzolay and Clifton might be more likely to still be starting pitchers when they make the majors, and might even be more likely to have any kind of substantial MLB career, but they don’t have the kind of obvious ceiling Cease does.
Then I started thinking about the cadre of arms Hahn has assembled since the rebuild started last year. Individually, none of Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Michael Kopech, Alec Hansen, Dane Dunning, and Cease have a particularly stellar shot to become high-end starting pitchers, and some of them are outright more likely to end up in relief. But in the aggregate, it’s likely that one, two, or three of the six will become excellent MLB starters, and it’s also likely that some of the stragglers will hit their fallbacks as dominant relievers or rotation depth. That doesn’t even include a deep next tier of arms led by what used to be the system’s top pitching prospects in Carson Fulmer and Spencer Adams, a group that has also been substantially bolstered by Hahn’s wheeling-and-dealing for more arms like Ian Clarkin and AJ Puckett.
One last piece needs mentioning: the White Sox have been simply stellar at not just developing pitching over the last decade-plus, but maintaining its health. Much has been written about the organizational impact of pitching coach Don Cooper and trainer Herm Schneider, and these are soft impacts. But if you were Rick Hahn and looking to build your next World Series contender through the farm, wouldn’t you go after the guys with great stuff and durability concerns and see if they can thrive in your organization with the right staff?
It’s easy to criticize a team for investing too hard in young pitching; one needn’t look further than the 2017 Mets to see the potential pitfalls of relying too heavily on young power starting pitching. Of course, one also needn’t look further than the 2015 Mets—with mostly the same staff—to see the virtue of the idea. And the White Sox haven’t been all-in on acquiring these guys. Midseason top prospect Yoan Moncada came along with Kopech in the Chris Sale deal, as did toolsy outfielder Luis Alexander Basabe. Cease wasn’t the headliner in the Quintana deal, and Jimenez looks like just as much of a future stud as Moncada. Hansen wasn’t their first pick in 2016; Zack Collins was, and they took power bat Jake Burger at 11th-overall this year. Giolito, Lopez, and Dunning all came in the same trade, but when you get three arms that interesting in the same deal it makes it pretty likely you won’t take an 0-for-3. The deal that got Clarkin was led by top 101 outfielder Blake Rutherford. They even snuck the signing of top Cuban prospect Luis Robert in under the wire on the new CBA’s changes to the international free agency system.
We are years from figuring out whether this all works out. Not only will the White Sox need to develop these players, but they’ll have to win some coin flips and rolls of the dice on health and the vagaries of player development. But they’ve certainly given themselves quite a few swings for the fences on the pitching side to go with a strong core of hitting prospects. If enough of the pitching gambles hit, a handful of years from now the White Sox will have Hahn’s real goal in sight: the World Series.