Beyond the left-field fence at Everett Memorial Stadium lies a commemorative plaque marking the landing spot of Ken Griffey Jr.’s first professional home run. Walk into the stadium, and you’ll be greeted by large banners bearing the likenesses of Felix Hernandez and Ketel Marte, familiar faces wearing foreign shades of green and teal. Taken together, along with the ubiquitous “see the stars of tomorrow, today!” slogan sprinkled throughout the ballpark, and you might infer that the Northwest League is a breeding ground for future stars.

You would be wrong.

The NWL is one of the lowest rungs of organized baseball. Hernandez, Griffey and a few other greats launched their careers in the circuit, but they are clear exceptions. Each of the eight teams in the league will field approximately 40 players over the course of the season, and if three of them make a big-league all star team someday, it’s a good year for the league. Not three per team, mind you; three in the entire league.

That’s not to say the NWL is dull. Many of the league’s most famous alums were once diamonds in the rough—go look at the pedestrian numbers Jim Edmonds or Willson Contreras posted, to pick just two examples—and it’s always fun to guess which toolsy teenagers will pan out and which high draft pick will hang ‘em up after A-ball. More than anything though, the players who come through the NWL are exceedingly raw. Most can’t legally buy a drink, and even the 21- and 22-year-olds rely on raw ability over polish. Go to a game and you might see Kyle Lewis hit a 400 foot home run; you may also see him break in on a ball destined for the center field wall. Just about everyone present has obvious, substantial flaws.

Dylan Cease is the rarest of birds in this league: a pitcher with top-of-the-rotation potential who isn’t just passing through the Northwest League as he gets accustomed to pro ball. Just 20 years old, Cease was drafted by the Cubs in 2014. Signability and injury concerns pushed him out of the first round, but despite his draft position and the knowledge that he’d eventually need Tommy John surgery (he did), the Cubs gave him $1.5 million. Surgery kept him off the bump for a year, but in the limited innings he’s thrown, Cease has flashed the top-of-the-rotation stuff often enough to justify the lofty price tag.

I do my best to avoid looking at a pitcher’s scouting report before I see him live; I may know his draft status or signing bonus but I like to let the stuff and the delivery speak for itself. But unlike most of the misfits and org types in the NWL, Cease’s reputation preceded him. As he tossed his warmups, I wasn’t picking apart his delivery or distracted by his teammates in the field. He’d hit 103 previously, and I wanted to see it.

Cease opened the bottom of the first with a 97 mph fastball, and followed it up with two that reached 98 on at least one of the guns in front of me. Somewhat concerningly, he had trouble commanding the pitch: he missed all over the zone early, and couldn’t locate to a quadrant when he fell behind in the count. Bryson Brigman and Nick Zammarelli greeted him with singles.

At this point, Everett was on to him. Cease clearly wanted to establish the fastball, and Everett’s plan was simple: load early and swing at strikes. Lewis grounded another heater up the middle for a single and Eric Filia followed with the fourth single of the inning, a sharply hit line drive on another poorly located fastball. Cease eventually escaped the inning, but not before allowing more hard contact on the fastball.

Oftentimes, when a low-level arm tries to establish the fastball early, he’s either working on command or shelving his best offspeed pitch to shore up other offerings. Cease didn’t break out his curve until the second inning, and while it helped him get outs as a change of pace, it was clear early on that the pitch remains a work in progress. He spiked his first couple of curves in the dirt, high-70s offerings featuring 11-5 break and limited depth. The velocity separation was immediately noticeable: while it was enough to keep Everett’s hitters from sitting fastball, he was also slowing his arm down to improve its shape.

As the game wore on, Cease settled in. He started peppering the lower half of the zone, and none of Everett’s hitters could do more than slap innocuous grounders. His curve flashed average a few times, with depth and plenty of spin, and he even hit the zone with it a couple of times. From the second inning on, he mixed his pitches effectively, and Everett was kept mostly off-balance. He only used his changeup once or twice—he threw more warming up, and even then it was firm without much fade—but he didn’t really need it on the night. Crucially, he maintained his gas all the way through. Durability has been a bugaboo for him, and it was nice to see him hit 97 with his last fastball of the night.

Still, I was a little underwhelmed. To be clear, it’s my problem not Cease’s, and it’s not just because he topped out at 98. It’s pretty typical for 20-year-olds to struggle with their fastball command, particularly when they haven’t thrown much professionally. His curve already flashes above average, and he has the arm strength to get even more bite out of it as he develops. At 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, he has the frame to handle a tough workload if he can stay healthy. It’s not hard to see how this could work.

But he’s also not nearly as far along as I expected, and it’s fair to point out that he has a lot of development ahead of him. It starts with the fastball, which earns a 70 grade on velocity alone, but didn’t miss a single bat that night.

“The fastball was pretty straight,” according to a scout who watched the game. ‘Sometimes you could see a little bit of late natural cut on it, but it doesn’t move much. And when you know it’s coming, these guys can hit it.”

Cease’s offspeed drew similarly hesitant reviews from scouts, with one saying it only flashed “average” and that the pitch is a long way from a finished product. I liked the deuce a bit more than that, but none of the evaluators I talked to gave it a rave review.

I was probably guilty of getting too excited by radar readings. Cease has a thunderbolt on his right shoulder but with fewer than 50 professional innings under his belt, he’s a baby by professional baseball’s standards. He’s not the next Felix Hernandez, a teenage phenom stopping through town as his parent organization grapples with just how good he is already. Cease has work to do, elbow surgery in his rearview mirror, and only two functional pitches at present. He’s still the best arm in the league by a wide margin but, strangely for such a renowned prospect, he’s not ready to skip this grade quite yet. For now, Dylan Cease is right at home in the Northwest League. Ultimately, there may not be a pitcher in professional baseball with a wider gap between present stuff and future ability. That, even more than a 103 mile per fastball, makes him a fascinating pitcher to watch in the coming years.

Dylan Cease

Born: 12/28/1995 (Age: 20)
Bats: Right Throws: Right
Height: 6' 2" Weight: 190
Tall, high-waisted athlete; easy delivery, elite arm speed, high three-quarter slot; mild rock and fire, long stride, hard drive, still head, delivery slows just before stride and then re-accelerates, clean foot strike; slow in the stretch, regularly 1.5-plus
Evaluator Brendan Gawlowski
Report Date 07/12/2016
Affiliate Eugene Emeralds (Short Season, Cubs)
Dates Seen 07/05/2016
OFP/Risk 70/Extreme
Realistic 60; mid-rotation starter or backend reliever
MLB ETA 2020
Video No
Pitch Type Present Grade Future Grade Sitting Velocity Peak Velocity Report
Fastball 70 70 95-97 98 Below average movement with modest late wiggle; command at present is poor; elite velocity, has touched and sat higher in the past
Curve 40 55 77-79 80 11-5 break, long trajectory with hard spin; fringy command, solid command down, good arm speed replication

Cease has one of the best fastballs in the minor leagues, and even if his command only ticks up to fringe-average, he'll be able to start in the big leagues. More than command or the development of his off-speed pitches—he only showed a glimpse of a firm changeup—durability may be his chief concern. He's had Tommy John surgery in the past, and the track record of pitchers who exceeded 100 mph in their teens is notoriously poor. That said, Cease has elite arm strength, and previous reports suggest he's been more consistent with his curve in the past. Provided he develops into a consistent strike thrower with those two pitches, he has the tools to become a mid-rotation starter or elite reliever. Extreme-risk, extreme-reward player.

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Interesting read. I think it's easy to understand how a single game look at a curve ball is for from determinative. It could have been a bad day, he's got a long time to work on improving it, etc.

But how about life on a fastball? Is that more innate and either a guy has it or he doesn't?
Depends. I think some amount of natural movement is "innate" in the sense that you get x inches of movement based on how you feel comfortable holding and throwing the ball. You can always tinker with grips, pitch types, and the like to add/subtract movement. Also worth mentioning that he was throwing four-seamers, which don't move as much as cutters or two-seamers.