The Chicago Cubs have some interesting pitching prospects coming up the ladder. One of those pitching prospects — Oscar De La Cruz— was one of John’s 2016 sleepers.
De La Cruz was signed by the Cubs in 2012 out of the Dominican Republic for a mere $85,000, which is nothing on today’s international market when it comes to bonuses. Once a shortstop, the Cubs liked his arm enough to convert him to pitcher. Standing at 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, he may still have some growth in him, which will continue adding to his already impressive arsenal.
The initial results weren’t pretty as he struggled mightily in the DSL in his 2013 professional debut, but it was only four starts. Not worried too much, the Cubs left him in the DSL for one more summer in 2014 and this time the results were newsworthy. He went 8-1 as a 19-year old over 14 starts, posting a 1.80 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP. The WHIP was lowered primarily due to the fact that he became much less hittable (.199 as compared to .364 in 2013), but more so he became more comfortable around the strike zone, lowering his four per nine walk rate from 2013 to a nice 2.28 in 2014.
2015 saw De La Cruz finally get out of Rookie level ball and make his debut in the Short Season Northwest League. The results were strong, and good enough to make John label him as one of his sleepers heading into this season. The young righty posted his best strikeout numbers of his career (nine per nine) as well as he best walk rate (2.1 per nine) while posting a 6-3 record behind a very favorable 2.84 WHIP. Somewhat discouraging was the career high in home runs allowed at four (which likely led to the slightly higher 3.18 FIP), but a 0.49 home run rate is hardly worrisome… for now.
His arsenal is improving each season. As John described it in The Baseball Prospect Book 2016:
The reports are strong: fastball up to 95-97 on his best days and consistently in the low-90s. His breaking ball is inconsistent but has plus days; the change-up is rudimentary but has a chance to be at least average.
Baseball America confirms John’s views and gushes about that fastball:
His fastball sits in the 92-93 mph range but bumps 97 regularly when his delivery is in sync and he’s getting extension out front. At his best, his fastball features above-average life, movement and angle to go with its velocity, making it a potential double-plus pitch. His curveball flashes plus and pushes 80-81 mph. He’s still learning to throw his changeup with proper arm speed.
All eyes would thus be on De La Cruz in 2016, and those eyes would have to unfortunately wait. He was held back to start the season with elbow soreness. He worked through the injury in extended spring training, but no matter how much it was downplayed, those are two words you never want to hear. He worked his way up three levels when he returned, and looked good once he made it to the South Bend in the Midwest League. Over his first six starts at Low-A — his highest level to date — he posted a respectable 3.25 ERA — which becomes more impressive behind a 2.14 FIP) with a 35-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 27 innings. His command was yet again improved and the pitches looked better.
It’s fair to say that his sleeper status is a bit incomplete, but by no means was he a miss. While he made some of the strides experts like John were looking for, it was still a small sample size. Next season, hopefully a full one at full-season ball that he gets closer to 100 innings, should be more telling.
Conclusion: De La Cruz is a sleeper who hit the snooze button. He woke up just a little bit, teasing us with even more to offer on the heels of yet another successful campaign.