The 2012 Cubs were not very good at playing baseball: they finished the season with an awful 61-101 record. To be fair, Theo Epstein didn’t have much talent on the roster, and in amid the losing, that can have its own set of unintended benefits. Take speedy centerfielder Tony Campana, for example. It seemed like a no-brainer (to me, anyway) to give him the centerfield job to see how his elite speed could play at the big league level. What did you have to lose?
In 2012, he slashed .264/.308/.299 with 30 steals in just 174 at bats. In my mind, it made sense to give him a shot and see if he could get on base enough to cause the kind of havoc that fast men like him can cause.
How fun, right? Full disclosure: I love me some speed. That’s why I wrote a piece wondering if the Cubs had a Terrance Gore equivalent in the system. I was so into the idea of seeing the diminutive Campana patrolling Wrigley Field on an everyday basis, that I wrote a Seinfeld-inspired piece touting his blazing speed entitled “The Asset Man.”
The article was never published and Campana never got that opportunity—instead, he was traded before the 2013 season got underway. This is why I’m a digital project manager and Theo Epstein is the general manager of a very good professional baseball team.
The trade was interesting in that the Cubs shipped off a player with a plus-plus tool that had shown it could play at the big-league level in exchange for two very young players that wouldn’t contribute at the highest level (if they even made it) for many years.
It was a classic lottery-ticket trade, and it went as follows: Tony Campana went to the Diamondbacks in exchange for two 17-year-old Venezuelan pitchers, Erick Leal and Jesus Castillo. Here’s some of the adjectives used to describe these two young pitchers at the time: “warm bodies”, “lottery tickets”, and “intriguing.”
All understandable descriptors when talking about 17-year-olds—especially pitchers. That was three years ago, so let’s check in on what these two guys have done since.
First off, let’s caveat everything by pointing out that they’re still young and they’re still rising through the system, which could be considered a win in and of itself. Campana, on the other hand, underwent Tommy John surgery after the trade and is currently hitting .226 at Triple-A.
Based on that alone, you have to give Epstein credit for making this trade. Now let’s take a closer look at what these two pitchers might become. First let’s take a look at Leal:
The first thing that strikes me about the 6’3’’, 180lb Leal is how refined his control is and has been. For a 17-year-old pitcher to walk only 4 percent of hitters is pretty darn good. That number has risen a bit as he’s risen through the Cubs’ system, but it’s still very encouraging. While it would be nice to see more strikeouts from Leal, he seems to have a knack for limiting hits and homeruns.
Leal features a fastball that’s topping out around 91-92 mph with a plus curveball and a developing change up. And as you can see from the performance below, he knows how to put that package together:
That “no hitter” was at Single-A South Bend in 2015, and it opened a lot of people’s eyes.
Leal is still developing, but he’s certainly shown he has the talent to turn himself into a potential major leaguer. Whether that’s as a starting pitcher or a bullpen piece is yet to be determined. Now let’s talk about Jesus Castillo:
Castillo is a bit more raw than Leal, and age is partly to blame for that. Right off the bat, you can see he has more issues controlling the zone than Leal, which is pretty common for young pitchers. He’s been able to maintain a higher strikeout rate to go along with the elevated walks, but then you look at the current season he’s having at Low-A ball, and something seems to have clicked.
He’s been able to harness his 92-93 mph fastball and a nice curveball, while working on cleaning up his command. In 20 innings, he’s allowed 16 hits and struck out 29—all while walking only three hitters. It’s a small sample size, but that’s a very nice sign of progress. While Leal’s pitchability seems to be more advanced, Castillo’s raw stuff seems to be superior, thus giving him a better shot to make it as a starter.
I should also add some context about the numbers you’ve seen above for these two players: they’ve been well below the average age at every level they’ve played, and that bodes well for their future.
Kudos to Theo Epstein and his team for making this trade. It’s never easy to trade a player that has proven some value at the highest level in exchange for such young players (and pitchers, at that) that are so far away from possibly contributing. You try to figure out how good a player might be when they’re this young.
While it would be nice to have either of these guys come up and help the Cubs win, it won’t have to happen to call this a good trade for the Cubs. It’s one of the things about this front office that fans have really taken to: they have a plan and they’re not afraid to follow it—regardless of how bad things are going (like that 2012 season). They’re always looking ahead and making moves that address the near term and the short term, and for that we should all feel very lucky. As for The Asset Man, we’ll always have the Superman slide.
Lead photo courtesy Logan Bowles—USA Today Sports.