When Theo Epstein took over operations for the Chicago Cubs in 2011, one of his goals was to add young talent. Whether through the draft, free agency, or trades, the Cubs needed to get younger, get better, and add needed depth. The Cubs ended up using all avenues to make their team better. Though it was a long and hard process, it definitely paid off at the end of the 2016 season. That’s not to say that all of Epstein’s moves worked perfectly, because there were certainly a few misses hidden among the sea of hits.
One such miss came from Cuba in a left-handed pitcher by the name of Gerardo Concepcion. Most will only remember Concepcion from his brief three-game stint with the big league club last year. Some may remember him as a highly-touted prospect who quickly became a forgotten man in the process of the rebuild. Concepcion is still around, still pitching for the Cubs organization, but he remains one of the few misses of Epstein’s tenure with the club.
Concepcion first turned pro in 2010, marking his name in the sand by winning Rookie of the Year honors for Industriales of the Cuban National Series. The scouting reports weren’t universal in their praise of Concepcion, but his raw statistics were hard to ignore. Scouts worried about his delivery hindering his ability to remain consistent in the zone. At the same time, they saw an 18-year-old kid whose frame would continue to fill out. They saw a guy who had managed a 3.36 ERA in 100 innings pitched against much older competition in his rookie campaign. While he regularly sat in the high 80s with his fastball, there was growth to come and the added velocity that might come as he filled out would only help to enhance his ability to miss bats.
After his rookie season, Concepcion defected during a Cuban National Team tournament in the Netherlands in 2011. He made Mexico his new home, and eventually was able to declare himself a free agent for all thirty Major League Baseball teams. He committed to bullpen sessions for a number of teams, and what scouts saw during these sessions lined up with what they had heard about him from his time with Industriales. Offers were made, and in March 2012, it appeared as if the Cubs had found a major building block of their rebuild. For $6 million—$3 million in the form of a signing bonus and the rest spread out over the length of a five year deal—the Cubs had their man.
In April 2012, Concepcion made his debut for the Cubs organization, and their man stumbled out of the gate. He gave up five earned runs in the first inning of his first game with the Low-A Peoria Chiefs. Those were the only runs he gave up in said game, but the much hyped prospect had shown a crack in his armor, and it was a crack that would only continue to grow as the year progressed. By the time Concepcion had thrown his last pitch as a starter for Peoria that year, he had amassed a DRA of 12.99 and a nightmarish WHIP of 1.91.
An awful 2012 was followed up by an injury plagued 2013. So injury plagued that Concepcion only pitched in two games in the Arizona developmental league. And while this was happening, the big league team was continuing in its work to rebuild. Albert Almora Jr. and Kris Bryant were drafted, Jorge Soler was signed as an international free agent, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arietta, and Pedro Strop came aboard via trades.
Concepcion became an afterthought, and though the organization hadn’t given up on him, the great majority of Cubs fans certainly had.
But things began to perk up for Concepcion the following season. He wasn’t considered a top prospect any longer, and only the most diehard of Cubs fans were paying attention. Quietly the left-hander had made the switch to the bullpen, and with that he was able to add five ticks to his fastball that now sat at 92-93mph. He started the year with the Cubs’ new Low-A affiliate, the Kane County Cougars. There he appeared to have found something. His ground ball percentage jumped to 51 percent, and his K/9 was an impressive 8.2. And just as importantly, he made great strides with his control. He slashed his walk rate by a full two walks per 9, from 5.2 to 3.2.
The move to the High-A Daytona Cubs to finish out 2014 brought even more improvement from Concepcion. His switch to a relieving role had treated him so well that with Daytona he posted a DRA of 3.94.
Concepcion started 2015 with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, and the results mirrored what he had the previous year. It only took seven appearances with the Pelicans before he was bumped up to the Double-A Tennessee Smokies. What transpired next was a complete disaster for Concepcion.
With the Smokies, his WHIP skyrocketed to 2.34, and his BB/9 rose all the way to 8.2. As he trudged toward the finish line of the 2015 season, his numbers were increasingly worse, including an outing against the Montgomery Biscuits when he gave up six earned runs in only two-thirds of an inning.
Last season ended up being a tale of two halves for the Cuban-born hurler. He was dominant with Tennessee and impressed enough in his time at Triple-A with the Iowa Cubs that he finally got the call to the big league club. He only pitched in three games for the Chicago Cubs in 2016, and they ended up being the turning point of his season. He didn’t look bad during his time with the Cubs, but he looked very flat. His fastball in particular came out of his hand straight and stayed at the same level as it traveled to home plate. This resulted in balls being squared up and a complete lack of deception to his pitches.
Upon his return to Iowa, whatever magic Concepcion had found was long gone. His once dominant ways turned into a season at Triple-A with a DRA of 9.54 and a WHIP of 1.93. He was walking guys again, but even worse, when he wasn’t putting guys on base, they were hitting him hard.
At the end of 2016, Concepcion was non-tendered by the Cubs. They re-signed him shortly thereafter, but with none of the fanfare of his 2012 signing. Concepcion is nothing more than depth at this point. An arm that can eat up some innings if things get so dire in the pen.
The stuff has faded, the hype is long gone, and the Gerardo Concepcion who now takes the mound might be tempting to write off as a flawed commodity. He is only 24 though, and that is most likely why the Cubs are giving him another chance. There’s always the possibility that everything will finally click for the former Cuban Rookie of the Year, bu that’s more of a dream than a hope at this point.
Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports