Surprise, Arizona —— One of the best thing about this job, as I’ve said in the past, are the moments you go to a game to see one player and end up coming away impressed with somebody totally unexpected. Last night, that unexpected player was right-handed pitcher Mitch Stophel, a member of the Chicago Cubs‘ rookie ball team in the Arizona League. Stophel was a 25th round pick by the club this summer out of tiny King University in Bristol, Tennessee, and he’s now appeared in seven AZL games, striking out 14 batters over ten innings of work while allowing just seven hits, five walks, and two earned runs.
Beyond all the numbers, Mitch Stophel has some sneaky good power stuff: a 90-93 mph fastball with late arm-side run, and an 85-87 mph power slider that is extremely tight with 10-to-4 break when he gets it down in the zone. He also throws a changeup that shows very late arm-side run and looked promising in warm-ups, though he didn’t use it very much in his inning of work I caught on video last night. In fact, if you’d like to see for yourself, here’s Mitch Stophel pitching for AZL rookie league affiliate of the Chicago Cubs last night on the road in Surprise against the AZL Rangers:
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All the stats, velocity, and video help to tell the story of Mitch Stophel, but they don’t really tell the story of Mitch Stophel. For that, you have to start with a strong piece by Tim Hayes, a reporter with the Bristol (TN) Herald-Courier, written when Stophel was drafted two months ago (click here to read that interview and back-story). A high school outfielder who was, frankly, a bad pitcher early in his small-college career, it’s a massive victory that Stophel is even in professional baseball today.
Look, guys like this can move quickly if they throw strikes and keep building velocity. I like that Stophel hasn’t been pitching his whole life, because his arm is fresh relative to most hurlers and his mechanics and arm action are relatively untouched to the point where the Chicago Cubs can get him as a clean slate to develop. His slider can be a cement mixer at times, and that’s a consistency issue he must iron out, but that thing spins really, really tight and he throws the hell out of it. When it’s down in the zone and glove-side with good extension, it’s a legitimate strikeout pitch that’ll give hitters fits. There are a lot of power (mid-90s) arms in the minor leagues, but relatively few can sit at 87 mph with their slider like Stophel. That’s a great sign for his arm strength, and for his breaking ball in particular, as it could develop into a plus pitch. He’s a well-built kid (6’3″, 205 lbs.) who should add some velocity over the next couple years as he adjusts to pro ball, too, and by the start of 2019 it wouldn’t surprise me to see him consistently working at 95-96 mph with an 88 mph slider. The thought of that is, in a word, filthy.
Now reality calls, of course. Mitch Stophel was a late-round pick from a small college and today he’s a 22-year-old pitching against hitters three and four years younger in the AZL. He is not a top-30 prospect–far, far from it—and as tough as this game is he’s liable to be released this winter or the next if the Cubs decide to focus their development plan elsewhere. That happens. Baseball’s a tough sport. Let’s not anoint Stophel as a future big league closer or anything right now. But he’s the exact kind of late-round, buy-low pitcher with raw arm strength and a power command profile that could turn into a sneaky fringe prospect in relief if it all goes right. There’s a lot of work to be done, but I think the foundation is there and, hey, maybe this kid could turn into something.
If you’re a Cubs fan interested in following Stophel’s path, I’ve even got a guy in mind who has made the transition that Stophel is now going through: Seattle Mariners right-handed pitcher Art Warren. When I saw Warren—a late-round, small college product from Ohio—at High-A Bakersfield last year, he was an unimpressive swingman starter sitting 88-90 mph with a loopy, inconsistent curveball. When I saw Warren again in May, in High-A Modesto, he had morphed into a power reliever who had transformed his body and was working 94-96 mph with a harder curve and, all of a sudden, a power slider. When I saw Warren again in June, I came to find out an incredibly hard-working winter had transformed his career from organizational depth to fringe relief prospect. When I saw him throw again late last month, he hit 98 mph on the radar gun. Broadly speaking, I think that’s a path you could see out of a guy like Mitch Stophel—the power profile, the physical development, the velocity boom, and the improved consistency and bite of a power slider.
There’ll be a lot of work to get to that point, and again, don’t consider this kid a prospect yet, but he’s one to check in on every now and then to see his growth. There’s a good foundation in Mitch Stophel for the Chicago Cubs to develop a future high-leverage reliever. Now, only time will tell…