How would you adjust your pre-draft evaluation of a high school pitcher if you knew he couldn’t pass a physical? That is what teams needed to decide about White Sox righty Dylan Cease, who after a surgery, a year of rehab, and four years of development, will make his first big league start today.
Some version of this scenario occurs almost annually: High school pitcher throws hard during his showcase summer, becomes very famous, comes out the following spring throwing even harder, then breaks. In Cease’s case, he was 93-96 and touching 98 during showcases, then touching 100 early the following spring before he was shut down with an elbow injury that would, as teams knew ahead of the draft, eventually require surgery.
For some teams, the injury shut the door on Cease as an option entirely. He was a Vanderbilt commit whose long arm action some teams had already feared increased his risk of injury, or at least might impede his ability to develop command and a changeup, and funnel him toward a bullpen role.
But Cease also had among the 2014 draft’s best velocity and breaking ball combination. The Cubs properly assessed his signability, and after cutting an underslot deal with Kyle Schwarber for $1.5 million at pick No. 4, they suddenly had a bunch of extra bonus pool money to play with. They ended up signing three high school pitchers to overslot bonuses — Cease, Justin Steele and Carson Sands — and cutting underslot deals of varying amounts at every other pick in the first 10 rounds.
Cease signed for $1.5 million, which was the slot value of that draft’s 38th pick and is around where high school pitchers with this kind of stuff, albeit healthy ones, typically come off the board these days. It took a fortuitous intersection of several variables: Cease’s talent, the Cubs optimistic evaluation of it and his signability, the opportunity created by the underslot deal with Schwarber, and a level of comfort in taking an injured player aided by risk diversification in the other overslot high schoolers. The high school pitching crop in 2014 was wild, and a few of those players probably contributed to the current reticence to pick a similar guy very early.
Cease signed and then had Tommy John in July (we have TJ dates on The Board, by the way). His rehab was a bit shorter than is now typical, as the average timeline for return trends closer and closer to 18 months. He was pitching in games just shy of a year later, with his velocity where it was during his pre-draft summer:
Dylan Cease 92-95, t96. All fastballs in first.
— Eric Longenhagen (@longenhagen) July 17, 2015
Cease throwing harder as he goes. Everything 95+, t 98 now. Average curveball.
— Eric Longenhagen (@longenhagen) July 17, 2015
For two seasons, Cease was limited to a pretty conservative pitch count, typically only going three or four innings per outing. The gloves came off in 2017 when he was assigned to a full season affiliate for the first time. His stuff held water, and Cease carved up the Midwest League before he was traded to the White Sox in the Jose Quintana deal a few weeks ahead of the deadline. Here’s what I wrote about him at that time:
Cease sits 93-97 and will touch 100 with a fastball that, at times, lacks movement. That’s just too much for the Midwest League, and Cease had struck out 74 hitters in 52.1 innings with South Bend before the trade. He’ll also flash an above-average curveball, often with 12-6 shape, which misses bats down beneath the zone. Scouts think it has a chance to mature as a plus pitch, though they’d like to see Cease more consistently locate it in the strike zone when that’s clearly his situational goal. His changeup flashes average but is more regularly below it.
Cease started working with a mid-80s slider in 2018, his first full season with the White Sox. It finally gave him a third viable pitch, and through heavy usage (Cease threw nearly 20% sliders in 2018), he gained comfort and had especially strong results late in the year. He was promoted to Double-A Birmingham for his final 10 starts and struck out 38% of hitters he faced in 52 innings there.
This year, at Triple-A Charlotte, that rate is down to 24%, a career low. The stuff is the same, though. Cease has been 95-98, touching 99 this season, as ever. He’s backed off his changeup usage quite a bit and his 77-80 mph curveball, which is fantastic but sometimes easy to identify out of his hand, is once again his primary breaking ball. Those pre-draft concerns about him being unable to develop fastball command were prescient, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Only half of Cease’s fastballs this year have actually been in the strike zone, but he’s still throwing 64% strikes with the heater because hitters so often chase. Continued development of his breaking ball command will make the lack of a changeup moot.
This is mid-rotation stuff, the kind of talent to which we typically apply a 55 FV, someone with a shot of making some All-Star teams. Going into 2019, Cease was 58th on our preseason Top 100 prospects list; he moved up to 49th after our post-draft update. The risk that Cease has continued issues with walks (his 10% walk rate this year is worse than league average, but certainly not bad enough to push him to the bullpen) that may limit his season-long inning volume (which factors into WAR, which maps to FV), and the fact that he’s already had one TJ, meant that we rounded down his FV beneath healthier, similarly-talented arms, but just on stuff he’s better than that. He’s another exciting piece of the White Sox young core, which is now on display more in the big leagues than it is in the minors, an omen that the south side’s long-awaited window of contention should be upon us.
Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.