‘Development is No. 1’ for prospect Horton at Triple-A

May 6th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Jordan Bastian’s Cubs Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

CHICAGO -- By aggressively promoting highly-touted pitching prospect to Triple-A Iowa last week, there is a growing belief that the young right-hander will reach the big leagues at some point this summer. First, Horton has some things to focus on while with the I-Cubs.

“There’s some mechanical things that he was working through early in the year,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “It’s just continuing to hone in on what makes him really good as a pitcher and moving well. Secondly, he’s got to get used to throwing big league baseballs more than anything.”

Horton, who is ranked as MLB Pipeline’s No. 2 Cubs prospect and the No. 22 prospect in all of baseball, made his Triple-A debut against Omaha on Saturday. In his initial outing working with the same ball used in the big leagues, the righty went four innings and allowed two runs on two hits with six strikeouts and four walks in a 77-pitch appearance.

Horton led with his signature slider, throwing it 36 times and generating five whiffs along the way. The righty’s four-seam fastball checked in at 93.7 mph on average and topped out at 94.9 mph, per Statcast. He also featured a changeup and curveball in the start, which followed a brilliant four-start stretch (1.10 ERA) to begin the year with Double-A Tennessee.

“You see a guy in Double-A and you’re like, ‘OK, maybe we can make a little adjustment to his slider or to a certain pitch,’” Hottovy said. “Do you really want to work on that in Double-A when you’re going to be throwing big league balls in Triple-A?

“So part of [promoting Horton] is just getting him on a good routine in Triple-A and then being able to continue to work on the pitches and the pitch shapes and the execution at that level. I think that’s the No. 1 most important thing.”

The Cubs’ first-round pick in the 2022 Draft, Horton breezed through Double-A hitters dating back to last season. In a dozen starts at that level -- including a pair of wins in the playoffs to help Tennessee capture the Southern League title -- Horton spun a 1.18 ERA with 60 strikeouts and 17 walks in 53 1/3 innings.

Chicago has been conservative with Horton’s volume since last season, given that he returned from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow while at Oklahoma in 2022. Given that background, Hottovy was asked if the possibility exists that Horton might impact the Cubs in a relief role later this season.

“Development is No. 1,” Hottovy said. “There’s always ways to develop guys at the big league level. It’s just harder to develop them in the bullpen at the big league level. You bring a young guy up and put him in the bullpen, it’s because you want to get them experience and you want them to basically simplify things and go out and compete, which for some guys is the right arc of their player timeline to do that.

“Other guys, it’s not. Other guys, it’s, ‘No, I still need to hone in a couple things before I hit that point in my career.’”

Let’s look at some other top performers around the Cubs’ full-season affiliates:

Double-A Tennessee: C Moises Ballesteros
Ballesteros, who is ranked No. 7 on Pipeline’s Top 30 list for the Cubs, has turned in a .455/.514/.576 slash line over his past 10 games for the Smokies. In that stretch, he has piled up four doubles, seven RBIs, four walks and 15 hits in 37 plate appearances.

High-A South Bend: INF Pedro Ramírez
Ramírez (Pipeline’s No. 14 Cubs prospect) has hit .490 with a 1.178 OPS over his last 12 games, with two homers, nine RBIs, nine runs, five steals and six walks. His 0-for-5 showing Sunday snapped a streak of five games in a row with multiple hits (13-for-22).

Single-A Myrtle Beach: RHP Nick Dean
Dean (unranked) was a 19th-round selection by the Cubs out of Maryland in the 2023 Draft. The righty has bounced between the bullpen (three games) and rotation (two starts) this season, piling up 28 strikeouts against six walks with a 3.71 ERA in 17 innings.