Arias' meteoric rise through the Cubs' system following position change

June 17th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Jordan Bastian’s Cubs Beat newsletter, with this edition handled by reporter Tim Stebbins. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

CHICAGO -- Infield prospect ’ baseball future was a bit of a question mark when the Blue Jays released the then-18-year-old on May 29, 2020. A little over four years later, Arias now finds himself a step away from the Major Leagues -- as a relief pitcher.

The 22-year-old Arias -- whom the Cubs signed to a Minor League deal on Jan. 15, 2021, with a plan to convert him to a pitcher -- was promoted to Triple-A Iowa from Double-A Tennessee on May 29.

“It’s fairly unique,” Cubs assistant general manager Jared Banner said of Arias’ conversion. “I don't have the percentages, but I can't remember many times where a player has converted to pitching and gotten to Triple-A this quickly. It's happened very fast, and he's come along in a way that a lot of us are really impressed by.”

Arias, the Cubs’ No. 9 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, spent the 2021 season honing his new craft over 16 appearances in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League. Since then, the right-hander has made a rapid climb through the Cubs’ farm system. After making eight starts in the Rookie-level Arizona Complex League in 2022, he was promoted to Single-A Myrtle Beach and made two starts.

Arias made 11 starts with Myrtle Beach in 2023 before being promoted to High-A South Bend, where he made 11 more starts. The Cubs added him to their 40-man roster on Nov. 14 last offseason, protecting him from the Rule 5 Draft. Arias opened 2024 with Tennessee and was promoted to Iowa after making 16 relief appearances.

“Our guys recognized his talent, his arm strength and his ability to continue his career -- even though it had seemingly ended as a position player,” said Banner, crediting the Cubs’ international scouting department, including senior director of international scouting and operations Alex Suarez and VP of international scouting Louie Eljaua.

“That takes a certain level of creativity that we really have to take note of. The credit goes to Arias, how hard he's worked the last few years on his craft, being so new to it. He wasn't afraid to try new things and give it a go, and it's worked out really well.”

Arias compiled a 3.75 ERA with Tennessee this season, with 26 strikeouts and 12 walks in 24 innings. In five appearances with Iowa, he has a 1.50 ERA, with four strikeouts and six walks in six innings.

“We challenged him,” Banner said. “We put certain goals in front of him, and he's met those challenges. He’s worked really hard to change his body, to change his delivery, to improve his stuff through his pitch grips and his mound work. Just everything we put in front of him, he's worked really hard at, and he's shown improvement. And that's what we're always looking for every day.”

Among those challenges was improved execution. Arias’ walk rates in 2023 were 14.5 percent with Myrtle Beach and 14.4 percent with South Bend. It was 11.8 percent with Tennessee this season, which helped pave the way for his promotion to Iowa.

Arias’ arsenal includes a sinker, slider and changeup. He threw two scoreless innings on Sunday, allowing no hits and one walk. His sinker averaged 96 mph and maxed out at 98.4 mph.

The next challenge for Arias in his continued development is consistency.

“I think that’s really important, outing to outing, being able to know what you’re going to get,” Banner said. “He’s gonna fill up the strike zone with his nasty stuff, and normally good things are going to happen if he's consistently doing that.

“The change in baseballs going up to the Triple-A level is big, the change to [the automated ball-strike system]. Those are challenges that he's currently working through, and based on the past, we expect him to learn and grow from them.”

Here is a look at some other recent top performers around the Cubs’ Minor League system:

Double-A Tennessee: C Moises Ballesteros
Ballesteros hit for the cycle on Friday, continuing his stellar season with the Smokies. The 20-year-old, who is the Cubs’ No. 6 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, is slashing .299/.372/.495 with nine doubles, one triple, nine home runs and 43 RBIs in 56 games this season.

High-A South Bend: INF Ed Howard
Howard, 22, is slashing .386/.436/.474 over his last 16 games. The Cubs’ 2020 first-round Draft pick has played in 43 games with South Bend this season. Howard, who suffered a serious left hip injury in May 2022 that required season-ending surgery, was limited to 67 games from 2022-23.

Single-A Myrtle Beach: INF Cristian Hernandez
Hernandez -- the Cubs’ No. 17 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline -- is slashing .353/.476/.608, with six doubles, two triples and one home run in 13 games in June. The 20-year-old, who was a key member of the Cubs’ 2020-21 international signing class, has a .304/.420/.446 slash line in 54 games this season.