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What I could Find on the D'backs New Pitching Acquisition: Cristian Mena

I found myself reading quite a bit about new acquisition Cristian Mena yesterday and this morning. I thought it might be of interest to some of you for me to summarize what I found so that we may get a better idea about who we got back for Dominic Fletcher. Because the data is limited in AA and AAA I relied heavily on interviews with coaches and evaluators. Enjoy!

Who is Cristian Mena as a pitcher? According to one scouting report his delivery can best be described as "beautiful, effortless, and consistent" (Fangraphs). This leads to good projectability and long-term strike throwing efficiency. He also draws high praise for his ability to pitch innings which his 134 inning workload at his age is a superlative also according to Fangraphs.

The Fastball

At 20 years old Mena’s fastball will sit 90-94 and touch 95 with good ride and spin averaging around 2300 RPM. (Fangraphs) According to his pitching coach in AA Danny Farquhar, great extension at release allows his low to mid 90’s fastball to play up. Even then though, they believe there is more in the tank and have it a focus for him to play catch with ‘more intent’ between starts and into the offseason. More importantly than the development of his velocity though is his ability to locate. He shows flashes of commanding the fastball to all 4 quadrants to both sided hitters. (The Athletic)

A lot has been made about how he needs to add some velocity to reach his true potential. However if we look at his last AAA start in 2023 vs the Redbirds, he averaged 92.7 MPH and hit 94 MPH 5 times. Being only 20 at the time, that is pretty respectable. I felt the need to add this because its not like this guy is like Yu Min Lin and is struggling to keep the ball over 90 MPH. He would fall more into the MLB average fastball velocity for a starting pitcher which is right around 93.4 MPH. Point being, the narrative on this guy is that he needs to add velocity and at just 20 years old he possess an MLB average Starting Pitcher fastball.

The Breaking Balls

Mena’s calling card is no doubt his ability to spin the curveball. It always has been since he committed himself fully to the sport at age 12. According to Farquhar, "There’s a lot of things about Mena’s curveballs that make them special. They’re very hard. The harder the breaking ball most of the time the better it performs. The shape to them: it’s very sharp and very late. With how much velocity and spin he puts on it, it’s a late break". More importantly, he can feel the pitch and manipulate it. According to Ely, "He has the ability to manipulate the pitch so the average movement of it doesn’t jump off the page. It’s late breaking, which there’s no metric for. It spins well and moves in the hitting zone. He throws one at minus 6 (inches of inverted break) and then he’ll throw one at minus 13, and one’s a put away and one is for a strike." (The Athletic)

The slider is still a little bit of a work in progress as Farquhar just taught him the grip last year. But he has received praise for his ability to work it both backdoor to a lefty and as a compliment to his signature curveball to a righty. Because it is still a little bit of a work in progress, the shape sometimes tends to vary from start to start.

Mental Makeup

Mena also draws high praise from a mental makeup standpoint. According to the minor league education coordinator of the White Sox Erin Santana, "The kid does not have big highs and big lows". According to general manager Chris Getz, "there’s never been a time I felt like Cristian was intimidated by a situation, or intimidated by an opponent". He also drew praise from a coachability standpoint from Erin, "He’s listening. He takes in everything and remembers it forever". According to his pitching coach at Kannapolis John Ely, "Id say hes a little bit cocky at times, but in a good way. He kind of just screams ‘Im going to be a big leaguer’" (The Athletic)

In terms of projection it is all over the map. Fangraphs has him at a 45 FV. Being an average sized right hander with average velocity doesn’t necessarily jump off the page. But previous coaches in the White Sox minor league system really like his potential for developing into a middle of the rotation big league starter simply because "it is so easy to help him get better" according to Everett Teaford, one of the pitching coordinators in the White Sox organization. Being every White Sox coach’s favorite pitching prospect should count for something. ‘If his fastball can add a couple of tics and improve its playability, then we are talking about a mid rotation starter and a top 100 prospect. If not, then we are talking about a backend starter profile’ according to fangraphs. In terms of rankings, there are only a few starting pitching prospects that have more Fangraphs FV than Mena at his age. If we look at pitching prospects 22 and younger, Mena ranks 7th in terms of future value. All the while being the only member of this group to reach AAA.

It seems Hazen already has some lofty expectations for the young pitcher stating the plan being to start him in AAA with an option to bring him up to the bigs towards the end of the season. All of which at just 21.

Getting into the numbers a bit, there is still some room for pause. Tess Taruskin over at Fangraphs did a great write up on Mena and his teammate Nastrini. Specifically in terms of swinging strike %, Mena ranked 3rd in MiLB at 16.1 %. However his K% rank was clear down to 76%. The disparity between the 2 calls into question whether or not Mena is the benefactor of some overly aggressive minor league batters and brings into question whether or not he would still be able to get the chases at the higher levels. I do think there is some room for optimism here though. The other guys Mena were getting compared to were either significantly older than him or pitching the majority of their innings in A ball. If we filter the results down to include only pitchers in AA ball where Mena pitched the majority of his innings in 2023, his K% of 27.9 ranks 6th. In AAA that would’ve ranked him 2nd. I think the disparity that the author found was more so because she included all other levels of the minors which allowed for many players in the lower levels with high K% numbers to be included. This seemed to dilute the relevant information. Not sure why this was done. A quick scan of the data clearly reveals the obvious, its harder to have K% rates over 20% the higher the levels you go. If anything it further compliments what Mena was able to accomplish.

Summary

I was actually thinking to myself the other day, one of the biggest watch outs for me with this system is how thin the upper level impact starting pitching talent is. There are talented arms in the lower levels, but many of them are bullpen pieces. The biggest knock on the system from a development standpoint is its ability to develop arms into starters with major league upside. I love the approach by Hazen to utilize what the team does well and that is developing quality outfielders, and trading from that depth to address what they don’t do well the starting pitching. This is exactly what the team did when they acquired Gallen only at that time their surplus was SS.

According to Mike Hazen, "We felt like it was an opportunity to get a young starting pitcher. Once they sort of break out and get to the major league level and play and play well, you have no chance to get them." (AZ Central) This is so true especially in today’s game where starting pitching is at such a premium.

The most intriguing thing about Mena for me, is that you have a starting pitcher who has demonstrated an ability to log some professional innings and get to near MLB ready at AAA while still having so much projection left. Typically when you acquire a starting pitcher coming off their 20 year old season, they are quite a long ways away from the big leagues. According to Hazen however, he believes Mena starts at AAA and has the potential to be making a big league debut later in the season. A good blend of projectability as well as utility for a team that is just entering its contention window.

It will also be interesting to see where he enters Arizona’s prospect rankings. Mena is just 6 months older than Yu Min Lin and has already made it to AAA while logging almost exactly the same K/9 rate (10.5 vs 10.4). Lin has a slight edge in H/9, BB/9, and HR/9 however all done at lower levels. Mena has a better fastball and a more projectable frame, but both pitchers rely heavily on their off speed pitches to generate swing and miss. Evaluators admitted when all of the prospects came into Chicago’s system around the deadline last season, Mena kind of got buried so not to take much stock in his 8th or 9th ranking.

Everyone points to him needing to add more velocity to his fastball, which I'm not saying would hurt. But as I pointed out earlier he was showing an MLB average one averaging 93 MPH already at 20 years old in AAA. Combine that with his above average extension and projectability its easy to see him add a couple tics. Personally I'd rather he continues to focus on differentiating his changeup and his slider and not selling out for more velocity. If he can do this it is easy for me having a chance at being a top of the rotation arm due to his elite breaking ball and his rare pitch-ability at such an early age . Maybe not a true Ace, but a down team #1 or a solid number 2. Those are very valuable guys to have.

If there’s one quote that stood out to me from a previous coach that seemed to define Mena’s fearlessness as well as his elite ability to spin the ball, it was this. "We joked last year: in 3-2 counts, what do you think his curveball percentage was? It was either 90, or 100 percent." Laughed Farquhar. One thing is for sure, no matter where he spends his 21 year old season next year, I doubt he will be intimidated by it much.