Cubs prospect Jordan Wicks already showing maturity beyond his years

The left-hander, who has a six-pitch arsenal, is into “reading swings” more than the movement characteristics of his pitches.

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“Nobody’s going to hold me to a higher standard than myself,” Cubs prospect Jordan Wicks said.

“Nobody’s going to hold me to a higher standard than myself,” Cubs prospect Jordan Wicks said.

Ross D. Franklin/AP

INDIANAPOLIS — Cubs prospect Jordan Wicks, turning 24 at the start of September, is always being told that he’s “old-school.”

He talks about “reading swings” more readily than the movement characteristics of his pitches. Though he comfortably sits in the low-90s, Wicks eagerly reposted Marcus Stroman when the Cubs All-Star wrote “Pitchability/movement over velocity for longevity and sustained success.”

Whereas changeups are often a feel pitch that young hurlers are slow to master, Wicks first learned the grip for his when he was 10 years old and strives to get his other five pitches — yes, five — to the same level of “any count, anytime” comfort he has with his signature offering. He speaks of throwing a breaking ball to induce a rollover grounder with the same regard he would give to a strikeout, because pitching deep into games is such a central, personal goal.

“People talk about the minors are for development and all you should worry about is the development part of it,” Wicks said. “I don’t believe in that. I believe we’re here because you want to win the game.”

If that sort of hard-nosed talk gets you going, just imagine what it does for fellow lefty Ron Villone, also a former first-rounder and the Triple-A Iowa pitching coach.

“He’s pretty savvy,” Villone said. “Spin rates, velocity, nothing jumps off the charts. But everything’s real damn good.”

But necessity can be the mother of invention. Wicks’ four-seamer has velocity Kyle Hendricks could only dream of and works well up in the zone but is vulnerable enough upon repeated use that he has spent the season developing a sinker to keep hitters from sitting on one type of fastball shape.

Lower spin is usually better when it comes to sinkers and changeups, which is why MLB’s first-half experiment with enhanced grip — and effectively, enhanced spin — baseballs in the Double-A Southern League were so vexing to Wicks. A 2.29 ERA over Wicks’ last four starts in Triple-A is reflective of him reacclimating to a more natural feeling since being promoted in late June.

“They said they were trying to make every ball the same wherever you are in the country,” Wicks said. “That’s never going to happen, just purely on the climate.”

Accepting the variability of any day’s game conditions is representative of Wicks’ approach, rather than trying to bludgeon the competition with one elite weapon. While he has a slider, curve and cutter, it’s about having more potential answers to the particular day’s problem.

“What are the hitters telling you? He’s really good at that,” Villone said. “If he’s got three pitches working, he’s not going to force two others. If he’s got [the] fastball, curveball, changeup working, he’s not going to go to slider, cutter, sinker. He lives in the moment.”

Living in the moment is crucial when you’re a Triple-A starter, a call away from joining a Cubs team with rotation issues as a close playoff race turns to the final month of the season. Nearly all of the Iowa Cubs were piled into the team lounge when Wicks’ good friend Daniel Palencia made his major-league debut by closing out a wild victory in Milwaukee in July. It also served as a preview of the intensity that’s waiting for Wicks when he makes his debut.

“I understand that,” Wicks said. “I’m also of the mindset that nobody’s going to hold me to a higher standard than myself. My mentality and my standards — and hopefully one day that call comes — it’s not going to change. My mentality is going to be to go out there and give our team the best position to win.”

As talking to Villone indicates, as the 15-year MLB veteran waxes about how much more mature Wicks’ understanding of his game is than his own at this age, pitchers who counteract a lack of power stuff with command, tunneling and smarts are a joy to coach. But they are often viewed as lacking in untapped potential, and the sturdily built, 6-3 Wicks doesn’t cast the silhouette of someone typically described as projectible.

But Villone sees the back-to-mid rotation projections slapped on Wicks as just where things start for his pupil, and not just because he thinks there’s still room to grow with the way he holds runners.

“He’s just starting to grow his man muscles,” Villone said. “It’s physical maturity, it’s emotional maturity. It’s putting that together and going out there and having the ability to know you’re better than the guy standing in the box. He comes in with that, but at the same time you’ve got to learn and there’s growth in playing against guys who are older and better.”

Older in years, perhaps, but even in the major-league level that awaits Wicks, they won’t be more old-school.

“You want to beat the other guy,” Wicks said. “It’s been coached into me from a young age. Learning how to win baseball games, play winning baseball. And so that’s always been my mentality, and it always will be.”

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