Dylan Cease made an indelible impression during the spring as he logged three scoreless starts for the White Sox in his first big league camp. The performance, as it would turn out, laid the groundwork for what would be the best season had by a pitching prospect in 2018.
Cease, whom the White Sox acquired with Eloy Jimenez from the Cubs for Jose Quintana two weeks ahead of the 2017 Trade Deadline, went 12-2 with a 2.40 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP over 124 innings in 2018, beginning the year with Class A Advanced Winston-Salem and then dominating after a midseason promotion to Double-A Birmingham en route to being named MLB Pipeline's Pitcher of the Year.
The White Sox No. 5 prospect (No. 44 overall) posted a 32.5 percent strikeout rate that was the fourth-best mark among qualified Minor League starters, and Cease also finished sixth in batting average against (.189), 12th in strikeouts (160) and tied for fourth in wins. He allowed fewer than three earned runs in 20 of his 23 starts.
Cease threw the ball particularly well after moving up to Double-A, posting a 0.94 ERA with 71 strikeouts in 47 2/3 innings over his final nine starts with the Barons before being shut down for the season Aug. 24.
Given annually to the top pitching prospect in baseball, the Pitcher of the Year award is voted on by the MLB Pipeline staff. Players must have spent at least half the season in the Minor Leagues to be considered.
Cease, 22, faced stiff competition for this year's award, even from inside his own organization.
• Michael Kopech (White Sox No. 2) registered a 3.70 ERA and finished sixth in the Minors with 170 strikeouts before getting the call to the Major Leagues.
• Dean Kremer (O's No. 16 prospect) had a 2.88 ERA and led the Minors with 178 strikeouts despite going from the Dodgers to Baltimore at the non-waiver Trade Deadline in the Manny Machado blockbuster.
• Mike King (Yankees' No. 24) dominated across three levels including Triple-A and finished among the Minor League leaders with a 1.79 ERA (second), a 0.91 WHIP (tied, fourth) and 161 1/3 innings pitched (sixth).
• Jesus Luzardo (A's No. 1) enjoyed a meteoric rise through the Minors, ascending from the California League to Triple-A in his first full season. The starting pitcher for the Word team in this year's SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game finished with a 2.88 ERA and 129 strikeouts in 109 1/3 innings.
Scouts viewed Cease as a probable first-round talent in 2014 up until the right-hander suffered an elbow injury that March. The Cubs, targeting Cease's electric fastball-curveball combo, still selected him in the sixth round, and then signed him for $1.5 million despite knowing that he'd need Tommy John surgery. Chicago managed his comeback carefully before starting to take the reins off in '17.
Assigned to the Carolina League to open 2018, Cease took a loss in his season debut and at times struggled to find consistency. His second loss came on May 11, when he allowed eight runs (seven earned) on nine hits in two innings for the Dash in what would be his worst start of the year. It also marked an important turning point in Cease's season.
Over his next six starts for the Dash, Cease went 5-0 with a 2.17 ERA and a .160 opponents' average en route to a promotion to Birmingham on June 21.
Cease's Double-A debut, in which he allowed five earned runs on seven hits, was the only blemish during his 10 starts in the Southern League. He went on to record five scoreless starts in his final nine turns, and, at one point, tossed 24 consecutive scoreless frames (July 20 to Aug. 10). Cease's best start of the season came on July 25, when Cease carried no-hit bid for 6 2/3 innings and matched his career high with 12 strikeouts.
Cease's 13.4 strikeouts-per-nine with the Barons was his best mark at any stop in his career, and the same goes for his 38.6 percent strikeout rate. He also generated swinging strikes at a 16 percent clip. For context, only Chris Sale (leader-15.9 percent), Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Jacob deGrom have missed bats at a 15-percent-or-better clip in 2018.
Cease paired that uptick in whiffs with a 50 percent ground-ball rate -- a shade above his season average of 49 percent -- and did so while holding opposing hitters to a paltry .168/.257/.251 line.
Overall, Cease was equally effective against right-handed (.192/.289/.280) and left-handed (.185/.259/.272) hitters across two levels in 2018.
Behind an explosive fastball that sits in the upper 90s and reaches 100 mph, a sharp knee-buckling curveball and an improving changeup, Cease has firmly established himself as one of the Minor League's premier strikeout artists.
Across his first four seasons, the right-hander has totaled 377 strikeouts in 286 innings while sporting a 2.67 ERA. And while command does leave something to be desired, it's worth noting that Cease did make gains with his control in 2018, issuing 3.6 walks-per-nine after posting a 4.2 mark at the Class A level in 2017.
Scouts expect that Cease will make further improvements as a strike-thrower as he continues to refine his delivery, which, at times, he struggles to repeat, thus detracting from his control and command. Meanwhile, adding more strength to his somewhat undersized frame should help to assuage any lingering concerns about Cease's durability.
With Kopech now in the Majors Leagues headlining a young up-and-coming White Sox rotation, it's only fair to wonder when Cease might arrive. While he still has boxes to check in his development, such as building up a larger workload and refining his changeup, Cease showed during his breakout campaign that he has all the ingredients needs to make an impact at the highest level.