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Thoughts on Braves RHP prospect Jasseel De La Cruz

Jasseel De La Cruz struggled through an injury plagued 2018. The Atlanta Braves right-handed prospect put that behind him Tuesday night in Rome.

Rome Braves home opener for the 2019 MiLB season Wayne Cavadi | Talking Chop

ROME, GA — Jasseel De La Cruz took the bump in the Rome Braves home opener Thursday night from State Mutual Stadium. To say he delivered would be an understatement.

De La Cruz went 4 1/3 strong innings leaving the R-Braves in a position for a much-needed win. Let’s take a look at what we can take away from the 21-year-old righty’s start.

De La Cruz was signed by the Braves as an 18-year-old out of the Dominican Republic back in 2015. A lanky raw prospect then, he spent his first three seasons in Rookie ball learning how to hold his command and velocity through a lineup before making his Rome full-season debut last season at the age of 20.

He was still lanky then, listed at 6’1” and 175 pounds. He came out of the gates red hot, allowing one unearned run in his first two starts, striking out 14 and walking three in his first 10 innings. But then, in late April, injury struck, and then in June again, and then in August again. Simply put, De La Cruz wasn’t the same pitcher the remainder of the season.

De La Cruz works from the first base side of the mound, nearly off the rubber as he begins his wind up. Last year he seemed a little herky-jerky in his delivery, but this year he looks much more comfortable, and in turn, confident. He had good, full extension and a leg kick that works in a pump-style fashion.

He certainly bulked up this season, which could help both his durability and power. In a report from that second April start in 2018, De La Cruz was listed at 175. Exactly one year later he’s listed at 215. It didn’t seem like he had gained 40 pounds, but there was extra weight for sure, more likely in the 20 pound range.

In his second start of the 2018 season, De La Cruz was sitting 92-93 comfortably with his fastball. He was up in his second start of the 2019 season, sitting 95 well into the fourth. He touched a little higher on the gun, but the command wavered a bit when he did. His slider was sharp last season, but had even more bite to it this year, getting people to chase. That pitch roughly stayed the same velocity-wise as 2018 (mid to high-80s) with a little more shape. The change picked up a tick or two from last season (high of 89 but sat 86-87 in 2018) and froze people a couple of times, deceptively looking like his fastball delivery at times.

His Thursday start was reminiscent of the De La Cruz that enticed Braves fans at the beginning of 2018. Never mind the velocity spike, he was fearless in attacking the strike zone. In the first inning, he pounded the zone landing eight of his ten pitches for strikes (primarily fastballs). He struck out his first batter on three-straight pitches, catching him looking for the backwards K.

The second inning was more of the same. Twelve pitches, nine strikes, two more strikeouts. He was getting people to chase the slider, badly at times. He labored in the third and even more so in the fourth, and started to fall behind a little bit in the counts, but was able to get out of it with big strikeout after big strikeout.

“He was nasty,” Rome skipper Matt Tuiasosopo said. “His stuff was electric. He throws so hard, and his off speed stuff is just unhittable. He’s a tough guy to face. He threw the ball well last start, but he threw better this time out. He felt good being able to pitch the home opener.”

De La Cruz final line was impressive. He went 4.1 innings, allowing seven hits and no runs or walks while striking out nine. Of his seven hits, none were hit very hard, in large part because hitters simply couldn’t square up and get a good barrel on it. He landed 49 of his 71 pitches for strikes, but the balls were inflated in the fourth and fifth. He was lights out through two, and still relatively sharp in the third.

The strength of his first three innings and fall off thereafter still may project De La Cruz to be a reliever when it’s all said and done. However, he hasn’t given the Braves a reason to give up on him as a starter. De La Cruz had to show he was healthy, and he did that Thursday. Another strong day in Rome, and he should start his climb up the ladder.

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