Kyle Kubat entered last offseason with two objectives: continue to develop a slider and learn how to best attack hitters in any count.
Turns out, the 26-year-old also rekindled his happiness in playing the game.
Armed with a four-pitch arsenal and brimming with renewed confidence in his fourth Carolina League stint, Kubat has hit the ground running as a member of the Winston-Salem Dash rotation in 2019. Primarily a reliever prior to this season, the left-hander is 2-0 with a 1.23 ERA in four starts, holding opponents to a .145 batting average while riding a streak of 17 straight scoreless innings.
"I'm happy to have four-plus years of professional ball in my life and continuing to be going at this point," said Kubat, acquired by the White Sox in a trade with the Royals in 2017. "Not a lot of people can say that."
2019 MiLB include
Kubat's happiness is rooted in one simple mind-set: Don't obsess about reaching the big leagues. He's come to appreciate the grind it takes to reach the pinnacle of baseball, whether or not he fulfills his childhood dream of toeing the rubber in a Major League stadium.
"I'm just fortunate to still be able to play baseball in my career," he said. "I've been up and down at almost every level and I've enjoyed every minute of it, whether it's been good or bad. I was always learning about myself, my abilities, how to transform at each level and continue to get better with every outing. I honestly am thankful to continue to have this journey."
Dash pitching coach Matt Zaleski began encouraging Kubat to throw the slider in games when he joined the organization. The pitch gradually improved and came to life during the offseason, when the southpaw was able to find its potential in the strike zone.
"He's one of those guys, if he throws a fastball in, he's got a slider to [throw off a right-handed hitter's] back foot if he wants ... after that fastball in," Zaleski said. "The tunneling of pitches for him, having a four-pitch mix with four solid pitches, is what allows him to get early contact, strikeouts and ground balls."
Zaleski said the biggest step in Kubat's development came in an April 18 start at Potomac. Kubat walked a season-high three batters because he lacked fastball command. However, he allowed only three hits and held the Nationals scoreless over six innings.
"For me, that was a huge stepping point to see. You know when a guy's on, and you can see him easily be able to roll through lineups if they're hitting their spots, changing speeds, changing eye levels and all that kind of stuff," Zaleski said. "But when they don't have a pitch, especially their fastball command, to have the ability to roll through a lineup two or three times and get six innings, that was a very good step forward."
Zaleski said if Kubat continues his development this season, it wouldn't be surprising to see him end the campaign in Triple-A, a level Kubat got a taste of late last season with one appearance.
"It's definitely a mental grind for how long of a season it is. I'm very fortunate to have this opportunity, and I want to see it through if I make it through Double-A again or I end in Class A [Advanced]," Kubat said. "Whatever opportunities I have, I'm going to take, and when that time comes for me to move on to the next portion of my life whenever that may be, I'll open that door when that time comes. Right now, I'm enjoying every minute of professional ball."
Wiser with age: In his seventh season in the Orioles system, Frederick right-hander Francisco Jimenez may have found his niche in long relief. The 24-year-old native of the Dominican Republic has pitched at least three innings in four of five outings this season, and he has not allowed an earned run in four straight appearances. Jimenez is limiting opponents to a .171 batting average on balls in play and owns a 2-0 record with a 0.59 ERA so far.
Feel the power: Potomac had one home run in its first 10 games of the season but has tallied 10 long balls in eight games. The barrage has been spurred by third baseman David Masters, who has four homers in six games while raising his batting average from .125 to .239. The 14th-round selection from the 2013 Draft is on pace to eclipse his career high of eight homers set in 2017 with the P-Nats.
Finding his way on: Lynchburg third baseman Nolan Jones has reached base in his first 17 games this season, but the No. 2 Indians prospect was settling primarily for walks during a seven-game stretch in which his batting average dropped to .216. The 2016 second-round pick has seen his average jump to .317 and his on-base percentage rise to .461 with an eight-game hitting streak in which he is hitting 12-for-27 and seven runs scored.