Big day in the prospecting world comes on Friday, as the 2020-21 (yes, you read that correctly) International Free Agent period FINALLY opens up. Thanks to the pandemic, the period – which would have opened last July 2 – got pushed back. But now it’s coming this January 15, and that means an infusion of new Cubs prospects, including shortstop Cristian Hernandez, considered one of the top prospects in the class.
The IFA business is truly a zero sum game, with every organization in baseball getting an infusion of talent from a defined group, and working with a capped pool of spending. You either out-scout your competitors, or you lose. The Cubs, as a large market club, also get the smallest pool with which to work, so they’re behind the 8-ball from the jump. In theory, the Cubs have invested heavily in Latin American operations, which *should* give them an edge relative to a number of organizations, but you still have to get these signings right (often scouting at ages 14-17), and then you have to develop the heck out of them.
Overall, the Cubs have probably lagged in this arena more than people have noticed. They’ve spent aggressively, yes – not every organization uses its full pool, and prior to hard caps, the Cubs overspent regularly – but I’m not so sure they’ve done great at identifying prospects and developing them (again, relative to other organizations (spending a ton covers over a lot of that)). If things have improved recently, we would have no real way of knowing because of the pandemic shutdown.
The last real data point we got was the fact that two of the Cubs’ signings from the 2018-19 class (i.e., two classes before this one) were named top 20 prospects in the Dominican Summer League for 2019 – outfielder Yohendrick Pinango, and shortstop Rafael Morel. Given the size of that league, it’s quite impressive to land two top prospects in the top 12. So that’s good. But that was based on performances from a year and a half ago, and a signing class from two and a half years ago. How much does that really tell us about the state of the program today? Well, except for reminding us how HUGE the lag time is when it comes to IFA prospects.
But the first step is getting the prospects into the organization, and that starts for this class – finally – on Friday.
• Until then, more on the class coming for the Cubs:
One of the Cubs' top international targets this week is a bat-first catching prospect out of Venezuela.
He's considered one of Venezuela's top catching prospects.
— Baseball America (@BaseballAmerica) January 11, 2021
Cubs Set to Sign 5 International Free Agents Friday, Including Phenom SS Cristian Hernandez – Cubs Insider https://t.co/rni9kPXRWG
— Cubs Insider (@realcubsinsider) January 11, 2021
• Elsewhere in the system, I enjoyed getting more thoughts from Farm Director Matt Dorey on 2019 second rounder Chase Strumpf (via Patrick Mooney): “When he came to instructs, he was like (the) 2018 version of Strumpf. The power had really returned. He was driving the ball to the off side of the field, that off gap. One of the reasons why we liked him so much is he’s always really selective. He made really good decisions and has a really advanced approach. Honestly, he knocked some rust off in the first 10 days, but he was one of our best hitters down there in instructs in terms of quality at-bats and hard contact.” Note that Strumpf was expected to be a first rounder with upside after his huge 2018 season at UCLA, but the power wasn’t there in his junior season. So he slipped to the second round (also the defense was a question, if I remember correctly), and Cubs hoped they could get the power back. So far so good?
• MLB Pipeline offered a 2021 breakout prospect for each organization, and for the Cubs, it was recently-acquired shortstop Yeison Santana: “The only one of the four prospects acquired from the Padres in the Yu Darvish trade who has made his pro debut, Santana hit .346/.429/.494 in the Rookie-level Arizona League in 2019. Signed for $300,000 out of the Dominican Republic in 2017, he’s a twitchy shortstop with at least solid hitting ability and speed.” Because of his age and experience, Santana is going to be the first of those four prospects that we really get some eyes on this year in a full-season league. Hopefully it goes well for all of our sakes.
• Sahadev Sharma and Patrick Mooney got into a whole bunch of organizational topics … on the day the Yu Darvish trade went down. Sharma recently sent it back out because he (rightly) suspected it got drown out in the noise of that day and those that followed. It’s not all about prospects, but there is this nice chunk on some of the Cubs’ internal pitching-related thoughts:
Their 2019 first-round pick, Ryan Jensen, has an electric fastball, but the Cubs are thrilled about the development of his secondary pitches, a focus this past summer. The expectation is he’ll bring a much-improved breaking ball to the mound this season. Former Louisville closer Michael McAvene is being developed as a starter. The hard-throwing righty made changes to distinguish the difference between his slider and curveball. Riley Thompson threw the ball well in spring training before the shutdown, and the Cubs see him as someone with an elite breaking ball and a fastball with significant carry, a powerful north-south repertoire. Another 2019 draftee, Chris Clarke out of USC, is a name to watch this summer as well. As is reliever Ethan Roberts, who has added significant velocity coupled with a unique, cutting, riding fastball.
But perhaps the most exciting arm — behind Alzolay and Marquez — is Kohl Franklin. He’s always had the pitchability, but he’s gotten bigger and stronger over the last few years. The curveball has nice depth and the changeup has been there for a while. But as he continues to fill out with an aggressive strength-and-conditioning program, he’s seen his fastball jump in velocity and there’s hope that will continue ….
“Kohl is as exciting as (anyone) we’ve taken over the last couple years,” said Matt Dorey, the organization’s vice president of player development and former amateur scouting director. “He doesn’t throw 100 yet. But he sits really comfortably at 93-94. The curveball has better pace (and) he’s always had a plus feel for a changeup. (When we’re) talking about the more traditional starting prospects, he is that. He throws a ton of strikes. He’s got one of those frames that is going to continue to mature and grow and fill out, probably into his mid-20s because he’s really long and lanky. He’s a great kid. He’s super-competitive. He works his tail off. Obviously, he has those bloodlines that hold him accountable in the offseason.”
• Tons more in there, including the positional side.
• Miguel Amaya gets some love from MLB Pipeline here for his performance in Puerto Rico this winter. The .553 OBP will get some chuckles, but keep in mind, that’s just 38 plate appearances, during which he got hit by a pitch 7(!) times. I care much more about him having only three strikeouts, and also how he looked when we got some glimpses – physically, he looks really well built with a good swing for a 21-year-old.
• Podcast listening on the Cubs top prospects:
— FullCountTommy (@FullCountTommy) January 7, 2021
• Justin Steele throwing with Ethan Hearn – they won’t be at similar levels any time soon, but still great to see:
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) January 13, 2021