Four Prospects Facing A Big Spring Training, Because I Can't Figure Out Where They'll Start in 2021

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Four Prospects Facing A Big Spring Training, Because I Can’t Figure Out Where They’ll Start in 2021

Chicago Cubs

While we still don’t know exactly what form the 2021 minor league season will take, I think we’re getting more and more confidence that a season of some kind will happen. Thank goodness. We’ve all missed the minor leagues badly.

But what will make 2021 so weird is the way a lack of a 2020 season completely upends traditional development curves. Plus, the elimination of a short-season affiliate and reduction of rounds in the 2020 draft will create odd logjams and thin spots for every organization. Teams will have a pretty blank slate with every prospect as they re-define how their organization will develop players moving forward.

Here are a few player-specific decisions that I’m having a difficult time handicapping, in part because the decision will speak to a broader organizational philosophy in some way.

Justin Steele

Steele is the only guy in the system that I can imagine in four different places to start 2021: the MLB bullpen, the Double-A rotation, or with Triple-A Iowa in either capacity. When Steele was called up to the big leagues last August, a short stay that resulted in zero appearances, I know there were members of the organization that believed his stuff was in a better place that any lefty in the organization. Steele’s new slider was a revelation in South Bend; it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that it is his best pitch moving forward. So, do the Cubs give Steele a fair shake for an Opening Day MLB LHRP job in a competition against Kyle Ryan, Brad Wieck, Adam Morgan, and other offseason minor league signings? I think they should.

But if Steele doesn’t win a big league job right away – and he’s an underdog without any experience and options remaining – the Cubs have another big decision to make: should Steele’s 2021 proceed as a starter or reliever? Steele stayed stretched out in South Bend before a hamstring injury, and we know the Cubs have always been very slow to convert starters to relievers. The slider gives Steele a four-pitch mix, and if you recall, I believed in Steele as a breakout candidate in the starter role after the last minor league season.

However, time is working against Steele in that role. The 2014 third-round pick will almost surely use his last minor league option season in 2021, meaning that come 2022 he must stick in the Majors. I’d make the argument that you should develop Steele in 2021 in the role that he’s most likely to compete for in 2022 … but that same logic would have not allowed Adbert Alzolay’s 2020 breakout. I just have no idea where the Cubs start Steele this year, or in precisely which role.

Jordan Nwogu

There are fewer possibilities for Nwogu – it will either be High-A South Bend or Low-A Myrtle Beach – but the Cubs decision on where to send their third-round pick will give us some insight on how advanced they see Nwogu’s game. When I’ve spoken to members of the organization this winter, they emphasize the significant track record of success that Nwogu had at Michigan. They reject the idea from pre-draft scouting reports that Nwogu is a raw prospect in need of a swing overhaul. That opinion is a bit stale, as Nwogu’s swing had already smoothed out a bit between his sophomore and junior seasons, and he’s had a chance to work at Justin Stone’s Elite Baseball facility in Chicago since being drafted.

Russell Dorsey at the Sun Times recently wrote a fascinating piece on how the Cubs plan to personalize player development moving forward, and I thought of Nwogu when I read this quote from Director of Player Development Matt Dorey: “We have our own set of performance indicators and benchmarks that players need to hit. And it’s not just on the field. There are some other things that we value, [and] our players know what those are. They’re working toward those goals right now, remotely, and so we’ve laid those out for them.”

To me, this is pretty clearly talking about the weight room, and if we know anything about Jordan Nwogu, we know about his prowess in that department. If the Cubs assignment decisions will consider what they call “high performance,” you’d have to bet on the more advanced High-A assignment for Nwogu.

Michael McAvene

This is another starter-or-reliever decision, but as opposed to Steele, we’re talking about a guy who last we saw was a college closer. The Cubs drafted McAvene in 2019 with the belief that they could build him into a starting pitcher, and I do think he’d have been in that role had a 2020 minor league season occurred. Has anything changed? For me, the calculus here would have to do with how the Cubs plan to assign innings limits to individual prospects. McAvene hasn’t pitched more than 46 innings in a season since high school, five years ago. Would the Cubs possibly ask him to pitch more than, say, 80 in 2021?

Given there’s probably eight experienced SP options at each minor league level, I just don’t see how you can have McAvene push someone else to the bullpen with that cap. For now, I’m projecting McAvene as a two-innings-per-appearance reliever in High-A; and if he pitches in a way that signals to the Cubs he should be a starting pitcher, perhaps they try that out in the Arizona Fall League (assuming THAT is still a thing). Unless … what if the lack of a 2020 season means the Cubs are going to widely use piggyback starters at the A-ball level this year? Piggyback, meaning you have two guys each go about three-four innings, would allow them to try anyone with even outside chance of starting, while also re-building innings workloads slowly.

And I could absolutely build 10-man rotations for the A-ball levels if I had to:

Hypothetical High-A Piggyback Rotation: Franklin/Remy, Jensen/Burgmann, Thompson/McAvene, Clarke/Casey, Sanders/Deppermann

Hypothetical Low-A Piggyback Rotation: Gallardo/Laskey, Cruz/Rodriguez, Herz/Ramos, Little/Schlaffer, Espinoza/Machado

Interesting idea that I’m sure is being considered.

The Low-A Shortstop – Whoever That Is

The Cubs depth at the shortstop position is very heavily weighted toward the lowest levels of the minors, and Spring Training is going to demand it be better distributed. There are four shortstops, all top 30 prospects in the organization, who could conceivably take the Low-A Myrtle Beach job: newcomers Yeison Santana and Reggie Preciado, first-round pick Ed Howard, and Luis Verdugo. And that doesn’t include Luis Vazquez, Fabian Pertuz, Kevin Made, Rafael Morel, or Josue Huma, all solid youngsters that I have projected to different roles.

Here’s how I see it shaking out: Santana, the most advanced of the four, jumps Low-A and gets the everyday job in High-A South Bend. Preciado, who demands the most weight room work, is held in Extended Spring Training and opposites Made as one of the Cubs two AZL shortstops. Howard and Verdugo are then left splitting the Low-A shortstop work, with Howard getting the lion’s share of time at shortstop. Verdugo is a smooth shortstop, but he’s shown the versatility to play second and third base already. And the Cubs’ investment in Howard is likely to win out above all else.

Some Bonus Quick Hits

Some other decisions I’ll be watching closely

  • Christopher Morel: will his Spring Training build on the work in South Bend and finalize the assignment to Double-A Tennessee that Matt Dorey hinted at on the Cubs Talk podcast?
  • Chase Strumpf: the Cubs’ best hitter at Instructs has one of the system’s most advanced offensive approaches but very few professional plate appearances. Do they go High-A or Double-A with that profile?
  • Luke Little: Another SP or RP decision I’ll be watching closely. Either way, I’m expecting Low-A Myrtle Beach.
  • Felix Stevens, Ismael Mena, Yohendrick Pinango: Never had a stateside professional at-bat. Will any bust out enough to start in Low-A?
  • Riley Thompson: Let him get a head full of steam in High-A or start where his talent level probably belongs, at Double-A?

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Author: Bryan Smith

Bryan Smith is a Minor League Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @cubprospects.