The 2021 BN Top Cubs Prospect List: Numbers 40 to 21

This is going to be a long one, so let’s jump right in. If you’re looking for an introduction, yesterday’s post was it.

On to the rankings of the Chicago Cubs farm system, here before the 2021 season begins. We’ll start with 40 to 21 (ages below are 2021 baseball age) …

40. Luke Little, LHP, 21, Myrtle Beach (JuCo Stats). Acquired: 4th round, 2020.

Skill set: You know, I know, Twitter knows: it’s the fastball. No, I don’t think Luke will ever touch 105 mph, or even 102, in a game (prove me wrong, kid). But even at 97, with a giant body, out of his arm slot, Little’s fastball plays. There were times in junior college where it was the only pitch he needed in an outing, and it’s going to undoubtedly eat A-ball hitters up.

Developmental focus: The Cubs like the overall three-pitch mix, especially the changeup, but if I know this organization, I suspect the breaking ball will be toyed with. More important is going to be working with Luke to keep body and delivery consistency to ensure he stays healthy and on the field.

Big League Projection: Even at San Jacinto, Luke was tried in different roles, and I have to think that continues in pro ball. The question will simply be how many outs his stuff holds up for, and a role will be adapted to fit that number.

39. Hunter Bigge, RHP, 23, South Bend (Stats). Acquired: 12th round, 2019.

Skill set: Produces big, easy velocity from a simple, short-arm delivery. Gets on hitters (especially RH) quick with life on top of velocity, has stamina and feel from extensive starting history. Good depth on overhand curveball.

Developmental focus: Has bought into the strength program to build the body for full-time pitching. Control will be the biggest thing, particularly with LHH in the box. The curve will get the full analytical treatment to maximize mirroring. Would love to see one more weapon added; may I suggest cutter?

Big League Projection: I think it’s a relief path here. Wouldn’t be shocked if Cubs give him some longer appearances as 2021 season goes on.

38. Manuel Rodriguez, RHP, 24, Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2016.

Skill set: Weight-lifting. Oh, and also has a fastball that approaches triple digits with plus spin and a low release height: absolute death up in the zone. He pairs it with a true power curveball that is plus and flashes better.

Developmental focus: Staying on the field. A biceps injury in Spring Training cost Rodriguez a good chunk of time, and he’s never pitched 50 innings in a season. The command was good in 2019, but shaky before that and will be watched closely, especially given the body changes that have come from adding muscle. Also: a sinker!

Big League Projection: True relief-only prospect. This is second year on 40-man, so while he’ll start conservatively in Double-A, the hope is he moves fast.

37. Yovanny Cruz, RHP, 21, Myrtle Beach (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2016.

Skill set: Has grown significantly since joining the organization, taking his top fastball velocity from low- to upper-90s in the process. At heart is that old school sinker/slider guy, nice feel for utilizing those two pitches.

Developmental focus: Pretty blank slate for player development. Slider needs more consistency, changeup needs confidence. Mechanical inconsistencies from his body change led to worse command in 2019 than he’d shown in 2018.

Big League Projection: Too early to tell, but relief does exist as a back-up option.

36. Koen Moreno, RHP, 19, AZL Cubs. Acquired: 5th round, 2020.

Skill set: Perhaps the best mound-athlete the Cubs have had in the org since Jeff Samardzija. What the Cubs love specifically is the way that athleticism has translated to the mound; there’s a natural fluidity in the delivery. I want to emphasize: the Cubs are thrilled with the foundation. Recall that Moreno was signed to a significantly over-slot bonus, too.

Developmental focus: When drafted, Moreno very much had the build of a cross-country runner, so the focus since signing has been the strength program. He has received high marks for the buy-in in that department. While he’s shown an aptitude for spin and an ability to use a changeup as a deception tool, those pitches will likely be developed in the Cubs modern way: using the Lab to cycle through a lot of grip options.

Big League Projection: Development will be slow and deliberate in 2021 and 2022, but there’s every intention of molding a starting pitcher here.

35. Yohendrick Pinango, OF, 19, AZL Cubs (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2018.

Skill set: Really good bat-to-ball skills with pretty left-handed stroke. Defensive back type of athlete, strong without compromising speed. High marks for showing patience at a young age.

Developmental focus: Hits most everything on the ground, so the work will be on spraying line drives into the gaps, before eventually perhaps tapping into a bit of pull-side power. Finding the right outfield home is a process that won’t be rushed.

Big League Projection: Checks every box of the leadoff hitter profile if things go right.

34. D.J. Herz, LHP, 20, Myrtle Beach (Stats). Acquired: 8th round, 2019.

Skill set: Natural athlete, came to Cubs a blank slate of projectable body and loose arm. Strength program has led to consistent mid 90s velocity, pitching infrastructure helped implement a knuckle-curve and changeup that are both showing real potential. Good life on the fastball.

Developmental focus: Needs innings to determine the next steps. Herz really bought into the Cubs strength program, adding 15 pounds of muscle. He’s worked hard on the secondaries. He just needs the chance to show in games what the next focuses should be.

Big League Projection: The weapons should be there to start, his all-arms-and-legs delivery will make relief an intriguing back-up plan if it’s ever needed.

33. Alfonso Rivas, 1B, 24, Iowa (Stats). Acquired: Trade (Tony Kemp).

Skill set: Really good defensive first baseman, with soft hands and a Rizzo-like strong throwing arm. Good strike zone awareness with strong two-strike approach. Really successful driving the ball to the opposite field. Plus makeup.

Developmental focus: It’s an inside-out swing, so there will be some work to look for balls to catch out in front and pull for power. I imagine we’re going to see some more work on the outfield corners, where range and first step will be the question marks.

Big League Projection: I think of Rivas in the 1B/OF/PH bench role that someone like John Vander Wal built a career out of, but there’s some hope that he’s going to take a step forward and prove to be starter-worthy.

32. Rafael Morel, SS, 19, AZL Cubs (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2018.

Skill set: Described to me as a little-bit-of-everything player. He’s added some good muscle since joining the organization, but still a plus runner. Short but has a nice bit of pop. Plays under control.

Developmental focus: Swing has advanced some, but still some work in maximizing its efficiency. My guess is we see his positional versatility tested in the AZL in 2021.

Big League Projection: I see Morel as a second baseman down the line (I think he moves side-to-side well); I know Arizona Phil has speculated CF could be a home. Need more of a sample with the bat to project what the offense might grow into.

31. Jack Patterson, LHP, 25, Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: 32nd round, 2018.

Skill set: Came to baseball late, bizarre events have limited innings. Good athlete, loose arm gets up to about 94 mph, really nice natural sink. Breakout occurred when the slider flipped to plus.

Developmental focus: I expect a different curveball in 2021, as the Cubs look to give it more differentiation from the slider (and probably better mirroring to the fastball). More comfort with the changeup will be a focus, too.

Big League Projection: Big season in determining if the Cubs proceed down a starter or reliever path. Could be a Montgomery try-it-all type.

30. Tyson Miller, RHP, 25, Iowa (Stats). Acquired: 4th round, 2016.

Skill set: Pitches above stuff due to deception achieved via unique blend of delivery, approach angle, and extension. Generally executes and commands a five-pitch mix at an above-average level. Four-seam fastball has above-average cutting movement. Changeup took a step forward in 2020, even becoming his preferred secondary.

Developmental focus: Getting the slider to be a true strikeout pitch. Needs a two-strike weapon, and the slider is the pitch with the best potential.

Big League Projection: When Miller’s velocity slipped a bit in 2019, I was worried he might be pigeonholed into a back-of-rotation starter or bust scenario. However, an increase in velo in 2020, and the advanced numbers he showed in terms of his approach angle give me confidence that Miller has two paths worth trying. I suspect we see him tried in both in MLB in 2021.

29. Keegan Thompson, RHP, 26, Iowa (Stats). Acquired: 3rd round, 2017.

Skill set: Curveball has long been a plus pitch, changeup showed plus in the 2019 Arizona Fall League. Fastball velocity looked good in Spring Training 2020 (95 sometimes), which helped secure a spot in South Bend. Poise and polish there helped ensure a 40-man spot this November.

Developmental focus: The Cubs believe biomechanical efficiency will help in injury prevention; moving more efficiently was a focus in Thompson’s time in South Bend. I also wouldn’t be surprised if we see the slider and two-seam fastball having evolved a bit since he last took the mound.

Big League Projection: He can be a back-end big league starter, probably very soon, and I think there’s some desire in the organization to test him in the bigs this year. When we see how everything has come together, he might move up this list.

28. Andy Weber, SS, 23, Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: 5th round, 2018.

Skill set: Checks every defensive box. Precise, fundamental footwork. A strong arm even from the hole. Soft, quick hands. It leads to a plus shortstop, but it would also work at any infield position.

Developmental focus: Just needs to be at least a league average hitter to have value, which he was in the 2019 Midwest League. Cubs would like to see more line drives and more walks.

Big League Projection: It’s probably a utility infielder profile, but a strong-side platoon starting shortstop is a valuable thing.

27. Chris Clarke, RHP, 23, South Bend (Stats). Acquired: 4th round, 2019.

Skill set: The rare super-tall pitcher with advanced feel. Particularly with a curveball he’ll throw in any count, including with three balls. Seems to have good manipulation of it. Gets good movement on his fastball, run on the two-seam and a little cut on the four-seam. Doesn’t benefit a ton from his size in terms of release height, but still achieves good extension.

Developmental focus: Cubs have adjusted the slider to better separate it from curve; more like a cutter now. Feel for circle-change is improving. The main Cubs focus is building Clarke’s arm up to try it in a starter role, with relief existing as a back-up.

Big League Projection: The pitch mix is nuanced enough for starting, the build suggests a durable one. But until we see the innings count top 100 in a season, I’d probably project relief, particularly while a platoon gap exists (he has some deception that plays against RHH).

26. Ronnier Quintero, C, 18, AZL Cubs. Acquired: IFA, 2019.

Skill set: Fantastic offensive prospect, with an absolutely beautiful swing built to develop into a middle-of-the-order hitter.

Developmental focus: At Instructs, the Cubs really focused on improving Quintero’s game defensively. He’s also a guy who will have to work to keep his body lean, and has made huge strides over the winter into buying into the strength and nutritional programs set for him.

Big League Projection: Will be given a very slow developmental track to really try and make catching happen. If bat is special, other options may present themselves.

25. Richard Gallardo, RHP, 19, Myrtle Beach (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2018.

Skill set: At 17 years old, already had really nice feel on a three-pitch mix, which played into him being considered the top pitching prospect on the IFA market a few years ago. The curveball is the calling card, showed progress in 2019 on a changeup, and controls the fastball pretty well.

Developmental focus: Has added a lot of the weight that made him a projectable amateur, now it’s about ensuring that it’s applied effectively on the mound. I didn’t love his tempo in 2019, but I’m no pitching coach. In time he will likely add a slider.

Big League Projection: He’s going to be developed and given every chance to make it as a starter, where I’d say he currently profiles as a mid-rotation arm.

24. Ethan Hearn, C, 20, Myrtle Beach (Stats). Acquired: 6th round, 2019.

Skill set: Throwing arm is fantastic, and Cubs have encouraged him to let it fly. Drew praise for his receiving at Instructs. Shows power even to left-center, plus to pull-side right now. Where he needs to be from a high performance perspective. Was regarded by many as the top prep catcher in the 2019 draft.

Developmental focus: Smarter at-bats will be the focus, as that’s the most efficient way to transfer the power from batting practice to the field. Needs to get the strikeout rate below 25%.

Big League Projection: Cubs hope they have an everyday catcher here after a long, patient development path.

23. Michael McAvene, RHP, 23, South Bend (Stats). Acquired: 3rd round, 2019.

Skill set: Big fastball and plus slider, McAvene had more than enough to be an elite college closer. Cubs believe he can be more than that.

Developmental focus: When I watched McAvene in the past, I thought I saw slider inconsistency: it turns out he’d thrown both a slider and a curveball, and I hadn’t noticed the difference. The Cubs have moved McAvene to their specialty, the spike curve, to give it better variation from the slider to try and give McAvene another weapon. That and changeup confidence have been McAvene’s focus.

Big League Projection: The natural instinct is to default and just say that he makes too much sense as a reliever to assume anything else, but I want to see how the stuff looks in the fourth inning before I lock in that answer.

22. Justin Steele, LHP, 25, Iowa (Stats). Acquired: 5th round, 2014.

Skill set: Spin, spin, spin. Since we last saw him, Steele has added a near-3000 rpm slider to pair with his already-plus near-3000 rpm curveball. High-spin fastball plays above its velocity due to late life.

Developmental focus: I don’t think he’s injury prone, and he’s worked hard in the weight room to build up the body, but needs a whole season on the field. Early count control is the key when he’s on the mound.

Big League Projection: This is the season the determination will be made. Reliever is more likely than ever, which cost him a few spots on this list, but increases the likelihood of a long Major League career.

21. Luis Verdugo, SS, 20, Myrtle Beach (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2017.

Skill set: True shortstop with an arm that would stretch to third base and footwork that plays up the middle. More pop than you would expect for someone his size. Has the athleticism to swipe some bases and the bat speed to develop a good hit tool. The foundation here is immense.

Developmental focus: Offensive consistency. Was terrible with the bat in 2018, and his 2019, he hit .198/.292/.231 in his first 25 games. A lot of optimism is built on his last 28 games: .396/.435/.632, albeit with a .457 BABIP.

Big League Projection: The hope is the unicorn of plus defensive shortstop with power, but that ceiling is still far off.

* * *

Up next: 20-11, aka, the place you’ll find the Yu Darvish return.

written by

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

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