Re-Ranking the Top Cubs Prospects Before Things Change Again

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Re-Ranking the Top Cubs Prospects Before Things Change Again

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs farm system is materially about to change, with Sunday’s draft and the trade deadline presumably reorganizing a good amount of any Cubs prospect list. I always like to update my prospect ranking prior to that happening, mostly as an internal exercise to take tabs on what I’ve seen on video this season. This is less sourced and more fluid than an offseason ranking would be, but I think a good indication of where I have things right now. Warning: it’s long. Enjoy!

One: Brennen Davis, 21, CF/RF, Double-A. 

Numbers: 158 PA, 283/386/507, 18 BB, 44 K.

What I’ve been saying for years now is the thing that makes Brennen most special: his ability to make adjustments. Sure, we can nitpick the strikeouts, but a lot have come during an extremely hot stretch and I’m not faulting him for those. His last 20 games: .333/.407/.597, with hits in 16 of those. He has a bit of trouble laying off too-high fastballs, but given that ability to learn-and-adapt, I think that’s simply a remaining developmental step. And as short to the ball as he is, I just don’t see him as a 30 K% guy down the line. We’d heard that Brennen took a leap at the Alternate Training Site last year, and this year we’ve absolutely seen it. He’s blossoming into the hard-hitting slugger that represents his offensive ceiling.

Two: Miguel Amaya, 22, C, Double-A IL.

Numbers: 106 PA, 215/406/304, 21 BB, 22 K.

Currently out with a forearm/elbow injury. I hate the loss in development time that the injury presents, but what Amaya showed us during his 23 games in Tennessee was continued affirmation of who he is: someone that can find a way to net-positive offensive contributor without the batting average being there. I was hopeful the power might show up this year, and it didn’t in May, but I maintain it’s there (certainly at least to the pull side). There are a lot of lazy fly outs that I have hopes evolve into something more down the line. The strike zone awareness and the throwing arm are really good.

Three: Brailyn Marquez, 22, LHP, Double-A IL.

It’s been one of those bad-luck seasons, with a shoulder sprain that came during his ramp-up following COVID. A frustrating outcome given the expectations that surround him, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that a lost season would increase his “reliever risk” moving forward. But I do know the Cubs went into 2021 feeling good about the mechanical checkpoints they set up for Marquez in South Bend last year. The commitment to exhausting the starting pitching option will not waver as a result of 2021. Lest we forget, the last time Brailyn competed in formal games (yes, I know, almost two years ago), he finished with this eight-start stretch: 43.1 IP, 26 H, 1.25 ERA, 11 BB, 55 K.

Four: Christian Hernández, 17, SS, DSL.

The Cubs took the cautious route with Hernandez’ development this year, keeping him in the Dominican Republic for Extended Spring Training rather than Arizona. I can understand it, particularly given the specific oddities that 2021 pro baseball demands, and word is that Hernandez has been comfortably excellent at the Cubs D.R. facility. DSL games begin next week, which will bring us the highly touted talent in box scores, but I don’t think we’ll get to a point of being able to accurately project his future until 2022 … at least.

Five: Ed Howard, 19, SS, Low-A.

Numbers: 110 PA, 204/255/282, 6 BB, 39 K.

I think if we really verbalized our expectations for Howard’s 2021 two months ago, we’d have said: he’ll struggle out of the gate offensively, show off his good defense, and hopefully take increasingly comfortable at-bats as the season goes. So while there’s some disappointment that Ed didn’t jump from a two-year layoff into great success, it’s worth reminding that it’s really just the status quo. I love the footwork at shortstop, the arm is absolutely enough to stick there, and his bat speed is where a first round pick’s should be. He even has features a better than league average line drive rate. The strikeouts are more than what I thought they’d be, ands the primary driver of the flip-flop here with Cristian, but I’m preaching patience. Last minor note I love about Ed: you can totally tell with his tags at second base that he grew up in a post-Javy world.

Six: Christopher Morel, 22, SS/CF/RF/3B/2B, Double-A.

Numbers: 221 PA, 208/299/432, 25 BB, 55 K.

The Cubs really pushed Morel this year – I’d say in a system of conservative assignments, his was the biggest ask – moving him to Double-A while asking he learn 3-4 new positions. The confidence behind that decision stems from Morel-the-person, a hard worker but also extremely positive guy that’s such a good teammate that everyone in the organization has his back. And he’s absolutely answered the bell, toggling between positions while showing selectivity development at the plate. The best tool is an amazing throwing arm that can handle down-the-line throws from third base and RF-to-3B throws from the outfield. He’s a twitchy, instinctive player with above-average run times, and his good bat speed produces power. This is the player type that modern managers want.

Seven: Owen Caissie, 18, RF, ACL.

Numbers: 25 PA, 313/560/375, 9 BB, 8 K.

I feel very confident that he’s going to be higher on the offseason list and this is a guy that becomes a top 100 prospect in the next 12-24 months. You just don’t get offensive approaches from a teenager like this very often. Veteran minor league pitchers have raved to me about Caissie and his in-game and in-AB adjustments, and his selectivity is good enough that I think the ACL is too conservative an assignment for him. The power was there all during Extended Spring Training, and while it hasn’t showed up in the formal games yet, it’s absolutely going to. There’s some curiosity if he’ll outgrow right field, but it works right now thanks to a big, plus throwing arm.

Eight: Reggie Preciado, 18, SS/3B, ACL.

Numbers: 41 PA, 382/488/618, 6 BB, 9 K.

Gave a ton of thought to putting him at six, and honestly, he might be there in another couple weeks. Hanging onto enough fluid athleticism while he continues to grow, really good natural bat-to-ball instincts, and the power potential is already dropping hints. The six walks and three steals are an extra bonus. He’s playing shortstop, and while that’s not the ultimate home, I think it’s a good place to keep him engaged and working on maintaining lateral quickness.

Nine: Chase Strumpf, 23, 3B/2B, Double-A.

Numbers: 201 PA, 219/333/337, 25 BB, 56 K.

Strumpf has been more plagued by the swing-and-miss, and less consistent in smacking the baseball, than I thought we’d see this season. The Cubs introduced third base this year as an alternative option, and after a really slow start there, I think he’s looked increasingly comfortable in the chances I’ve seen at Tennessee. The question for the second half is going to be the strikeout column, because while I think more power is slowly showing up, it’s not going to be enough to overcome a 30% (or even 25) strikeout rate. Some of the problem I think is easily fixable by encouraging him to be more aggressive early in the count, but the breaking ball recognition is the big thing.

Ten: Ryan Jensen, 23, RHP, High-A.

Numbers: 42.2 IP, 27 H, 5.48 ERA, 17 BB, 47 K, 7 HR-A.

I’m a Jensen believer, and can absolutely point to the fact that he’s allowed one-or-zero hits in the first five innings in five of his eleven starts this year. But the elephant in the room is the five-and-a-half ERA, and more, the hard-to-believe 1.7 HR/9. And there’s this stat:

Vs RHH: 146/234/268, 4.3 BB%, 29.8 K%

Vs LHH: 231/354/523, 16.5 BB%, 24.1 K%

That’s pretty striking, and will be thrown around a lot to point out Jensen’s likelihood in becoming a reliever. And yet, I’m going to hang onto some belief here in a starter future. I’ve noticed a lot more changeups to lefties in his last 3-4 outings to combat those numbers, which believe it or not have come back to earth quite a bit, and the change is a good pitch. I think he’s still figuring out the right balance on sinker versus four seamer, and I think still figuring out how to throw the breaking ball to lefties. But development is actively happening.

Eleven: Kohl Franklin, 21, RHP, High-A IL.

Others have reported it’s an oblique injury that has kept Franklin out this season, though I think there’s actually been a couple different bad-luck delays. The time in Arizona will have allowed the team there to work on the two most important factors: continued strength development and continued curveball development. We’ll see Kohl at some point in the second half, and the status of his fastball will help inform his next ranking. We know the changeup is great, and I’m confident at some point in the future we’ll see a slider/cutter added.

Twelve: D.J. Herz, 20, LHP, Low-A.

Numbers: 34.2 IP, 17 H, 3.89 ERA, 21 BB, 57 K, 4 HR-A.

We’ve discussed him a lot this year, given that seven of his 10 starts have been absolutely dominating. I think it’s easy to look at Herz and quickly throw him into the future-reliever bucket, but I think it’s WAY too early to write anything off. Especially when you fully appreciate how much development has happened since he was drafted. Yes, it’s a cross-body, somewhat-complicated delivery that leaves him liable to miss arm side a lot. But let’s not ignore the athleticism that allows it to work or the deception advantage it creates. The fastball is going to get to consistently mid 90s, the curveball and changeup both flash plus, and I think this guy someday adds a good cutter to the mix. It’s a big ceiling if you let yourself believe in it.

Thirteen: Yohendrick Pinango, 19, LF/RF, Low-A.

Numbers: 217 PA, 264/313/378, 14 BB, 33 K.

I’m giving Pinango a bump up here because his hand-eye coordination is so obviously special. It’s not my favorite swing in the world, but that can be adjusted, and his ability to maintain a 15.2 K% with that swing as a teenager in a full season league speaks to his ability. The swing itself is oddly horizontal, almost reminding me of a slice backhand in tennis, and he has a natural inside-out approach. The ceiling will be determined by the power potential, which is a projection I’m still gauging. Just one of the guys I’ll be watching most closely in the second half.

Fourteen: Kevin Made, 18, SS, Low-A.

Numbers: 47 PA, 178/213/200, 2 BB, 6 K.

Obviously the first-47 PA stat line isn’t great, but I’m seeing a ton of positives here. A year ago, I think everyone thought Made would spend 2021 in the ACL, so his mere presence in Low-A indicates the organization recognized the work he put in during the shutdown. Second, just six strikeouts so far, indicating an under-the-surface pitch recognition ability that is better than I anticipated. He’s overmatched, a lot of lazy groundballs so far, but that’s to be expected. I believe in the power potential, the athleticism is there to stick at shortstop for the indefinite future. Check back in 2023 and you might have a dude.

Fifteen: Cole Roederer, 21, CF, High-A IL.

Numbers: 84 PA, 229/345/300, 12 BB, 20 K.

Is going to miss a big chunk of time here with an elbow injury, which is too bad, because Cole was just starting to heat up at the plate when he went down. There were some slight offensive positives (more walks, less strikeouts, more use of left field), but the sample is too small to trust much. I continue to love what I see in center field and really do believe he’s a long-term fit for the position, albeit with a below-average arm. I’m hoping we see him re-establish his status in the Arizona Fall League.

Honorable Mention

Here are some of the next people I’d consider, but I haven’t thought too much about where they slot in yet.

  • This system has a lot of really good relief arms, and they’d factor into the rankings here pretty soon, I’d think. Ben Leeper has emerged as the best of that group with an even-better-than-the-velo 98 mph fastball and system-best slider. Manny Rodriguez has been absolutely fantastic in the last 6-7 weeks and will be contributing at the Major League level soon. We might see 100 mph at the Futures Game on Sunday. Ethan Roberts is one of the most unique arms in minor league baseball and has been nearly as untouchable as Leeper. Hunter Bigge‘s curveball since returning from injury looks so gross, and that’s with a fastball that is already getting up to about 97. And I’m not writing off Burl Carraway yet, who has been a bit of a mechanical mess, but has shown the two-pitch combination that got him drafted so high. And there are a lot more relievers I could mention in this space.
  • There are three starting pitching prospects that have had moments in 2021 that made me think they were entering top 15 consideration, but doing so would seem a bit reactionary. Max Bain‘s breakout happened in Spring Training, when he forced his way to the High-A starting rotation. It’s been a bit up and down there, but I think the good news is that the secondaries have really played, including a changeup that is underrated in the other scouting reports I see on Max. The fastball hasn’t worked like the velocity (93-96, T98) and spin efficiency suggest it should, yet. I think we’re a pitch usage shakeup away from a breakout. Cam Sanders is a guy that had a breakout out of the gate in May, throwing up to 99 mph and locked in on his whole arsenal. The control feel has wavered in the last month, and that’s a concern you’re going to have with that delivery. A big second half for him ahead. And last, while 25 is too old for High-A, I can tell you that Derek Casey‘s secondary stuff is that of a legitimate pitching prospect, and Thursday night really showcased that.
  • I simply need to learn, hear and see more about Ismael Mena and Yeison Santana – the other two guys acquired for Yu Darvish – before I feel I can accurately rank them. I’ll say that I’ve received some intriguing reports on Mena, but I’m going to let that one play out a bit longer.
  • We’ve seen some real struggles in Low-A from Ethan Hearn, Jordan Nwogu and Luis Verdugo. There are hints of the tide turning, and they can work their way back into the conversation quite easily given impressive tools.
  • I didn’t consider Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson or Cory Abbott, mostly because I’m thinking they’ll exhaust their prospect eligibility this season. If not, we’ll figure out the right place for them this winter.
  • I think we’ll see Chris Clarke soon, then Michael McAvene in August, and in the Arizona Fall League, Riley Thompson. Speaking to their arsenals and health will be much more informed this winter, so I’ll wait until then to do so.
  • We talked Thursday about Nelson Velazquez, who isn’t in the top 15 mix, but is absolutely mixed within the group of players mentioned above.


Author: Bryan Smith

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