The 2022 BN Top Ten Cubs Prospects: This Time With Lots of All-Star Ceilings

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The 2022 BN Top Ten Cubs Prospects: This Time With Lots of All-Star Ceilings

Chicago Cubs

For this year’s Cubs prospect rankings, I decided it would be most fun if we just dove right in. No build up, no countdown, let’s just start at the top. (I spent so much time organizing and re-organizing three through fifteen or so that I just want you to see it that way).

Don’t worry, we’ll be going deeper than ever over this series of posts, though, ranking the top 50 and giving you 100 names in total to keep an eye on.

For the top 30, I decided to re-introduce my favorite format in the write-ups: the core skills a player has, the tools they show glimpses of, and the developmental hurdles the player needs to reach their ceiling. Ages will be for the 2022 season, and the listed affiliate is my projection of where they will start the year.

Let’s jump in, because you know I’m going long on these ten exciting talents.

1. Brennen Davis, OF, 22, Iowa (Stats). Acquired: 2nd round, 2018.

Has: We’ve talked before about Davis’ elite ability to take instruction and make adjustments, and that is what allowed Davis’ brilliant 2021 to happen. On The Bain Campaign, Brennen said that last season was the first year he was really able to implement a lot of what he’s learned into game play, specifically as it related to ground force and rotational acceleration to realize his power potential. An opposite field hitter in 2019, the Cubs encouraged Davis to pull the balls he can do damage on, and the buy-in resulted in a huge summer power breakout: from June 30 to September 22 (including the Futures Game), Davis hit 18 home runs in 61 games. Davis’ feverish effort in the weight room is also a contributing factor here, and it’s that behind-the-scenes dedication that has the Cubs staff so confident that they’ve successfully developed a future All-Star.

Shows: While no longer the 65 runner that he was out of high school, Davis is still capable of getting to where he needs to be quickly with long strides. I don’t think he’ll steal many bases in the big leagues, but at this age he’s still capable of covering the ground necessary to play a fine centerfield. The arm is average but what it lacks in power is made up for with good accuracy.

Needs: As Davis has progressed as a power hitter, the strikeouts have followed. If there’s one thing getting in the way of a multi-WAR-per-year future, it will be if the strikeout rate continues above 30%. Brennen knows the book that organizations have on him — pitch backwards early in at-bats and finish him off with high-inside fastballs (leading to the HBPs) — and you can bet this offseason’s work has been focused on succeeding against that strategy. I was encouraged by Davis’ improved approach in his Triple-A cup of coffee, with the strikeout rate dipping to 22.1%, and more importantly, better swing decisions early in at-bats.

2. Cristian Hernandez, SS, 18, AZL / Myrtle Beach (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2021.

Has: The highest ceiling in the Cubs farm system, which I don’t say lightly considering what I think of the top prospect in the system. When you talk to people about Hernandez, the common refrain is excitement about what an athlete he is. He’s a fast-twitch loose mover, and early work to begin to add muscle has not seen any sacrifice in mobility. Despite the lack of current upper body strength, generates power with fantastic rotational acceleration (he uses his hips and front leg extremely well). It’s so early, but the excitement the development staff has about getting to work with someone possessing the Superstar Starter Package is contagious.

Shows: Plus instincts. Success in the low minors at Hernandez’s age and experience level demands that a player trusts his instincts, and Cristian shows that in so many places. You can see it in the consistency with which he drew walks in the DSL last year. You can see it in his aggressiveness on the bases. You can see it with his first step at shortstop, which gives Cubs brass confidence that he’ll stick there. His contact rate improved as the season went along last year and Hernandez made adjustments. I wouldn’t be shocked if the Cubs challenge Hernandez with a stint at Myrtle Beach in 2022, and in doing so, they’ll be confident that those instincts will allow him to not be too overwhelmed.

Needs: The usual developmental hurdles are ahead. The high performance team is already giving Hernandez the foundation he needs to add good weight; you can see the lower body improvement already. Justin Stone’s team will take their turn in simplifying Hernandez hand path and getting that bat angle where they want it as it enters the zone. I would expect these items will still be on the to-do list a year from now — no one involved is feeling any rush — as 2022’s focus will simply be on getting Hernandez assimilated into United States minor league baseball as smoothly as possible.

3. Owen Caisssie, LF/RF, 19, Myrtle Beach (Stats). Acquired: Trade, Dec 2020.

Has: An innate ability to win at-bats. I passed this note along during the year, but it’s worth re-emphasizing here: the Cubs love the at-bats that Caissie takes. This includes drawing walks, of course, where he had the second best walk rate of any stateside prospect under 20 years old last year. But it’s more than that, as evaluators focus on the ability Caissie has to adjust as pitchers tip their hands. I know the strikeout numbers in Myrtle Beach don’t suggest this, but I think those are more an example of a young built-for-launch-angle slugger learning to handle advanced stuff. I think this is a guy that will (in time) develop a strong two-strike approach, be a willing hitter to all fields, and be an expert at seeking out his pitch and doing damage with it.

Shows: Caissie is merely scratching the surface on realizing his power potential. I see some similarities with Brennen Davis in 2019, who showed the raw power but didn’t access it to the pull side often enough. During his time in Myrtle Beach, Caissie seemed to constantly be hitting the ball to center field, with numerous deep fly outs that would be long home runs if the contact point was just a little more out in front (this Dante Bichette clip is very helpful in visualizing what I’m talking about). The power was obviously more present during Extended Spring Training and in the Arizona Complex League, so it’s not fair to say it’s all raw power right now, but what I’m saying definitively is: there’s more to come.

Needs: To maintain lateral mobility as he gains muscle. Caissie’s running style is already pretty lumbering for his age, so when you project out his frame, it’s difficult to imagine the outfield is the future home. I think he’ll hit enough to justify a future at first base, but for that to work, you’ll want to see a good, quick first step. I think he’s probably one of the more unique challenges for the high performance staff to tackle, but that’s surely met with more excitement than resistance.

4. Caleb Kilian, SP, 25, Iowa (Stats). Acquired: Trade, Jul 2021.

Has: The hard stuff in the repertoire is figured out. Kilian’s ascent in 2021 — which still seems laughably under the radar to this writer — was largely due to two elements: a bump in fastball velocity and an extreme comfort in commanding his high 80s cutter. In my post-trade write-up of Kilian, I noted how Kilian would subtly pitch backwards, utilizing the cutter in early counts before finishing hitters off with high fastballs in the 95-96 range (even topping at 98). It’s the kind of pitch sequencing that perfectly fits the era, and Kilian’s ability to command those two things — cutter to the gloveside corner and fastball to the top of the zone — is the secret to what makes him so special. 

Shows: In the Arizona Fall League championship game, Kilian showed a devastating curveball that would perfectly complement his riding four seam fastball. Kilian embraced the spike curveball grip that the Cubs pitching infrastructure prefers to teach, and after some growing pains utilizing the pitch in the beginnings of the AFL season, it all came together perfectly on that mid-November night. We’re going to need a few regular season starts in 2022 to have confidence in the pitch’s consistency, but if it’s there, I think he’d be an instantly-inarguable top 100 prospect. With Kilian now possessing a superhero build, there’s also confidence the fastball velocity can be 94-97 more often, as some outings (especially in his time with Tennessee) it would be more like 92-95.

Needs: The armside offerings still could get better. Kilian’s two seamer is fine, and he commands it extremely well, but it doesn’t have a movement profile that demands the kind of usage that the Cubs Major League pitching coaches tend to give to sinkers. The Cubs also have toyed with Kilian’s changeup grip, and unlike the curveball, it really didn’t leave the bullpen during his time in the AFL. The two things are pitches that would allow Kilian to have better ownership of the arm side third of the plate, which while not essential to big league success, would certainly help raise his ceiling.

5. DJ Herz, SP, 21, South Bend (Stats). Acquired: 8th round, 2019.

Has: The more I talk to people about DJ, the more I’m convinced that the most often critiqued element of his game is actually the driving factor behind his success. Yes, he features a cross-fire delivery. But it’s cross-fire because of the completely unique placement of Herz’ foot plant: he shoots off the rubber diagonally towards the first-base-side on-deck circle. It creates a release point that hitters just don’t have experience with, and it comes with both Vertical and Horizontal Approach Angle benefits. You see it on the swings he gets with high fastballs, or the way lefties struggle to see curveball spin until it’s too late. It’s the release point, in my opinion, that can be most attributed to Herz striking out Low-A hitters at the highest clip that any starting pitcher has in the last 15 years.

Shows: The Cubs were really impressed with the difference between the changeup DJ Herz had in Spring Training 2020 and the one he arrived to Myrtle Beach with in May 2021. The arm speed is great, the tumble on the pitch is impressive, and DJ quickly embraced a heavy usage of the pitch. The reason we’re talking about it in this section is that I feel like Herz’ changeup was best in June, and by August, the curveball had seemingly usurped the change again as Herz’s more dominant secondary. This was even true in his best start of the season in a lineup loaded with eight right-handed hitters. So while I’m comfortable with a firmly plus grade on the change, I’m hoping to see renewed feel for it for the entirety of 2022.

Needs: Herz is a plus athlete who relies on his instincts to take over, but he is susceptible to losing feel for innings here and there. This is most obviously seen in occasional extreme misses on fastballs high and away to right-handed hitters, but other times it’s more subtle and merely visible in the P/PA spikes that shortened a lot of outings in 2021. As his success builds at higher levels, Herz will have to finish more fifth and sixth innings to convince the Cubs front office that they can count on him as a Major League starter.

6. James Triantos, IF, 19, Myrtle Beach (Stats). Acquired: 2nd round, 2021.

Has: I’m sure the hitting coaches in the Cubs system will be able to find ways to improve Triantos’ swing during his rise up the Cubs ladder. But, man, that swing seems pretty damn optimized to me. As I noted during last year’s draft season, Triantos has an ability to swing with enough force to provide plus exit velocities while still making contact at plus-plus rates. The middle of that Venn diagram is not common among current professional baseball players, and the Cubs are lucky that such a player slipped to them in the 2021 second round. 

Shows: I only saw a brief amount of Triantos at Instructs in Arizona last fall, but what I saw gave me more confidence in projecting him to second base than other scouting reports are willing to do. His build, his movement profile, his comfort on groundballs all read as perfect fits at second base. A decorated pitcher in high school, Triantos’ arm will be able to handle third base, and I’ll bet the Cubs continue to give him reps at shortstop. But I’ll bet the ultimate home is at the keystone.

Needs: Sometimes the ability to hit most any pitch that you swing at can begin to have negative effects. Triantos will have to guard against making mediocre early-count contact against pitches that are impossible to do significant damage against. Learning to take more pitches, draw more walks, and seek out his pitches will allow him to not face any road bumps as the pitching gets better up the ladder.

7. Pete Crow-Armstrong, CF, 20, Myrtle Beach (Stats). Acquired: Trade, Jul 2021.

Has: The baseball instincts get the most consistent praise. A plus defender due to an elite first step and a plus hit tool due to a nose for contact. The Mets saw Crow-Armstrong as someone they could throw real challenges at very quickly, and while that’s not really the Cubs develop players, it speaks to how much more advanced he is than most his age.

Shows and Needs: I’m combining two in one here, because the lack of a single plate appearance with the organization means that Crow-Armstrong is yet to really show anything new. I did hear that Crow-Armstrong crushed rehab from his shoulder surgery, and there’s already a feeling that he’s stronger than the Cubs thought he’d be for awhile. We’ll see if that translates to getting the power tool to average, which would be a win, though that’s more speculation than sourced. Chicago loves and wants a leadoff hitter, and PCA is destined to be a fan favorite that fulfills that role, but we’ll have to stay honest about the ceiling limitations that those players have.

8. Jordan Wicks, SP, 22, South Bend / Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: 1st round, 2021.

Has: It will always be such a fantastic fact that the first strikeout of Jordan Wicks’ career was a full-count changeup. It’s such a perfect example of both the comfort he has with the pitch and the damage that it inflicts on hitters. On The Bain Campaign, Wicks told us that the key in developing his changeup was learning to throw it while aiming right down the middle of the strike zone. It signals that Wicks is a competitive, gutsy pitcher on the mound that is unafraid of hitters, and anxious to take their aggressiveness and use it against them. I found it fascinating that Wicks also said he didn’t throw many lefty-lefty changeups at Kansas State, but was excited to embrace it as a weapon as a professional (note that he also threw a good one of those in that first outing). So it’s a 65 pitch that’s still got room for growth!

Shows: In my draft review of Wicks, I was encouraged by the fastball life that Wicks has up in the zone, and I also see some reason for optimism about the velocity. This isn’t a guy you’re probably projecting to 98 mph fastballs down the road, but I think the Cubs will be able to work with him mechanically and physically to raise his average fastball velocity above 93 mph. Because while we focus on top-end velocity so often in prospecting, I’ve found that pitchers are more concerned with raising that low-end. If the Cubs can do that with Wicks, he’ll have more than enough for Major League success.

Needs: The focus in 2022 is going to be a continuation of what 2021 was all about: breaking ball development. In summer 2020, Wicks began throwing a slider (using Dustin May’s cutter grip) and began throwing the pitch 82-83 mph. When he arrived at Kansas State in the fall, the pitch had jumped to 85-87 mph, and Cubs scouting director Dan Kantrovitz has spoken about how the Cubs graded the pitch highly. Then after signing with the Cubs, Wicks spent a couple weeks in Arizona (at the performance center and the Pitch Lab) on-boarding with the organization and re-working his curveball. He then threw a ton of them in his final two South Bend outings, unafraid to use those cups of coffee as a test for his behind-the-scenes work. You can bet when Wicks makes his season debut in a few weeks now, those breaking balls will be the primary focus of our conversation.

9. Kevin Alcantara, OF, 19, Myrtle Beach (Stats). Acquired: Trade, Jul 2021.

Has: The early understandings of how to hit for power and the projectable body that suggests there could be a lot of it coming. Watch the swing at 1:10 in the video below, a home run he hit against the Giants complex league team on September 3. He does such a great job exploding his hips around that front leg, keeping his hands in and lifting the ball over the fence. I was more optimistic seeing Alcantara in person that he’ll be able to, eventually, add the strength necessary to become the hitter his profile hinges on. There’s the start of muscular definition now, which I didn’t see on video back in July, so I think it’s at least fair to dream on the upside of real power.

Shows: Signs of smart plate approaches. Alcantara hit more balls to right field than left in his time with the Cubs, which isn’t what we’ll want from him at Wrigley, but for now you love the willingness to go to all fields. A similar thing is there with his plate discipline, as he seems to pick up spin pretty well for a kid his age, and the walk rate more than doubled versus where he was in 2019. The problem in this area seems to be in-zone contact, and while I think strikeouts will always be a mitigating factor in his game, I’ll bet Cubs brass can give Alcantara the information he needs to swing and miss on a few less hittable pitches.

Needs: The Cubs have been quite happy with Alcantara in their time together, but with how far Alcantara still has to go, everything hinges on his dedication to off-field work. The swing has come so far in three years, the giant leg kick of his amateur days is gone now, and the hands are at least heading in the direction of quiet. Weight room work has been successful, but he’s not even 25% of the way finished with the weight he needs to add.

10. Brailyn Marquez, P, 23, Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2015.

Okay, I’m not really sure the has/shows/needs format works with Marquez, because we just don’t really know where he’s at right now. As we know, a shoulder strain cost Marquez the entirety of the 2021 season, which instead became a focus on getting into improved shape. How Marquez arrives into big league camp (whenever that happens), and how seriously he’s treated this offseason, is going to say a lot about the Cubs plans with him moving forward. Theoretically Marquez wouldn’t be out of options until 2025, so there’s no rush here, and the Cubs can still develop him as a starting pitcher if they believe in that potential. I think he’ll certainly start 2022 in that role, and hopefully feature the same 97-101 mph fastball and occasionally-plus slider and changeup that he walked away from South Bend with in 2020. The questions at this point are his health moving forward, and just as importantly, if he’s able to retain feel after the long, long lay-off. Expect Brailyn to either be at least five spots higher or five spots lower the next time I do one of these.

My top 10s since I joined BN: 2019, 2020, 2021.

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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.