The 2022 BN Top Cubs Prospect List: 11-25, the Land of Post-Hype Sleepers

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The 2022 BN Top Cubs Prospect List: 11-25, the Land of Post-Hype Sleepers

Chicago Cubs

This week we started unveiling our top Cubs prospects list, starting with my top 10 prospects in the Cubs organization, featuring a lot of players new to the organization with big tools but without long track records. This next group, about half of whom are promising enough that they could be interchangeable with a lot of those names in the “top ten,” are generally a little older with less developmental time left on the horizon. But I have no doubt that a couple of these players will take the next step forward and prove me incorrect in not having them in the top 10. And that’s the fun of it!

For these prospects 11 through 25, 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.

I also decided to make all players that touched the Major Leagues last year ineligible for the list, which includes rookie-eligible players like Cory Abbott, Alfonso Rivas and Greg Deichmann. We’ll talk about them in a separate post next week. I also decided to exclude Max Bain due to personal conflict of interest (we do a podcast together), but read my offseason profile on Max for a feel of where he’s at in his development.

Let’s go, 11 through 25!

11. Reggie Preciado, SS/3B, 19, Myrtle Beach (Stats). Acquired: Trade, Dec 2020.

Has: It seems small, but for me, it’s the thing that drove the development of the top prospect in the system: the ability to quickly implement instruction. The smoothing of Preciado’s swings and the strengthening of his body are two boxes that were checked in 2021, even if there is lots still to do in both areas. But while the Cubs had no intentions of getting those areas to the finish line, the key for the season was building the right habits. And Preciado got good reviews in those departments.

Shows: Really quick hands that should help mitigate Preciado’s long levers in his swing. While I think it’s fair to question if there’s enough explosion impact happening to project Preciado to a star upside, I think the optimists would point to the bat speed he achieves. Simplifying the load should have more benefits with Preciado than with the average hitter, because once he gets going into the swing, things look pretty good.

Needs: I’m far from someone that cries “more launch angle” at every hitter, but Preciado will need to add loft as he progresses. The Cubs will also have to be mindful to keep his mobility as he adds more strength, as there’s already a feeling that shortstop is a fleeting experiment. A lot hinges on the “when more strength is added” variable here, and while that’s inevitable, you wonder about what comes with it.

12. Ryan Jensen, SP, 24, Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: 1st round, 2019.

Has: A sinker that is one of the best pitches in the Cubs farm system, with a blend of velocity and horizontal movement that was good enough to sustain 80+% usage in some of Jensen’s 2021 outings.

Shows: The full arsenal that he needs to make it as a starter. As Jensen struggled against left-handed hitters early in the season, the Cubs adamantly pushed Jensen to increase his usage of a refined changeup and brand-new curveball against lefties. He now throws five pitches and sustains his velocity for 100 pitches at a time. 

Needs: To have Major League success, Jensen must clear two more hurdles in my opinion. One is that he needs one of his three secondaries to pop as a true out pitch. The slider was thought to be that pitch two years ago, but I don’t think it’s there yet. Secondly, Jensen can’t have those 20-pitch stretches where he completely loses fastball command.

13. Ed Howard, SS, 20, Myrtle Beach / South Bend (Stats). Acquired: 1st round, 2020.

Has: Big league footwork. You’ve heard about it since Howard was drafted, but it was sure fun to see last year in Myrtle Beach. It’s the footwork that breeds those “he just makes it look easy out there” comments that people love to say about Howard’s defense.

Shows: It was simply a bad year at the plate, there’s no sugar coating that, but I think we should be careful about what assumptions about Howard’s offensive future we draw from that. It was an unfair assignment, but the Cubs wanted to maximize the at-bats he took in 2021, and believe in Ed’s makeup enough to know it wouldn’t get him down. Howard at times showed a quick bat and the ability to line balls to left field, and in 2022 he’ll have to show he can find more pitches to do that with.

Needs: To see spin better. I thought Howard had a lot of indecisiveness in his swing decisions in 2021, and that’s what I blame on the strikeout rate being 10-15% above where it needs to be. There’s no rush in getting Howard to be a net positive offensive player yet, but you’d sure like to see an improved plate approach.

14. Nelson Velazquez, LF/RF, 23, Iowa (Stats). Acquired: 5th round, 2017.

Has: Figured out how to access his power. Velazquez made the most of the pandemic 2020 season, adding strength while restoring a lot of the athleticism that felt lost in 2019. His swing evolved as 2021 went on, and in the second half of the year he was locked into a flat bat path that really accelerated his ascent. What followed was a power breakout that led to a 40-man roster spot and AFL MVP trophy, and I already told you guys about the good company that his successful fall league run puts him in.

Shows: A little more defensive skills than I think he gets credit for in most places. Velazquez has a definitively right field arm, and because of that, it’s the best fit for him in the long-term. I did see him make some strong CF plays going back into left-center in 2021, but the viability there probably has a short shelf-life.

Needs: Week-to-week and month-to-month plate approach consistency. Adding patience to Velazquez’ skillset has been a years-long endeavor, and Nelson is still liable to try and swing his way through slumps. He’s that stereotypical old school hitter that’s either seeing beach balls or peanuts out of the pitcher’s hand, depending on the week. If the swing decisions on the whole can improve, there’s little doubt the number of slumps-per-season will decrease.

15. Kevin Made, SS, 19, Myrtle Beach / South Bend (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2019.

Has: The instincts to figure things out. Made’s assignment to Myrtle Beach was aggressive, everyone involved knew that, but it was seen as reward for the hard work Made had showed with the organization. The early struggles were not a surprise, but when the Pelicans went to Augusta for a series in late July, something switched. Made hit .317/.336/.462 the rest of the way, with the strikeout rate shrinking in half in August versus the other months. In my anecdotal viewings, Made seemed more apt to go after hittable pitches early in at-bats versus allowing himself to get to two strikes.

Shows: I’ll tell you, Made’s defense was not particularly hyped to me prior to his stint in Myrtle Beach, but what I saw there is enough to throw a true shortstop grade on him. The first step is quick and it’s usually helpful, and he showed enough ability to go to his right to have good projections at both middle infield spots.

Needs: While I can absolutely get on board with the idea of Made as a top five prospect in the system, I need to see the in-game swing take a step forward first. Made has this habit of sticking out his butt at the beginning of his swing, letting his hand-eye coordination do all the work but eliminating help from his core and legs (coaches out there will be very familiar with this habit in young athletes). In batting practice, you can see the outline of a guy with some raw power that could develop a little thump. But the gap between what we see right now and what we can dream on is the largest in the system.

16. Miguel Amaya, C, 23, Rehab (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2015.

Has: The best discipline in the system. Amaya was always patient, but between catching and taking at-bats at the Alternate Training Site in 2020, his understanding of when to swing took another step forward. This is a hard guy to beat out of the zone.

Shows: I’ve heard loads of different opinions on Amaya as a catcher over the years, but in my opinion, he was as good as ever during the month in Tennessee in 2021. Not only was Amaya 9-for-20 in throwing out baserunners, but he did so with an improved agility versus what he showed in 2019. It was also apparent that the considerable work that went into improving his framing while in South Bend had helped, as the glove movement was far less exaggerated from what I could tell.

Needs: A big part of my years-long affinity with ranking Amaya in my top three prospects was a belief that, eventually, he was going to hit for power in games. The problem with Amaya’s recent Tommy John surgery isn’t the injury or its aftereffects, but the loss of development time in overcoming that hurdle. Amaya will be out of options in 2024, meaning that the 2023 season becomes almost a now-or-never development year.

17. Christopher Morel, UT, 23, Iowa (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2015.

Has: A plus glove no matter where he goes. I thought it was so strange that, after the 2019 he had, the Cubs were willing to spend one minute with Morel away from third. I was wrong. The Cubs have been telling everyone for years that Morel would make a good center fielder, and it didn’t take long for them to prove him right. Every once in awhile they’d push him to right, and you’d see the all-world arm on the loose. Neither middle infield spot seemed to overwhelm. And then I’ll tell you, I ran into Morel taking infield practice at third base on the backfields in Arizona in October, preparing for his stint in the Dominican Winter League, and was reminded of his brilliance there. I’m not sure there are 10 current third baseman out there with the carry on throws that he has.

Shows: This .294/.375/.620 batting line against left-handed pitchers needs attention. The defensive versatility is huge, but as a 40-man roster player, Morel needs to show enough instances that his bat needs a place in the lineup. And a soft-side platoon role is sitting there for him. Morel cheats hard in his approach against lefties, waiting to pull fastballs to left field, but shows the ability to recognize offspeed and sit back against it.

Needs: There was this brief snippet of time in the first half of the season where it looked like Morel was doing a better job taking the outside corner breaking ball. But it was fleeting, and it remained a weakness for the entirety of the second half. Morel’s struggles against sliders are not going to escape other organizations, and that spin recognition is the biggest thing that holds him back from an everyday player projection right now.

18. Chase Strumpf, 3B, 19, Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: 2nd round, 2019.

Has: A season with same bad luck here and there is allowing Strumpf to still hide as the most underrated bat in the system. He was South Bend’s best hitter in May, but the numbers weren’t quite there to match, as he didn’t translate good at-bats to home runs. Then after some early growing pains in Double-A, Strumpf had a stretch of really bad BABIP luck. Then, after getting red-hot in August, his season ended early after going on the COVID list. And yet with all that, Strumpf had the eighth-best wRC+ of any Cubs prospect with more than 250 PA in 2021.

Shows: The big question is how far that power can go. Strumpf added good muscle during the 2020 off year, but the frame will only allow so much, and he’s not one to all-out-cheat to max the home run numbers. The short left field fence in Iowa, when he eventually makes it there, is going to help encourage Strumpf to think long ball as often as he should.

Needs: This section was very easy to write in early July, but I want to note that both areas where I have concern showed huge improvements in the second half. When Strumpf arrived to Tennessee, it seemed to me that any above-average fastball that was high in the zone was going to get the UCLA product. His feel for the top of the zone got better, but Strumpf still could use better methods to make contact with the ones that he does swing at. Secondly, the Cubs still have work to do to get the glove to passable. Third base seemed a disastrous experiment early in the year, but the Cubs stayed committed (he only played one game away from third after mid-June), and Strumpf seemed so much more comfortable in August.

19. Kohl Franklin, SP, 22, South Bend (Stats). Acquired: 6th round, 2018.

Like with Brailyn Marquez, I don’t think the post format works here. Kohl was close to starting his 2021 season about three different times last summer, but each ramp-up was met with a new issue. He’s healthy and feeling really good now, and the optimism with the Cubs people I speak to remains as optimistic as it was post-2019. I’m quite confident that the curveball has a bit more power to it, and there’s no reason to have any doubt about his changeup. This is one guy where all eyes should be on the fastball, both its velocity and shape, because I think that pitch determines how good Franklin can be.

20. Alexander Canario, OF, 22, South Bend (Stats). Acquired: Trade, July 2021.

Has: Pull-side power like you dream about. Canario is someone that understands how to inflict maximum damage on a baseball: look for a fastball, catch it in front of you with your arms extended, swing like your life depended on it, and hit the ball into the air. It’s easy when you write it out like that, but few hitters time that all up with such beautiful precision as Canario does when he’s running hot.

Shows: Really good first step in the outfield defensively, with enough arm for right field, but enough present ability to continue getting looks in center.

Needs: To swing less often, to win the first three pitches more often, to learn how high is too high for him to swing at a fastball, and all sorts of other mid-PA tricks of the trade. I want to impress upon readers that I love the tools that Canario has to rank him here, because simultaneously, I really worry about how the plate approach will fare at AA-and-above.

21. Anderson Espinoza, SP, 24, Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: Trade, July 2021.

Has: The grind and effort of someone that got a taste of it and then had it taken away. Espinoza’s injury history is long enough that he could have been excused for a poor 2021 season, but he came out and struck out 12 batters per nine innings. This offseason he has thrown himself at getting into better shape, and the Cubs are not closing the door on keeping Espinoza as a starter for a reason. You also love that easy 94-97 mph fastball, and the two-seam edition that comes with good armside run.

Shows: The optimistic believers in Espinoza, and I talked to two in particular, point you to the breaking ball development. And I saw it as well, particularly with the slider, which Espinoza really stayed committed to all season. If it can consistently get to 85-88 mph, with that tight, good movement down and away to righties, watch out. The curveball was considered a distant fourth pitch a few months ago, but the Cubs like where that was headed by the end of the season, and he’s going to be asked to throw a lot of those in 2022. And while the changeup has long been considered a devastating weapon, it only flashed above-average/plus with the Cubs, so unlocking that again could make him dangerous.

Needs: To pitch with more efficiency. The Cubs allowed Espinoza to throw more and more pitches per outing as 2021 went along, but Espinoza still wasn’t able to pitch deep into games. This is probably his last season to stake claim to a future as a starting pitcher, and to achieve it, he’ll need less nibbling and fewer non-competitive pitches in the middle of at-bats.

22. Christian Franklin, CF, 22, South Bend (Stats). Acquired: 4th round, 2021.

Has: A commitment to the little things that you see in decorated SEC talents. Franklin entered the Cubs organization with an already-existing dedication to the weight room, as Arkansas did a great job helping Christian fill out his modest frame. Even after a 4-for-30 slump when he joined Myrtle Beach, Franklin showed a commitment to working counts and taking walks. Finally, the Razorback also came to the Cubs with a nuanced understanding of his swing, how to create power with it, and also the weaknesses that he would allow the Cubs to help him tackle.

Shows: Franklin tracks the ball extremely well, making up for an average foot speed with good instincts and a great first step. While he won’t be a threat to steal too many bases as a professional, there’s enough dedication to keeping some athletic explosion in his workouts to project a centerfielder in the long term.

Needs: Long-term success is going to hinge on that contact rate, which in part is going to depend on Franklin’s ability to hit fastballs middle-up.

23. Jordan Nwogu, LF/RF, 23, South Bend (Stats). Acquired: 3rd round, 2020.

Has: The intelligence to understand the to-do list in front of him. Nwogu is one of the hardest workers in the system in the weight room, and his frame is the definition of what a slugger looks like. The development staff loved how willing Nwogu was to make changes to his game, and even more, that he stuck with the changes after a slow start.

Shows: Let’s try and outline the obvious things the Cubs did with Nwogu’s swing. He now starts by standing more upright and less crouched, moving his hands higher and closer to the load position instead of out in front of him. His front foot does more of a toe-tap and less of a full step. His finish is more controlled with two hands. A simplified swing allows Nwogu to be on time to the ball better, or earlier, which helps access the pull side power that was just asking to be the defining part of his game.

But it’s worth saying that six of Nwogu’s 10 home runs in 2021 came during a 23-day stretch in July. While I have confidence in that tool moving forward, we’ll want to see more of it in 2022.

Needs: When Nwogu was showing a lot of power in July, he was featuring a lot of swing-and-miss. When the contact rate showed a sharp improvement in August and September, the power and even the patience took a step back. Nwogu has top 10 upside, but we’ll need to see a prolonged stretch of the whole package working together. Also, I grade Jordan as a left fielder only (due to a below-average throwing arm), and while I think he can be a good one there, it is limiting in available future outcomes.

24. Ben Leeper, RP, 25, Iowa (Stats). Acquired: UDFA, 2020.

Has: A gyro slider, also described to me as a “bullet slider,” that is one of the best secondary offerings in the Cubs organization. Leeper throws the pitch like a fastball, has a real knack for tunneling it off the fastball, and hitters just don’t know what to do with it.

Shows: The fastball is unique in shape, and while it was devastating in its results in 2021, Leeper will still have to prove that it can eat in the big leagues. The pitch is excellent in both velocity (95-96, T98) and spin (2500), but with low spin efficiency, the late life on the pitch is more cutting than “rising.” This isn’t bad, but it does demand a little more success in commanding the pitch away from the middle.

Needs: To be careful not to use his competitiveness against himself. Leeper’s mentality on the mound is one of his best traits, but sometimes he can fall into a trap of just throwing his fastball again and again and asking for the hitter to beat him. I’m not sure that gamble plays as well against the best in the world, and he’ll have to be steadfast to keeping the slider usage high enough. But more than anything, this guy just needs health.

25. Daniel Palencia, SP, 22, South Bend (Stats). Acquired: Trade, July 2021.

Has: It might just be the best right-handed fastball in the system. Palencia was able to get to the high 90s really often with Myrtle Beach, and coming from a 5-foot-11 frame, it’s absolute death up in the zone. While there’s some violence in his delivery — watching his head makes my neck ache — he does a good job with balance and throws enough strikes. Got particularly high marks from the staff about the work ethic and desire to improve as a late bloomer.

Shows: Like with Caleb Kilian, near the end of the year Palencia started to show tons of progress with his curveball. The depth isn’t fantastic and he’ll have to be careful matching the arm slot to the fastball, but I love the intent that Palencia was throwing it with in those final few starts. I liked some changeups I saw early in the summer, and I liked a couple sliders/cutters I saw at the tail end of the year (ridiculous one at 0:23 in the video below). I promise you’re going to see me overreact to some of Palencia’s secondary development in 2022.

Needs: Eighty innings in 2022. For some, getting more reps is most of the battle.

Author: Bryan Smith

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