Happy to report that I arrived in Arizona this week – shouts to Bradlee Beesley for being the first guy I saw hitting a batting practice home run. I have plans later this week to attend plenty of backfields Spring Training games, and will certainly report back on who impresses. But early conversations at this time of year always revolve around Opening Day assignments, and so I thought I’d touch on the prospects that feel most difficult to peg to a particular level with two weeks remaining in camp.
The Iowa-Tennessee Bubble
One offseason inevitability is the volume of minor league free agent signings creating a roster logjam at Triple-A that seems impossible to manage. How do you ever get that fortysomething person group down to 26? While many of those vets will be cut, another inevitability is that prospects sitting on that AA/AAA bubble will simply filter down to Tennessee.
Four players specifically that I’m wondering about this year: Nelson Velazquez, Caleb Kilian, Chase Strumpf, and Brandon Hughes. The latter three all were playing well when COVID struck the Tennessee clubhouse in late August 2021, and the Cubs decided to not bring a glut of players back for the season’s final week. Velazquez and Kilian, of course, starred in the AFL, and both spent most of the offseason in Iowa in my roster projections.
At the moment, and I know this is a surprise, but I’m beginning to think all four will end up in Tennessee, with the hope that Kilian is ready for a promotion to Des Moines in May. The Iowa group just looks so impossibly crowded. Also keep your eye on Chase Strumpf, who I think we can firmly declare a full-time Third Baseman now, potentially fighting his way into the Iowa hot corner job (which assumes Christopher Morel continues to play Super Utility).
What a play by @CStrumpf! 👀
— Cubs Zone ™️ (@CubsZone) March 19, 2022
The Tennessee-South Bend Bubble
The busiest competition in Cubs camp this year, I think without question, is the fight for Double-A rotation spots. I could easily list 12 names for those 5-6 spots, and that’s not counting Alexander Vizcaino and Brailyn Marquez, who are both looking at delayed starts to the season.
I think Anderson Espinoza and Ryan Jensen are Double-A locks. I’ve seen Cam Sanders working out with that group, which makes sense, and we just talked about why we might see Caleb Kilian start there. News is good on Riley Thompson, who seems ready to go after his shoulder troubles in 2021. There’s five, and that’s before we talk about Peyton Remy and Javier Assad and Joe Nahas, who were in those spots when their 2021 seasons ended.
Which is all to say, I think it’s South Bend for three pitchers the Cubs are feeling high about taking a step forward this year: Jordan Wicks, Max Bain, and Chris Clarke. All three look good this spring: Wicks with the new sweeping slider, Bain throwing high 90s with ease, Clarke in The Best Shape Of His Freaking Life. And while South Bend might feel disappointing, the Cubs will challenge them to come out with 6-10 dominating starts … at which time they’ll open a dang Tennessee spot for them.
The South Bend – Myrtle Beach Bubble
We often talk about the trickle down effect in minor league roster management, how guys going from MLB to AAA can have an impact all the way down to A-ball. But when it comes to the glut of A-ball shortstops, I wonder how much of the consideration is coming from the player(s) at the bottom of the ladder. Because as you begin to consider the right spots for Kevin Made and Ed Howard, how much do you have to consider ensuring some shortstop time for Reggie Preciado, James Triantos, Yeison Santana, Cristian Freaking Hernández?
Here’s what the Cubs are doing, I think: challenging Made and Howard to go win a South Bend job. Both were practicing with the Double-A team when I saw them yesterday, which of course isn’t actually on the table for either of them, but it speaks to how the Cubs are testing them. I believe one player, I’ll guess Made, will go to South Bend and the other back to Myrtle Beach. (A bonus prediction: when Howard is ready for South Bend, I think Hernández will replace him in Myrtle Beach, skipping the ACL like Made did last year.)
I’ll also put out there that I would not be shocked if it’s a top 10 prospect – either Owen Caissie or Pete Crow-Armstrong – that grabs the last South Bend outfield spot. This is the spot vacated by Christian Franklin, who dislocated his knee in the first Spring Training game and will miss about a month. Caissie and PCA seem to be getting tested right now in the same ways that Made and Howard are.
Owen Caissie hits the ball hard. pic.twitter.com/eENi9JR7g8
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) March 22, 2022
The Myrtle Beach – Extended Spring Training Bubble
This decision usually carries a little more nuance than the others. It’s less about finding the right level for a player’s current abilities, and more about diagnosing what’s more important for their development: playing time or coaching time. Arizona offers set schedules, a dedicated focus on the weight room, really nuanced and theoretical-style coaching. In Myrtle Beach, with Buddy Bailey, it’s about getting the reps and learning to play the game The Cubs Way.
I expect Yeison Santana will be a guy that is designated to need more at-bats, just like I expect Rafael Morel to be a guy kept behind for more instruction. I have far less clarity when it comes to Luke Little and Koen Moreno and the decisions facing their ideal developments. Ismael Mena is firmly on the bubble.