From the Backfields: Wicks, Perlaza, Velazquez, Thompson, and More Cubs Minor League Spring Training

I’m writing this post as I fly back from Phoenix to Chicago, grateful for the experience to again see minor league Spring Training (it had been three years!). I was able to spend four days watching Cubs minor leaguers prepare for the season, and as always, it has left me so hyped for the season ahead. As one player said to me: “Holy s***, man, we got a lot of Dudes around here.”

You’ll find a lot of videos and tidbits from the week on Twitter, but I wanted to go longer-form on the guys that made me write in capital letters on my phone’s notes app.

The pitcher that popped for me personally: Jordan Wicks.

I saw the Cubs’ first-round pick throw two innings in a Double-A game, and he just looked completely in control. In the first inning, Wicks went with his curveball as the preferred secondary against right-handed hitters. So when the second inning came around and he broke out the bread-and-butter changeup? Hitters had no chance. We didn’t even see much of the new slider in this particular outing – I think it’s more reserved for left-handed hitters at the moment – but it flashed good during his warm-up tosses.

Wicks’ carried that draft designation of “high floor, low ceiling” college pitcher, but I’ve had people in the organization before point out how often the “low ceiling” designation for advanced college arms is debunked across MLB. Wicks already has far better breaking balls than he ever had at Kansas State, there’s hints at the low-end velocity numbers being higher in 2022, and there’s hope for a bump in higher-end velocity numbers in the future. If you’re looking for a favorite to win 2022 Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year (especially if he draws a South Bend assignment in April), this is your guy.

The hitter that popped for me personally: Yonathan Perlaza.

It felt like Perlaza’s breakout in the second half last year (dude was .348/.402/.610 after July 18!) was overshadowed by the arrival of so many prospects at the Trade Deadline. I saw Perlaza face two very solid A’s pitching prospects, and he was unfazed, a big RBI triple, a hard single and a loud fly out. It feels like left field and it feels like the body is maxed out, but whether in batting practice or games, this guy has a plan at the plate that feels a level above his peers. An outfield prospect to keep on your radar as he likely heads to Double-A Tennessee this year.

The fielder that popped in-person: Nelson Velazquez.

You read some scouting reports from national outlets and you’re going to see people out there questioning Nelly’s defensive ability. Don’t buy it. Nelson is a true-blue above-average right fielder for me, and he showed it in multiple games I witnessed. I saw two outfield assists – one at third base and one at home – and one really good catch racing into right-center against the sun. It’s a 6 arm and a 5 field grade for me. (Brett: I think people see his build and they start with an assumption about what he can and cannot do in the outfield.)

Oh, and a bonus: Velazquez had the most impressive single batting practice round I saw all trip, homering on four of seven swings, including a 112-mph line drive on his last swing (as his teammates egged him on loudly). We’re going to see if the hit tool can get to MLB caliber stuff on a consistent enough basis to make Velazquez a regular, but there’s no doubt all the other tools are there.

Some honorable mentions for those three categories: Cam Sanders, Moises Ballesteros, and Chase Strumpf, respectively.

Sanders had a really nice three innings inside Sloan when I saw him in a AAA game, Ballesteros notched three rocket singles against a Canadian High School All-Star team, and Strumpf made three different plays at third base that I made a mental note of.

Watch Chase Strumpf, the Cubs’ second rounder in 2019, as a sleeper to come and grab the 2023 Cubs third base job.

The pitcher others told me about: Riley Thompson.

I was so happy to walk up to the backfields on the first day and see Riley playing catch (with both a baseball and a football), as 2021 featured a shoulder scare that cost Thompson the season, but thankfully for which he avoided surgery.

Thompson is back healthy now, and he’s getting some “hey, have you seen Riley” treatment from people around camp. I’m hearing the velocity is closer to the college range than it was in 2019; yes, the high-90s are back in play. Thompson’s changeup development in 2019 was a really promising story, and I didn’t worry about the inconsistent curveball then, as that’s a strength of the Cubs pitching development team.

I expect Thompson will start in Double-A, and the Cubs are going to prioritize giving him aggressive opportunities after feeling grateful they avoided losing him in the never-happened Rule 5 Draft. (Brett: A guy no one was taking back in December could’ve been a risk come March, which says a lot about how his offseason has gone.)

The hitter others told me about: Owen Caissie.

The big Canadian had an excellent week while I was in town, according to multiple people I spoke with, but I just really only ever saw him in batting practice. He spent some time in the big league games.

I’m not totally convinced this will be THE season for Caissie’s power breakout – it still remains raw – but I don’t think it will stop him from having a season that boosts his prospect stock. The approach, batting eye, and willingness to hit to all fields, together is just so good.

The build that surprised me the most: Luis Vazquez.

Two different times I walked by Vazquez out of uniform, and two different times I had to do a double-take to confirm who it was. Vazquez, known more as a quality defensive middle infielder, has always been that guy that people will say “you know, he’ll even show you some pop in BP” but I’ve never taken it that seriously. After seeing the guy in The Best Shape Of His Life, with upper body muscle development that I never expected he’d have, I’m at least going to have some cautious optimism that he’ll walk into 5-10 home runs this year (which is setting a low bar, I realize, but would still represent a career high).

I’ll finish up here on some small notes …

⇒ Heard a couple times about how slick the ball they’re using for minor leaguers is, which made sense when I saw a lot of breaking balls that just never broke. Burl Carraway had a live BP where the fastball location was solid, but he just couldn’t finish a curveball.

⇒ Always glad to see the team doing everything they can to squeeze utility out of guys, which is what I make of seeing Narciso Crook take a lot of practice at first base and Matt Warkentin get a look as a pitcher.

⇒ Was sad to never see Kevin Alcántara, who it appears was very late to camp, but made it the day I left.

⇒ Three DSL pitchers I saw for the first time: Marino Santy, Michael Arias, Kenyi Perez. Santy has some really fluid arm action from the left side, Arias showed good velocity from a 3/4 slot, and I noted one plus slider from Perez. Names to store away …

⇒ People who are clearly taller than they were last year: Ed Howard, Reggie Preciado, Luis Verdugo.

⇒ Three guys that I just really appreciate the way they execute: Levi Jordan, Bradlee Beesley, Blake Whitney.

⇒ Can’t finish without at least one mention of Brennen Davis:

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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