I’ve had some notes piling up about the top of the Cubs farm system, and spur of the moment here, decided to just re-rank the top of the system as a way to organize those thoughts.
While too early to make major, sweeping changes, we’re starting to reach the time of statistical significance in the numbers, and having seen these guys in Arizona, I already had some shifted opinions since our offseason top 10. Here’s how I would rank the top ten Chicago Cubs prospects at this exact moment in time ….
One: Brennen Davis
Interesting Statistical Note: In 91 plate appearances, with 49 balls put into play, Davis had just three balls logged as being line drives: a line out on Opening Day, a line out on April 16, and a single to center on April 28.
Interesting Eye Test Note: I saw Brennen in Spring Training looking great, even homering in Sloan in a Triple-A game, and have a lot of confidence in my years-long evaluation of his skills. This season he looked indecisive in his swing decisions, and I’m hopeful that this was because the back tightness was causing him to cheat on certain pitches a bit.
Two: Cristian Hernández
Interesting Statistical Note: Thanks to Arizona Phil, we can say that in 15 games at Extended Spring Training, Hernández is batting .146/.292/.415 with three home runs and a 38% strikeout rate. Better to have stats than no stats, but obviously you have to keep in mind that these are not “real” games.
Interesting Eye Test Note: We’ll monitor the strikeout rate closely this summer, and I’ll think back to the day I saw Hernández play against a Canadian high school All-Star team on the backfields. He struck out a couple times that day, chasing mediocre off-the-plate breaking balls. If I’m the Cubs, I’m encouraging significant early-count aggressiveness on fastballs. Forget the walk rate for a bit; go mash.
Three: Pete Crow-Armstrong
Interesting Statistical Note: I liked this stat from Eric Cross: PCA has the highest wRC+ (and also OPS and wOBA) of anyone in the minor leagues age 20 or younger. But also, I want to call attention to the work he has done with runners in scoring position: .414/.585/.793, with just three strikeouts in 41 plate appearances.
Interesting Eye Test Note: My first note is that PCA has the elite ability to have his helmet pop off as he uses his 65-70 run tool around the bases, which is just sure to endear him to fans in the future. But more seriously, if I’m critiquing PCA, I’d note that the hard contact that I see is pretty extremely pull-side right now. He cheats early in at-bats on in-zone fastballs, which is a smart approach, but one that will do him less good as he goes up the ladder.
Four: Caleb Kilian
Interesting Statistical Note: It took Kilian 85 innings last year to get to 10 walks, but just 23 innings this year. But with a runner on first base, according to MiLB.com, Kilian’s 2.20 GO/AO rate jumps to SEVEN. He’s erasing the problems that he creates.
Interesting Eye Test Note: I want to build off that statistical note, because the thing I notice from Kilian the most this year is the increased arm side movement he’s getting on the two-seam fastball. It’s the overwhelmingly go-to pitch for him against right-handed hitters, and they are grounding out at a really high rate. Kilian is the rare minor league pitcher that loves to bust hitters inside (sinkers to righties, cutters to lefties).
Five: D.J. Herz
Interesting Statistical Note: Thanks to Greg Huss at Northside Bound for this one: D.J. has the highest pitches per plate appearance of any pitcher in the system. I think this is the result of both not-great command but also a reflection of the discomfort that his funky-ness gives hitters. They’re just not great at putting the ball in play off of him.
Interesting Eye Test Note: The breaking ball feel just isn’t there consistently yet; he’ll freeze a hitter with it sometimes, but that’s about its entire utility right now. This makes the fastball pretty much his only threat against left-handed hitters right now, and so you’ve seen the Cubs start to call some left-on-left changeups here. I’ll be watching the results of that closely as the season goes on.
6 tie. Kevin Alcántara
Interesting Statistical Note: I love this, particularly after last night’s 0-2 grand slam: Alcántara is hitting .283 and slugging .522 when behind in the count. Strong two-strike approach on this kid.
Interesting Eye Test Note: I’ve been really happy with what I’ve seen defensively from Alcántara, which isn’t a surprise, because he’s shown plus instincts in just about everything he does on a baseball diamond. But with PCA in town, the shift to right field is already underway, and he looks good out there, seems to have easily enough arm to make it work (and I suspect that will get stronger with more muscle). But the trait that really jumps out is his first step, he has that gift of having a pretty good idea where a ball is headed off the bat, so his initial route is usually pretty optimal.
6 tie. Owen Caissie
Interesting Statistical Note: Not only was Caissie’s grand slam on Tuesday night the first time this year he logged a hit to the pull side, but it was actually just the second time all season he engaged the right fielder on a play (and the first was a fielded ground ball that was logged as an error on the first baseman).
Interesting Eye Test Note: Caissie posted a Golden Sombrero on April 24, and then didn’t play again until April 29. I hesitate to say he’s turning it around since then — the line is still just .200/.310/.360 — but I see a lot more good things happening. The bat just seemed late on everything early in the year, and I’ve liked the timing way better recently.
8. James Triantos
Interesting Statistical Note: This is probably a statistical anomaly, but it’s jarring anyway. Triantos with runners in scoring position: 21.3 BB%. Triantos with no runners in scoring position: 4.1%. There are no intentional walks messing with those numbers either. Could be a total coincidence, could be a reflection of the quality of pitcher he’s facing in each scenario, and could be a heightened focus in big moments.
Interesting Eye Test Note: I loved Myrtle broadcaster Sam Weiderhaft’s profile of Triantos, and this quote from Myrtle hitting coach Stephen Pollakov stuck out, “He knows he could probably hit every pitch, now it’s choosing his pitches to drive.” Watching Triantos, there’s still too many times that he rolls ground balls on a pitcher’s pitch. While I think a lot of young players need to be more aggressive early in a count, I think Triantos will particularly benefit from deeper counts, where the likelihood of a pitcher making a mistake increases.
9. Jordan Wicks
Interesting Statistical Note: All of the luck indicators are working against Wicks this year. The FIP is 1.36 under the ERA, the BABIP is a silly .404, and the LOB% is all the way down at 62.0%. Don’t scout the stat line with the Cubs first-round pick, I beg you.
Interesting Eye Test Note: You know, I’m going to lean on Lance Brozdowski here for the eye test, because it’s something that I can attest to after seeing Wicks in Arizona. In his fantastic recent interview with Jim Callis, Lance said the following: “My hot take here is I actually think that slider will end up a better pitch than his changeup.” The slider is the real deal, and I think the only hurdle right now is just achieving that proper balance and timing in his specific pitch-calling. I think Jordan has a big summer ahead.
10. Nelson Velázquez
Interesting Statistical Note: The growth you see in the numbers that suit Nelson’s game is just fantastic. Pitches per plate appearance is up for the third consecutive season, from 3.77 last year to 4.07 this year. But how about this: Nelson has hit fewer ground balls this year (12) than he has line drives (15), and he’s hit even more outfield fly balls (22). This man is elevating.
Interesting Eye Test Note: We know that Velazquez, like Patrick Wisdom in the big leagues, is going to be someone to toe that line of “too many strikeouts” versus “absolute elite contact quality.” As we continue to monitor Nelson’s progress in that balancing act, I watched all nine of the strikeouts he’s had so far in his 21 Triple-A plate appearances to see if anything jumped out (particularly as he faces this new test of the quirky, older, craftier AAA pitcher). The principal cause is just a big uptick in right-handed sliders, but I also think Nelson is in need of adjusting to facing a much less scared pitcher. Guys are coming at him with early count in-zone breaking balls to get ahead, and he’s falling in a lot of 0-2, 1-2 holes. We’ll track how he adjusts back to that style.
(Final note: Kohl Franklin would be 11, and Ed Howard was 12 until the recent injury. The uncertainty of that injury, and the volatility in the next grouping of names, is why I stopped at ten today.)