Complex Leagues Opening Day! Cristian Hernández's Stateside Debut Tops the List of Things to Watch

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Complex Leagues Opening Day! Cristian Hernández’s Stateside Debut Tops the List of Things to Watch

Chicago Cubs

Today is Opening Day for the Cubs three complex league teams — two in the Dominican Republic and one in Arizona — that will play an 11-week summer schedule this season. These represent the lowest levels of the farm system, but with the elimination of short-season Low-A, many of these players aren’t far at all from the challenge of full-season ball.

Arizona Complex League

In Arizona, Opening Day most notably means the official stateside debut for shortstop Cristian Hernández, my number two Cubs prospect and the recipient of the largest international amateur bonus in organization history.

I use the word “official” there deliberately, as Hernández has managed to raise his profile this spring during Extended Spring Training games around Arizona. Thanks to the irreplaceable AZ Phil at The Cub Reporter, we can even say that Hernández hit .239/.333/.507 during ExST, with four home runs in 23 games. He added another two home runs in six Cubs intrasquad scrimmages.

For those unfamiliar with Hernández, he is — I’ll say it simply and definitively — the prospect with the highest ceiling in the Cubs system. His blend of raw power and defensive instincts led to Alex Rodriguez comparisons during his amateur days, and certainly are the foundational tools necessary to blossom into a 5+ WAR-per-year player down the road. Hernández’ hips explode in his swing, creating elite bat speed and 450-foot home runs even while the lanky 6-foot-3 phenom is still in the infancy of his strength development.

During 2022, the focus for those of us tracking Hernández’ progression will be on his ability to maintain a manageable contact rate. Phil’s box scores reveal a 37% strikeout rate in the games he played against non-Cub pitching staffs. When I saw Hernández in Spring Training, I also saw a lot of swings and misses too, both the right-handed breaking balls you’d expect him to be missing but also the occasional hittable fastball. There’s still much work to be done!

We’ll do our best to preview the June iteration of the ACL squad below (with some thoughts on some of the names to look for in the DSL at the bottom), though obviously these squads will evolve constantly. While the ACL is a developmental league, it also serves as a useful place for rehabilitation stints and on boarding for picks and signings around the July draft.

Projected Lineup

  1. Ismael Mena, CF
  2. Pedro Ramirez, 2B
  3. Cristian Hernandez, SS
  4. Moises Ballesteros, C
  5. Alejandro Rivero, 1B
  6. Rafael Morel, 3B
  7. Ronnier Quintero, DH
  8. Brayan Altuve, LF
  9. Raino Coran, RF

Outside of Hernandez, the next-most exciting prospect in Arizona is certainly catcher Moises Ballesteros. One of the more pure hitters in the system, Ballesteros is a line-drive machine from the left side. He’s worked extremely hard on the catching over the last year, and showed success throwing out runners in Extended Spring Training.

The rest of the lineup is filled with guys we’ve heard about here and there, but are waiting for a breakout to separate them from the pack. Pedro Ramirez hinted at that last year with a fabulous DSL performance, and he’ll be the guy to spell Hernández at shortstop on the days he takes off. Rafael Morel, Ronnier Quintero and Brayan Altuve received hefty bonuses, but their stars lost some shine after lackluster 2021 seasons. Ismael Mena might fit under that designation, too, though still has plenty of believers within the organization.

There are a handful of players I didn’t include in the bench or lineup section, because they’re simply too advanced to eat up too much ACL opportunities, but are likely just waiting for opportunities to open at different affiliates: Bryan Serra, Reivaj Garcia, Josue Huma, Matt Warkentin, Flemin Bautista, Carlos Morfa.

Projected Rotation

  1. Michael Arias
  2. Marino Santy
  3. Dom Hambley
  4. Kenyi Perez
  5. Wilfri Figuereo
  6. Starlyn Pichardo

I saw the first two players pitch during Spring Training, two guys that have jumped up the team’s internal prospect rankings due to the velocity they’re showing on the backfields. Arias is an ex-infielder with a low arm slot and really loose arm. with the question just being whether he can handle a starter’s workload or not. Santy is a lefty that I got a little video of, I love the Aroldis Chapman delivery and if he can throw strikes, could be a good one.

Scouting Director Dan Kantrovitz talked with Greg Zumach last year about how important it was for the Cubs to land another high school talent on Day 3 0f the 2021 Draft, and that guy turned out to be Dom Hambley. He’s a barrel-chested righty with a low 90s fastball and good curveball, and a guy that’s received a lot of developmental focus since his signing last summer. (Note that the Cubs last pick in 2021, Wilson Cunningham, will join the ACL too. He spent the school year at University of Chicago but will spend all breaks with the Cubs organization.) Kenyi Perez was highlighted to me as a deep sleeper to keep an eye on.

You can also expect that a lot of ACL games will be started by guys making rehab outings. Yovanny Cruz is likely the first guy that will take this role, then it will probably be Koen Moreno and Michael McAvene. I can imagine Brailyn Marquez’ eventual return here will be among the most anticipated ACL games in recent Cubs history.

Projected Bullpen

  • Joel Sierra, RH
  • Oliver Roque, RH
  • Angel Hernandez, LH
  • Yovanny Cabrera, RH
  • Gleiber Morales, RH
  • Elian Almanzar, RH
  • Jose Romero, RH
  • Anthony Martinez, RH

The big name to know here is Sierra, who might be in Myrtle Beach before long, given that he’s showing a pretty good ability to control a 100 mph fastball this spring. Two relievers, Angel Gonzalez and Alfredo Zarraga, were set to be ACL participants but moved up to Myrtle Beach in the last 10 days.

There are no fewer than a dozen more pitchers around Mesa that could be asked to participate in games, particularly as injuries began to inevitably take place. It was impossible to know who to pick for the section, so I just leaned on anyone that AZ Phil mentioned had a top-end velocity over 92 mph in this very useful blog comment.

Projected Bench

  • Wally Soto, C
  • Miguel Pabon, C
  • Edgar Gamargo, C
  • Christian Olivo, 2B/SS/CF
  • Joanfran Rojas, IF
  • Anderson Suriel, OF
  • Cristian More, OF

There are always a lot of catchers in Arizona, and usually two will be in the lineup (split between C/1B/DH) at a given time. Miguel Pabon was a shortstop that AZ Phil has mentioned the Cubs are transitioning to catcher, which is always fun. Meanwhile, Soto off a good year in the DSL might be the one of the three most likely to be helpful in Arizona.

Christian Olivo was actually a Cubs draft pick last year out of Puerto Rico, and I expect he’ll be one of those utility types that ends up in the lineup more often than he’s not. He has an intriguing amount of athleticism and bat speed, so we’ll keep our eyes on him.

The best player on this bench list is Cristian More, a Cuban center fielder that will absolutely get a ton of starts all around the outfield.

Dominican Summer League

Without question, the most interesting players in the DSL each summer are the players signed from the previous International Free Agency cycle. For the Cubs, this means we’ll most notably hope to see Adan Sanchez, Alexis Hernandez and Jefferson Rojas make their professional debuts.

Should we want to go deeper, we’d lean pretty heavily on Ben Badler’s IFA review piece at Baseball America. I’ll be particularly interested in the performance of Daniel Benschop, the first player the Cubs have signed out of Aruba. I’m also anxious to see some arms from the previous class, like Kenneddy Delgado or Gabriel Agrazal.

The Cubs have also continued to sign international prospects since that piece, with Cuban right-hander Yoendris González probably the most notable, given his history of reportedly pitching up to 97 mph. With two teams in the Dominican, the Cubs have been aggressive to continue scouting even beyond the common IFA signing period.

I’m also anxiously awaiting the potential debut of Yoanis Aleksandrov, the big-bodied Bulgarian slugger with a really unique path to professional baseball.

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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.