2022 Cubs Rule 5 Protection Decisions: The Locks - Brown, Alcántara, Davis

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2022 Cubs Rule 5 Protection Decisions: The Locks – Brown, Alcántara, Davis

Chicago Cubs

While we can debate a number of roster spots in the Cubs organization these days, the Cubs front office went into the final six weeks of the 2022 regular season knowing this: Brennen Davis, Kevin Alcantara, Ben Brown, Hayden Wesneski, and Jeremiah Estrada had all done enough to lock up 40-man spots for the winter.

This certainty was surely part of the rationale for the looks that Wesneski and Estrada received down the stretch, allowing both to rest easy about their roster status this winter. The wait for the other three is expected to end on November 15, the deadline for protecting eligible players from the Rule 5 Draft.

I want to talk about how the Cubs will want to approach 2023 with each player, as joining the 40-man roster does (slightly) increase the urgency of a player’s development, given the start of the minor league options countdown.

Brennen Davis

We’ll start with the most known commodity of the three, though Brennen Davis’ unfortunate 2022 campaign does leave his future more difficult to project than at any point since 2018.

During a fantastic Spring Training — where his performance both in Cactus League and backfields games led the Cubs to believe they’d be seeing him in June — Davis began to feel pain in his back. This led to a unique blood vessel surgery, which Davis successfully rehabbed, though “back tightness” also ended his cup of coffee in the Arizona Fall League.

While optimism still persists on Davis’ long-term back prognosis — would you expect anything else? — there’s also the issue of the time away from the field that sits at the forefront of people’s minds. Davis’ plate approach was so bad in April, even accounting for the role the injury played, and the Cubs wanted his stint in the AFL (which) to provide affirmation that his swing decisions hadn’t gone too far backwards. While he did play a good five games, featuring just one strikeout, certainly no conclusions can be drawn.

The winter ahead must be an opportunity for Davis to get healthy by any means necessary. He probably won’t be able to hit the weight room as hard as in the past, and we’ll see if he loses any mass as a result, but there’s also the opportunity to work on flexibility. I think we’re probably going to move away from projecting Davis in center field, but there’s no reason he can’t be an excellent corner outfielder.

In a perfect world, Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki have healthy 2023 seasons, allowing Davis to rebuild his prospect profile with a healthy and dominant season in Des Moines. A late season cup of coffee, and an earned 2024 roster spot both seem like achievable goals.

Ben Brown

I see a similar timeline for Ben Brown, who like Wesneski, was acquired at the Trade Deadline with the understanding that he’d done enough with his prior organization to earn the 40-man spot. He went on to post a 32.1 K% for Tennessee (which represented a promotion) down the stretch, and pitching into the playoffs to give him a whopping 111.2 innings in 2022, his first full year back after Tommy John surgery.

I spoke to Brown last week before he left for Arizona, where he’ll train for the rest of the offseason.

“When things were going really well — May, June, July — that was because of command more than anything. That’s something I want to get back to [in 2023],” Brown said. “A lot of it was on me, I kind of lost some athleticism as the year went along. I’ll be more well-equipped to attack that this year.”

The Cubs have overhauled their strength and conditioning department for this winter, which should help in that endeavor.

Brown leaned hard on his primary two-pitch mix down the stretch, the best of which is a hard curveball that’s a hyper-unique and very plus pitch, mid 80s with one of the more absurd chase rates you’ll see. Brown agreed with my assessment that commanding the curveball was an impetus for his breakout.

But to watch Brown early in the season was to watch someone who could just dominate with fastballs. He would continue to pitch in the 97-98 range with Tennessee — fatigue did not impact velocity — and when I asked him what makes his fastball special, I loved the answer: “I don’t really throw scared fastballs.”

This winter, Brown and the Cubs team will work on the shape of his slider, which currently operates pretty much like his curveball, but with maybe three more miles per hour and a half-foot less break.

“Whatever third pitch I had was just a show pitch,” Brown said. The Cubs will likely work with Brown on a new grip, working to differentiate the slider more from his curveball. “Having something I can repeat and command will be huge.”

Brown will head back to Tennessee to start next season, and the hope is that he can offer depth to the big league rotation in the second half.

Kevin Alcántara

Because he won’t offer depth in 2023, I can understand why some might question why Kevin Alcántara would be a lock to join the 40-man roster. However, as baseball has adapted in the last decade, and this is most true on the trade market, the value placed on top-100-caliber prospects has never been higher. In turn, teams feel it absolutely necessary to protect anyone close to the top 100 conversation, because it would behoove bad teams more than ever to procure those players, even if their struggles in the Major Leagues in 2023 would be outsized.

And Alcántara absolutely belongs in top 100 conversations after a .273/.360/.451 full season of work in Low-A at age 19, playing in one of the toughest home parks for offense.

He’s now in the Dominican Winter League, where he’s not expected to get much playing time for the Licey Tigers, but which will offer him daily practice reps and good locker room experience. Alcántara will begin 2023 in High-A South Bend.

The Cubs hope they can put some weight on Alcántara in the years to come, but there’s not a lot of stress about big things in need of changing. He impressed everyone in the organization with how he adapted to small swing changes they suggested, but also how he uses his athleticism in his swing, getting everything on time, even succeeding despite his long arms on the inner third. He responded to slumps by devoting himself to the plate approach that helped him succeed early in the season, and gets credit for using the mobile weight room that followed the Pelicans.

Alcántara’s ceiling is such that the Cubs just want to find him at-bats, do whatever small things they can to encourage the development of his prodigious power potential, and wait for his development to go and whatever pace it needs to.

Next time: ALL the other decisions, including one more pitcher that I’m pretty sure will be rostered.

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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.