Happy holidays everyone, for as we turn the calendar from the 2022 season, ’tis now the season of prospect ranking (and, you know, the hot stove, I guess). I’m sure the first Cubs rankings will be out before we know it, and while mine are still about two months away, I do want to get out ahead of the rankings and tell you about my personal cheeseballs. You know, guys I just really like, whether or not they’d be “top” prospects to others.
Readers of my Five Stars posts during the season will be familiar of my adoration for the four players below, but let’s go ahead and review why. As I look at the rough draft of my prospect rankings, I feel most confident I’ll end up the high man on these players, almost regardless of how my conversations with people inside the game go.
RHP PORTER HODGE
Hodge was barely recognizable when he came into a mini-camp at the Cubs Arizona complex last winter, having made the decision to lose weight on his own after the 2021 season. The big right-hander continued to take ownership of his self improvement throughout 2022, with a willingness to take work quickly from bullpens to game situations, and the Cubs are confident that the validation of that work ethic suggested by his success will only add fuel to his fire moving forward.
The Cubs current pitching gurus highly value cut-ride fastballs and sweeping sliders, and in this way, Hodge might be the pitching prospect (along with recent first-round pick Cade Horton) that best personifies the organization’s ideology.
Hodge’s four-seamer is one of the most unique in professional baseball, as it averaged 0.5 inches of cut according to a source, a number that no one in MLB achieved on balls Statcast deemed four-seamers. (Guys like Ethan Roberts will have the pitch labeled a cutter, which might be what eventually happens with Hodge.) You can even see in short video clips that Hodge supinates his pitches as much as anyone, and it’s why he took to the whirly slider grip (made popular by the Yankees) so quickly in 2022. He’ll flash sliders that will put him in the 90th-plus percentile in horizontal movement, as well.
That combination leaves Hodge sounding like a reliever, but I actually believe he carries less reliever risk than most starters in the system. Hodge stands 6-foot-4, holds his velocity well, and has room to add good weight after taking off what he deemed bad weight a year ago. Strength work at the prospect camp in Mesa this winter will add to his base, and the belief is he’ll be able to raise the 94 mph average velocity he saw in 2022. The fastball peaked at 98 mph in August, and there’s feeling that number will be more commonplace moving forward.
There’s also a fully implemented four-pitch mix here, as Hodge also throws a curveball and changeup. The curveball is average but will flash a grade higher, and his comfort with it makes it a useful early-count offering. The changeup grip has evolved, but there’s optimism about a version that he developed midseason.
I think he’s a no-doubt top four pitching prospect in the system, with an argument all the way up to the second spot. An incredible rise, with outside potential to become a top 100 overall guy in 2023.
3B LUIS VERDUGO
If the Cubs handed out an award for Minor League Defensive Player of the Year, I think my vote in 2022 would have gone to Verdugo. Fully entrenched at the hot corner now after years of bouncing between there and shortstop, Verdugo shows a great first step and strong arm that should leave him a plus at the position.
But a move to a corner spot puts increased pressure on the bat, and Verdugo’s offense in the Cubs organization has been defined by inconsistency. In a rookie ball stint in 2019, Verdugo posted an .813 OPS that was boosted by an 18-game stretch where he hit .425. In 2021, the extreme went the other way, with a .151 AVG over his first 100 PA destroying his season-long numbers.
2022 tells a similar story:
First 43 games: .221/.286/.286, 13 BB, 35 K in 155 PA
Last 70 games: .290/.384/.456, 34 BB, 39 K in 292 PA
Just look at that evolution in plate approach. Luis has become more athletic in the batter’s box over the years, and he has a swing that does a really good job of matching the plane of the pitcher. He’ll go down and get low pitches and can drive them up into the air, and here’s a great look at how he gets his hands to the top of the zone:
Everyone involved in Verdugo’s development knows the next step. If third base is going to be a home, he simply must increase his slugging moving forward. This need first happen in the weight room, though Verdugo’s frame will put a limit on how big he can get. However, I don’t think this means he can’t get to average power. Verdugo needs to get a little more selfish on middle-in pitches, catching the ball further out in front and looking to do damage to left field.
If Verdugo doesn’t break out with the bat in 2023, I’d expect the Cubs start exploring his versatility around the diamond, where he should be capable of playing five or so positions. I’ll note Verdugo is Rule 5 eligible, but I don’t think he’s a likely bet to be protected or chosen quite yet. If the Cubs hitting coaches can unlock something, though, Verdugo could blossom into a top 15 prospect this year and offer a really interesting skillset come 2024/2025.
RHP JAKE REINDL
The Cubs took a lot of organizational pride in the story of Scott Effross, a struggling Double-A pitcher with conventional stuff in 2018, who the Cubs moved to a sidearm slot and watched become their best MLB reliever in the span of two years. Trading this success story was very difficult for the front office, but the Cubs really valued Hayden Wesneski, and couldn’t resist the Yankees’ overtures at the Trade Deadline.
But perhaps … do the Cubs have another Effross-like reliever that could finish his minor league climb if he can pitch a full season in 2023? I think that’s who Jake Reindl is, and he’s been interesting to me since I saw him pitch an electric outing in Spring Training last March.
The Cubs drafted Reindl in the 17th round of the 2018 draft, following a successful SEC career where he posted a 2.75 ERA for the University of Arkansas. Back then, Reindl was a guy who could play with, and succeed with, different arm slots. The story of his 2022 season, and the success he had with the third-highest SwStr% in the system, is the Cubs identifying the lowest version of those arm slots as the ideal one.
Out of the 5/8 slot, Reindl’s 92-95 mph fastball plays up to plus. When in the top third of the zone, he’s completely destructive. The slider can get downright absurd, as Reindl seems to have the ability to play with depth and sweep on top of the good old frisbee shape.
Another reason for optimism is the fire he pitches with, as you’ll see at the end of the video above, but also here and here and here. Not everyone is capable of channeling emotions and adrenaline as an enhancement, but Reindl’s ability to do so allowed him to thrive in the Midwest League playoffs, where he allowed just one hitter to reach base in four scoreless innings.
I’m a bit concerned, as a Cubs fan, that another team will notice Reindl’s season and give him a shot in the Rule 5 Draft this winter. He does turn 26 in January. But I’m probably being too antsy. Reindl needs to prove he can pitch 50-70 innings a year, though when that starts happening, I think he’s a big leaguer quickly. In the discussion in the 2-5 range for me as relievers in the farm system.
C ETHAN HEARN
There will be understandable skepticism about picking a player with a .198 batting average in two years at Low-A, jumping from .176 in 2021 to .213 in 2022, and I understand it. But I’m of the belief that Hearn began to turn a corner in 2022, and I think it’s just the start of a real breakout for the former bonus baby.
Remember, MLB catchers combined for a batting average of just .231 in 2022, the lowest of any single position. The offensive barrier for reaching the Majors as a catcher is simply lower, provided you can handle (actually, thrive) the rigors of the position defensively.
This part is where I’m most confident in Hearn. The tools are there to be a really good catcher. There’s the plus arm. There’s the magnetic and energetic personality. And I’m told by multiple pitchers he worked with in 2022 that he’s a plus receiver. Heck, this is who Justin Steele has had as his catching partner during the last few offseason for a reason.
And so the question will just be on the bat, and more pointedly: the strikeout rate. The rise in Hearn’s batting average from awful to bad was the result of a strikeout rate that went from worst (44.2% in 2021) to still really bad (34%) in 2022. Hearn got credit for improving his plate approach, not so much in terms of walk rate (which did go from 9.7 to 12.4%) but moreso in terms of swinging less often at pitches that he was unlikely to be successful on.
Also, a general point: Hearn is just 22, and sometimes that bat comes around later for catching prospects.
Moving forward, the Cubs will need to work with Hearn on improving his recognition of breaking balls destined to exit the strike zone, as well as making contact with those that stay in. I think Hearn will be given the information — and the robot pitchers — to allow for big improvement, and I think he can maintain a 25-30% strikeout rate from 2023 all the way up to the Major Leagues.
Success at that rate will demand he hits for power, but that’s definitely coming: Hearn had a .261 ISO after June and a .309 ISO in his final 28 games. He hit the ball more in the air than ever in 2023, and has good raw strength and good tilt in his swing. Kid’s got juice.
While I’m not yet ready to call Hearn an everyday, first-division catcher down the road, I think there is enough going on here to think he’ll grind his way to the Majors. He’s a top 50 prospect in a deep system for me, and I think he jumps even more in 2023.