The ESPN Top Prospect Rankings Are Out, Are Very Friendly to the Chicago Cubs
We are getting closer to Spring Training, which means we are getting closer to the end of prospects rankings season. The updated pre-2023 top 100 prospect lists are almost all out at this point, with the exception (I think?) of FanGraphs. Today’s release of ESPN’s list from Kiley McDaniel should be the second-to-last major release.
And I think it’s a really good one for the Cubs!
McDaniel has always been a unique ranker, not unlike Keith Law (in terms of being a guy doing the heavy lifting on his own, rather than being part of a big prospecting machine), so you see some outliers from time to time. That doesn’t mean he’s more right or more wrong than any other service, but it’s nice to get to see some different names and different perspectives on these lists.
You will immediately spot the outliers among Cubs prospects, for example:
36. Pete Crow-Armstrong, CF
51. Jordan Wicks, LHP
77. Kevin Alcántara, OF
Just Missed (i.e., in the top 129): Cristian Hernández, SS, James Triantos, 3B, Owen Caissie, OF, and Hayden Wesneski, RHP
Unranked: Brennen Davis, OF
Right there, you have some big love for Wicks, who hasn’t received a whole lot this rankings season outside of being in the top ten lefty pitching prospects for MLB Pipeline. And you see a HUGE fall-off for Davis, who has otherwise been on every other top 100, albeit near the back of the list.
What you like most overall, though, is that there are seven Cubs prospects in that 50 FV group (or higher), and thus in McDaniel’s top 129 (without even counting Davis or Matt Mervis). That’s yet another sign of the quality depth in the Cubs’ system, even if the overall list is a reminder about the other big thing we keep saying (the need for higher-level, surer-fire, impact-level talent).
I have to call out the Wicks ranking, because it’s not only the first that sees him inside a top 100, but he’s almost inside the top 50. What is McDaniel seeing that others aren’t? Well, unlike other evaluators, McDaniel is buying the “stuff” improvements that a lot of Cubs-centric prospect folks were talking about last year with Wicks:
Type: Lefty with (newly) above-average stuff and (same) feel, devastating changeup.
Wicks went No. 21 overall in the 2021 draft as a high-floor lefty from Kansas State with a plus changeup and above-average command but a fastball, slider, and curveball that were all fringy. It was a different story in 2022 as his velo jumped a couple ticks to 91-94 mph with good ride and the same standout command. The added arm speed also improved both breaking balls, and the changeup is a plus to plus-plus weapon.
Wicks might be big league-ready by midseason and is looking like a midrotation starter with the risk being that the velo bump regresses and he ends up more of a steady backend type.
Who is right? Well, from a factual perspective, McDaniel is correct that Wicks last year saw a jump in his velo (the difference between sitting 92-94 mph, and sitting 90-93 mph is pretty significant), and also saw pitch-grade improvements on his breaking balls. What you do with those facts, of course, is a matter of subjective analysis.
I have seen some debate about whether the changeup regressed from what he was showing in college, so I can’t say for sure which is more right on that front. Obviously that’s not something McDaniel heard or observed. What I will say is that it was my understanding that the Cubs tried to limit Wicks on relying too much on the changeup last year, because it was a pretty easy out pitch against younger batters who often struggle against good changeups. Again, I could be wrong, but I believe the Cubs were intentionally trying to get Wicks to work more on his fastball and breaking pitches.
But the chatter that Wicks is still just a floor guy didn’t square for me when he was adding velo and successfully incorporating a plus slider. His results – in his first full pro year, mind you – looked inflated by a silly BABIP to me, especially when you compared them against his K/BB numbers. So McDaniel’s perspective sounds more right to me, but I will admit, I’ve been pretty aggressively in on Wicks for a while, so I might just be the victim of confirmation bias.
While we’re here, nice to see Hayden Wesneski get a little prospecting love after being a guy who was never particularly close to top 100 discussions at mid-year, but then was SO GOOD late in the year with the Cubs that I think you would at least have to give him a closer look.
For more on PCA, Alcántara, and the rest of the list, check out McDaniel’s rankings here at ESPN.