The 2023 BN Top Cubs Prospect List – So Many Honorable Mentions
Continuing this week’s coverage of the 2023 Chicago Cubs farm system. Up today: the Honorable Mentions. Yesterday, if you missed it, was the state of the system and the introduction to the list.
This is a long one, and up front, I know that not everyone is interested in the 51st to ninety-something ranked prospects in the Cubs system.
I always see the honorable mention list as important for two reasons: 1) to provide an early mention of guys that will inevitably step forward into future prospect lists, and 2) a midseason reference guide once players you maybe have never heard of start performing in box scores. I’ll mention that Matt Mervis and Porter Hodge were two guys who showed up on last year’s honorable mentions list, and I have no doubt a few of the names below will be impact guys in 2023.
Please note that the age you see listed is the player’s 2023 playing age, and the affiliate is the one I project them to begin the 2023 season in. Enjoy!
Pablo Aliendo, C, 22, Tennessee. A season of small and quiet improvements is actually quite exciting, given that 2021 had brought a pretty substantial breakout campaign. Aliendo seemed the appropriate amount stronger, an already-simple swing might have seen one tiny change (hands starting higher), and he was definitely improved with his movements behind the plate. He has earned the right for the move to Double-A, where he’ll catch the system’s most exciting pitching staff and show if last year’s gains in contact rate can sustain against the big-league caliber breaking balls he’ll see in Tennessee.
Michael Arias, RHP, 21, Myrtle Beach. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to see Javy or Morel as a pitcher, you’d get a pretty good proxy by watching Arias, a former infielder that draws some mention as a breakout candidate. It’s one of the loosest arms you’ll ever see, coming from a short-and-light build, with an arm slot that looks more like a shortstop throwing from the hole. Arias’ Instagram hinted at triple digit velocities this offseason, and he’s definitely added muscle across the build. Last year, Arias drew the starting pitcher assignment, but only topped two innings one time. A decision is coming about the best role for him, and then his control will dictate how fast he moves.
Max Bain, RH RP, 25, Tennessee. Look out for the fully revamped delivery this year. The arm path and stride are shortened, and Max will be more tall and upright; it will make things more natural and will likely lead to better command and feel. The lack of those last year overshadowed a big step forward with his slider — it has the shape the Cubs are prioritizing these days — and I think that will shine more this year with the big righty ahead in the count more often.
Bryce Ball, 1B, 24, Tennessee. You can look at Ball’s 2022 season through two very different lenses. If optimistic, you’ll point to Ball’s big and sustained drop in strikeout rate (I noted in May how he was more willing to attack pitches early in at-bats), a major development in a previous area of weakness. If pessimistic, you’ll wonder why the power doesn’t show up more, and worry about the .203/.293/.313 batting line in the final two months. I’m expecting a return to Tennessee to start 2023, and I’d honestly say that few players in the system face a more important year.
Hunter Bigge, RH RP, 25, Tennessee. It took some time for Bigge’s stuff to get going last year, and then it seemed like his command tired in the final month of the season. The middle stretch was electric, where the emergence of Bigge’s slider gives him two breaking ball options to pitch off (the curve was always good). I think you’d like to see the breaking ball usage above sixty percent in a perfect world — which demands really good feel of both spinners — when the mid 90s fastball could play a bit more as a change-of-pace pitch. Can pitch his way onto the big league radar this season, but needs to be dialed in from day one.
Angel Cepeda, SS/3B, 17, DSL Cubs. One of the more physically developed International Free Agent signings that you’ll see, Cepeda actually went through (and impressed on) the U.S. showcase circuit a few years ago. I think the chance that he stays at shortstop even beyond the 2023 season is very low, but the offensive toolbox looks solid, and so he should project fine to work as an option on the corners.
Parker Chavers, OF, 24, South Bend. A sweet-swinging left-handed outfielder that hasn’t been on the field enough to properly show what he can do. There’s a bit of tweener risk here — not enough power for a corner spot, not enough speed for center — but the feel he shows suggests someone that can consistently outperform their raw tools. Need to see a commitment to taking more pitches in 2023.
Yovanny Cruz, RH RP, 23, South Bend. Cruz flashed triple digits in his very brief time in the minors last year, showing how development has occurred even though he hasn’t been on the diamond often in the last three years. Cruz’ body type is completely different than when he arrived on the prospect scene in 2018, he’s probably three or four inches taller and a good 50 pounds heavier than when he played for Eugene. He’s also pitched less than 40 innings since then, so this is a guy that needs to stay healthy and get innings. And if he does, you could see an Estrada-like rise through the system.
Ludwing Espinoza, SS, 17, DSL Cubs. The third of the Cubs seven-figure signings in International Free Agency this year. We know less about Espinoza than the other two — mostly just a product of where they hail from — so he’s among the hardest in the entire system to rank. I mentioned in my January write up that Espinoza reminds me a lot of Aramis Ademan, a former top Cubs prospect that had plenty of success in the low minors before his lack of physicality prevented a rise to the top levels. The Cubs strength department has evolved a lot since Ademan (all the way down to the Dominican affiliate), so I’m excited to see the plan they have for Espinoza.
Will Frisch, RH SP, 22, ACL Cubs. The Cubs scouting department believes that had Frisch pitched the 2022 season — he didn’t because of Tommy John surgery — then he would have been a no-doubt selection in the early rounds out of Oregon State. The fastball/changeup combination improved a ton in his years in Corvallis, and the Cubs have confidence they will find the right breaking ball(s) to fill out the arsenal. There will be no rush in getting Frisch back into game action — his rehab will double as a developmental list stint — but I suspect he’ll see some late-season starts in Myrtle Beach.
Richard Gallardo, RH SP, 21, South Bend. While guys around Gallardo have either broke out, got injured or fallen off the radar, Gallardo is the rare prospect that’s just super-quietly chugging along, developing slowly and healthily. After gaining a lot of not-great weight as he grew in 2020-2021, Gallardo has worked hard off the field in the last 16 months to get into better shape. He’s not been able to miss bats yet at the rate necessary to get top 30/50 prospect consideration, but he does deserve credit for being to consistently execute his four-pitch mix (sinker, four seam, changeup, curve). One of those pitches desperately needs to take a jump forward in 2023.
Angel Gonzalez, RH RP, 20, South Bend. One of the Cubs signings in the 2020 UDFA process I outlined in the rankings preview piece, Gonzalez seems really close to popping as one of the better relievers in the system. Under the Cubs tutelage in Arizona, Gonzalez was able to gain really good muscle and see his fastball jump all the way into the upper 90s. He’ll flash a really plus slider, too, though its consistency and feel is a definite work in progress. Another example of a now-common story in the Cubs system: they’ve brought him to the upper 90s, but can they coach control?
Saul Gonzalez, RH RP, 23, South Bend. Acquired in the Mychal Givens trade last year, Gonzalez is a huge-bodied right-hander that the Cubs highlighted as a guy they could help develop. The stuff in the Mets system was somewhat middling, mostly low 90s dead-zone fastballs and low 80s gyro sliders. I think we’ll see a meaner mid 90s sinker this year, and I’m curious what the Cubs can do to raise the Stuff+ on his breaking ball options. Performed well in the Puerto Rican Winter League; I’ll be watching his early South Bend outings closely.
Alexis Hernandez, SS/UT, 18, ACL Cubs. Alexis had an extremely slow start to his professional career in the DSL last summer, but gained praise for how he fought through it and improved steadily as the season went along. The raw power that you dream on hasn’t showed up yet, but Hernandez was around the Cubs weight room a lot this winter, so we’re likely to see more in 2023. It’s an open question what the best positional fit for Hernandez is, and like his brother, the swing can often get a bit too long and wild to make consistent contact.
Levi Jordan, IF, 27, Iowa. One of my favorite players in the system, Jordan is an undersized infielder that plays really solid defense across the board and hits for way more power than his body type would suggest. We discussed that a bit in my profile of him last year, as Jordan’s been very thoughtful in his training with how to maximize his gifts. This last step is going to be the most difficult one, finding an opportunity to show he can be worthy of a big league roster spot. The Cubs have so many infielders, it’s getting hard to imagine it will come here, but I do think another organization should take a chance on poaching Levi if the opportunity presents itself.
Brendon Little, LH RP, 26, Iowa. Little had the briefest taste of the Big Leagues as a Covid replacement last August, but 2023 sticks out as the make-or-break season for him to stick in the Cubs organization. At his best, Little seems like a definite Major League option with a 95-97 mph fastball and wipeout slider, but consistency has long been an open question. The key is making sure that hitters don’t see slider out of his hand clearly, as it’s a pitch that Little mostly buries in the dirt, so it can be relatively easy for the hitter to avoid. Needs to come out of the gate hot this season, which seems possible given the praise bestowed on him from PCA.
Brailyn Marquez, LH RP, 24. What can we say here? I think Marquez’ natural talent belongs higher on here, but until we know the status of his shoulder and the likelihood that he sees the field soon, it’s hard to know how to think about him. Rooting for the best, because he’s fun to watch when it’s firing on all cylinders.
Michael McAvene, RH RP, 25, Tennessee. After missing most of 2021 with another arm injury, McAvene deserves a ton of credit for coming back last June and finding a bunch of success for the rest of the 2022 season. I’ll admit that his results seemed better to me than his stuff, likely due to how successful he was pitching with guys on base. But the slider is one of the better ones in the system, and if the fastball can get back to firmly plus, it’s not hard to envision him sliding onto the Major League radar in 2023.
Brody McCullough, RHP, 23, Myrtle Beach. I’ve already made the case for McCullough’s breakout this season, as I’ve heard a lot of confidence that the right-hander quickly took to the Cubs developmental plans for his game. With a deceptive delivery, an improving fastball and a nasty slider, this is a guy that should have no problem zooming through A-ball.
Haydn McGeary, 1B/C/DH, 23, South Bend. Despite his dominant collegiate results coming at a small school in altitude (Colorado Mesa University), there’s little doubting that McGeary’s hit tool is real. He showed a good oppo-gap philosophy in a brief stint with Myrtle Beach last season, and his strong 6-foot-5 build will help him get into his power. But the gap between the offensive requirements for catcher (which seems a real stretch long-term) and 1B/DH are massive, and McGeary will have to prove the latter is in his wheelhouse.
Mason McGwire, RH SP, 19, ACL Cubs. Impressed at Instructs with a split-change that I’m anxious to see in person (it’s probably my favorite pitch type). Velocity is already trending up — AZ Phil had him up to 94 in September — which is probably a year earlier than expected. Will be a productive spring for him around the Mesa complex, working with the new strength team to add good weight and presumably working with newly-promoted Tony Cougoule on finding the right breaking ball for his pitch mix.
Ismael Mena, OF, 20, Myrtle Beach. The Cubs have put a lot of patient development into Mena in his two years in the organization, and now 2023 looms as a season where he has to keep himself on the map. There’s a mix of body type and athleticism that suggests a high-end player is possible, but the results have yet to manifest themselves with high-end batted ball results. The big Myrtle Beach outfield will give him a chance to shine, both as a solid defensive outfielder and a potential gap-to-gap offensive player.
Juan Mora, 2B, 23, South Bend. I love this dude. He brings a short, strong build to the plate, crouches and shrinks the strike zone to nothing. Swings hard and quick with really good barrel accuracy, and has been an above-average hitter at every stop. I’m not sure there’s enough physicality there to slap a Major League projection on him, though like I’ve said before, I’d throw catcher pads on him and see if it clicks.
Cristian More, OF, 21, Myrtle Beach. The Cubs signed More out of Cuba in 2019, and he keeps creating more opportunities for himself with his on-field play. More has struck out just 71 times in 439 PA; he’s one of those short left-handed hitters that gets small and becomes a total pest for the opposing pitcher. Like a few other outfielders in this piece, it’s hard not to worry about the likelihood of a tweener outcome: I don’t know that he’ll hit the ball hard enough, I don’t know if his athleticism is explosive enough. But you have to give love to the guys that keep conquering the assignment in front of them.
Koen Moreno, RH SP, 21, Myrtle Beach. A pure development pick in 2020, Moreno missed most of 2021 with injury, though did begin to transform his body from cross-country runner to pitcher. Moreno got into game action last June, and the results were ugly, a 9.96 ERA and 26% walk rate. But man, I still have some hope. There were innings where Moreno would look fully competent, and then he’d come back out for his second or third inning with all feel for fastball command gone. I’ve always heard that pure athletes are the type that can go from aimlessness to competence in the blink of an eye, and if that happens here, we’ll be talking about a three-pitch mix heading in an exciting direction.
Connor Noland, RH SP, 23, Myrtle Beach. Of the 17 pitchers the Cubs drafted last year, Noland seemed like the only one where the underlying stuff (or projection) wasn’t the driving factor behind his stuff. However, I had a big league pitcher point out to me a couple years ago that the worst assumption we can often make is assuming that accomplished (and physically filled out) college pitchers don’t have projection remaining. I think the Cubs see a guy with moxie, command and a propensity for spin, and they wonder what happens if they add a 20% boost in stuff to that foundation.
Casey Opitz, C, 24, South Bend. It’s fun the Cubs brought Tucker Barnhart into the organization this winter, because Opitz is truly the minor league version of Barnhart. He’s every pitcher’s favorite catcher to throw to, an excellent framer, a true leader and a whip-smart game caller. A hand injury last year sucked the meaning from his offensive numbers, but the doubts about that part of his game date back to his college days. Opitz will look to really on a patient eye and just enough pop and contact to allow the rest of his game to shine, but he’s likely always to be teetering on that edge of viability.
Christopher Paciolla, SS/3B, 19, ACL Cubs. A project pick in the third-round last year, Paciolla is in the infancy of a years-long development that offers really exciting potential. The foundations for a future power hitter are all there — bat speed, leverage, frame — but there’s no rush in achieving that yet. The Cubs are at work at building up the strength profile, a plan that will likely mean staying in Arizona for Extended Spring Training (and likely even into the complex league season). Plenty of reason to think he could be a top 10 prospect in the system in two years, and just for completist sake, I’ll note he was number fifty one, juuuuust missing the top 50 list.
Ezequiel Pagan, OF, 22, South Bend. Easily Myrtle Beach’s best day-in, day-out hitter last year; it just seemed like every at-bat ended up with a hard-hit ball headed to a gap. Pagan is skinny but seems the type that will always be that way, and his contact ability is the only tool that seems destined above average. It’s a fourth outfielder profile, but there’s value in those, particularly a guy that will help every minor league team he plays for in the win column. Offseason knee surgery will keep him out of action right away, but he’ll be a nice midseason addition for South Bend.
Kenyi Perez, RH SP, 21, Myrtle Beach. Perez came away with the best reviews of any ACL Cubs pitcher last year, despite a 5.63 ERA and 10.9 BB/9 that might suggest otherwise. He’s already outgrown the height-and-weight listing that won’t be updated until (and if) he reaches the Majors, and it’s led to a jump into the mid 90s with his fastball velocity. But the calling card is an already plus slider that can even flash a grade above it. Feel is a problem still, likely due to a changing body and a long arm swing. Expect mechanical changes, and keep the name in mind for a breakout in the year(s) to come.
Mat Peters, RH RP, 22, Myrtle Beach. There’s so many low-level relief options that I could highlight as lottery tickets to step forward in 2023, but I’m choosing Peters because he has the best single pitch: a big fastball with even bigger underlying data. It’s a 70 grade pitch when you just consider its raw properties (velocity, spin rate, IVB), but Peters will have to show the ability to locate it to the top third of the zone before that can matter much. This is a guy that has done a lot of the big stuff correct in terms of getting his body into shape, developing his stuff and getting into pro ball, but now it’s time to show he can execute when it matters.
Walker Powell, RHP, 27, Tennessee. Very simply, the best in the system at executing his game plan. Usually, that’s one of two things: in one plan, he’ll use the 6-foot-8 frame and pitch downhill, generating grounders at an above-average rate. In the other, he’ll focus on tunneling, locating high four seam fastballs and throwing his two breaking balls off that plane. I’ve always found the stuff to be a bit too soft to have on my Major League radar, but Powell is doing the one thing he can to change minds: dominating.
Jake Reindl, RH RP, 26, Tennessee. Bad injury luck is the only thing holding back the profile right now, because when on the field last year he was one of the more dynamic relievers in the system. The Cubs decision to have Reindl embrace the lowest of his various arm slots was a great choice, as he’s become an impossible at-bat for right-handed hitters with a flat VAA fastball and plus slider. The key will be to watch the at-bats against good Double-A LHH’s this year, and if those are looking good, he should be quickly taken seriously as a potential 2024 bullpen arm.
Wilber Rodriguez, RH RP, 23, Myrtle Beach. Helium alert guy after a loud Instructs performance that I think will warrant a look with the High-A team in camp (bear in mind he has no innings above DSL). Big frame with projection remaining should take his fastball from mid to upper 90s, and coming from a low release point, it’ll quickly start drawing mention as one of the best fastballs in the organization. Great job by the Cubs international scouting department to grab this Venezuelan five years after he was eligible to sign with anyone.
Cole Roederer, OF, 23, Tennessee. Cubs pushed Roederer up to Double-A aggressively in his return from Tommy John surgery, despite moving into an odd not-playing-everyday situation (we talked in this Cubs On Deck episode a lot about the mental grind of 2022). But sticking to process helped, and in the Smokies final 14 games (including playoffs), he became their best hitter, smacking six home runs. While a bit of a tweener athlete, Roederer’s good instinctual routes help mitigate a below-average throwing arm. At the plate, he has natural juice and a good batting eye, and he’s a fantastic and energetic clubhouse presence. It’s a fourth outfielder profile right now, but there’s some potential above that without question.
Luis Rujano, RH SP, 20, Myrtle Beach. I fully expect that in four months, this ranking of Rujano will look silly and he’ll be a no-doubt top 40 (and maybe better) prospect in the system. It’s a bit difficult to even pinpoint a reason why Rujano wasn’t more highly thought of in draft season last year, but I’m glad the Cubs found him there in the 13th round. Rujano really impressed at Instructs in late September with the Cubs, with the 6-foot-4 righty showing a devastating sweeper and good ride on his fastball. If there’s one guy I expect to have a Porter Hodge like breakout in 2023, it’s this guy.
Yeison Santana, IF, 22, South Bend. The flu of 2021 trades made for a (healthy) leader focus on the Yu Darvish trade, but I do think that meant a pretty solid Santana season flew completely under the radar. Santana was one of the system’s better defenders at second base, and his plate coverage to the outer edge is really good. The problem here is simple: doesn’t hit the ball hard enough, and when he does, it’s really only low liners to the opposite field.
Marino Santy, LHP, 21, Myrtle Beach. Fun arm, as Santy is a Jose Quintana sized lefty with an Aroldis Chapman style delivery. It’s an entirely raw skillset at this point — mid 90s velocity with no clue where the ball is heading — but he’s the type of piece of clay the Cubs prioritize these days. He’ll fall farther off the radar if he doesn’t show better feel in 2023, but I do expect improvement in that department given some increased strength in his lower half.
Tyler Schlaffer, RH SP, 22, Injured List. Schlaffer didn’t build on a good 2021 in a substantial way last year, and his season ended with Tommy John surgery late in the year. He’s likely to miss all of 2023, though he’ll likely be a participant in Instructs after the season. Schlaffer is the type of guy that could come back from TJ with a little more velocity, and so long as he retains feel for his plus changeup, he’ll still absolutely be someone worth monitoring in 2024.
Felix Stevens, 1B, 23, South Bend. Stevens has the body type and exit velocities of a big league first baseman; there’s 30 home run potential in that bat. The question he’ll look to answer with another season of development is whether he can make enough contact on breaking balls to post an acceptable batting average. Trading the cavernous Myrtle Beach left field for South Bend should help make a breakout possible, Stevens just has to embrace the Cubs coaching in getting his contact point out in front, which will trade some of his more bland contact for pulled balls in the air.
Cayne Ueckert, RH RP, 27, Iowa. The big Texan flamethrower was not able to sustain a breakout 2021 campaign in Triple-A last year, with 52 walks and 12 home runs coming in 50 innings. Some regression will come his way this season — both his BABIP and HR/FB numbers allowed were brutally high — but all that matters is getting ahead in the count more often. I love the combination of fastballs he throws, though he’ll need a step forward with the slider to be a legitimate big league option. A make or break season — and even a make-or-break Spring Training — looms.
Kevin Valdez, RH SP, 21, Myrtle Beach. It’s exceedingly rare for the Cubs to promote players from the Dominican Summer League to the Arizona Complex League, but Valdez’ DSL performance was so dominant last summer that he demanded be the exception to the rule. It’s a dream 6-foot-4 and projectable build, and his August 6 outing (striking out 7 of 8 batters) in Arizona had the AZ Phil’s of the world buzzing. I’m not sure any of the pitches in his arsenal are close to the final form they’re take, but it’s the weight room work that’s more important these days anyway. Remember this name, could be an important one come 2025 or so.
Luis Vazquez, SS, 23, Tennessee. When I arrived at the backfields for Spring Training last year, there was a player taking infield practice by himself on one field in street clothes. It looked like a Major Leaguer with his strong build and a plus arm. Using Rich Biesterfeld’s camera lens, we determined it was Vazquez, who had got himself into great shape, so I wasn’t surprised when Vazquez had a career-high nine home runs last year. The problem was that, still, it didn’t create an offensive profile that was good enough. Vazquez likely moves to a more reserve role this season, probably again in Tennessee, but his great glove will keep giving him minor league opportunities.
Bryce Windham, C, 26, Tennessee. After bouncing him around the diamond in 2021, the Cubs gave Windham an opportunity to stick at catcher in 2022, and he showed enough to stick in that role in 2023. Windham probably has the best hand-eye coordination in the system, he’ll go entire weeks without striking out. But a small frame means that even the most optimistic projection still leads to a low slugging percentage, meaning he has to be about-perfect in all other facets of the game. If he can make one more step forward on defense, he’ll become an interesting bench option as a left-handed hitter with basically 6-8 positions of versatility.
Jared Young, 1B/OF, 27, Iowa. Coming out of 2021, we said that for Young to be a more serious prospect, we needed to see more in the patience and power columns. And guess what? We saw just that in 2022, particularly as Young was able to leverage increased physicality into more balls over the fence. It led to a brief big league cup of coffee, where Young didn’t seem particularly overwhelmed. And when playing time got tight in Iowa, the Cubs were determined to keep Young in the lineup and asked him to learn third base. This all suggests that the powers-that-be see some value here, but there’s probably not quite enough overall oomph to be thinking about an everyday big league job at his age anymore.