The 2023 BN Top Cubs Prospect List: 50-26, Quality Depth for Miles

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The 2023 BN Top Cubs Prospect List: 50-26, Quality Depth for Miles

Chicago Cubs

Excited to jump into our prospect rankings and reports today, but make sure you’ve seen the list’s introduction and the slew of honorable mentions. Today’s crop is filled with hard-throwing relievers, with the bats a fun mix of far-away with big ceilings and really-close with bench profiles. Each player has a link to their Baseball-Reference page so you can quickly see their statistics, and also includes their 2023 playing age and projected affiliate destination. Enjoy!

50. Riley Martin, LH RP, 25, Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: 6th round, 2021.

Boy, what a fantastic first year in the organization. Drafted as a below-slot guy out of small Quincy University, Martin was a data-driven pick with an accomplished resume and strong intangibles. And still, Martin’s progress in one year under a professional development plan — going from a nebulous role on Low-A Myrtle Beach to the Double-A playoffs and Arizona Fall League — was a welcome surprise. While the under-the-hood numbers suggested a guy that could spin a curveball with confidence, the Cubs approached Martin about changing his curveball grip and adding a slider. Both have become plus offerings, and I’ve heard that Martin flashed a few sliders at a plus-plus grade here and there. Mixed with a fastball that’s solidly in the 93-95 range mostly, the tools are there for a solid big league relief option. That will be a hard graduation to force in 2023, as he doesn’t need to be added to the 40-man roster until after the 2024 season, but I won’t be shocked if he’s knocking pretty loudly on the door in the second half.

49. Danis Correa, RH RP, 23, Iowa (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2016.

It’s amazing to me that baseball is in a place where the Cubs have a freak of a talent like Correa — I mean, how many sub-six footers in baseball history have been consistent triple digit guys?! — and he was basically a barely-mentioned guy in Rule 5 conversations this offseason. If you’re nitpicking, you might see whiff numbers that are more solidly above-average than elite, which I think suggests that the fastball doesn’t scream with that late riding movement that would really play from his release height. You’d like the secondary mix — slider comes and goes, changeup improved a lot, curveball has always been the most comfortable — to have more usage, allowing Correa to slow bats down for two-strike fastballs.

48. Brandon Birdsell, RH SP, 23, South Bend (Stats). Acquired: 5th round, 2022.

The most advanced pitcher the Cubs drafted last year, I think Birdsell will get dropped in High-A and find some success really quickly this season. It’s a good modern-day profile, an extremely short arm-action with stuff that kept ticking better and better in a long and winding college career. I’ll be curious how the delivery evolves; right now it’s super simple and linear to the plate, but I think they’ll play with how Birdsell engages his lower half (particularly his hips/butt). There’s also very little deception, as Birdsell shows the ball early and throughout his move towards the plate. But the good news is the stuff is nasty, and it’s easy for me to think of Birdsell both as a mid-rotation starter or the best reliever in the system in a couple years. The fastball has been up to 98 with lots of swing-and-miss; the gyro slider is a thing of beauty. I’d love a splitter added to the mix.

47. BJ Murray, 3B/1B, 23, Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: 15th round, 2021.

I keep coming back to those last 51 games for Murray: .324/.425/.472, all coming at a level higher than the one he started the season. There’s some real thought that goes into Murray’s plate approach; he makes a pitcher pay for falling behind, demanding they come back into the zone to get back into the count. Murray didn’t get to play much in the Arizona Fall League, but he was a full participant in the behind-the-scenes grind the League demands, and I think the experience will benefit him in 2023. I like the left-handed swing better than the right-handed one (I think he gets better leverage on the left side), but he seems to see the ball well enough in both areas to continue switch-hitting success. My hope is the offseason work was focused on more athletic explosiveness, as my ambitions for his future would revolve more around third (and even second) base rather than first.

46. Christian Franklin, OF, 23, South Bend (Stats). Acquired: 4th round, 2021.

During the first game of minor league Spring Training last season, Franklin went down with a knee injury that would cost him the entire 2022 campaign. I don’t sense any concern about a loss of athleticism here, Franklin was always more strong-and-smart than twitchy-and-quick in the field, but we still need a sample of pro games to get a feel on his long-term centerfield viability. The Cubs have now had their chance to suggest any of the swing alterations necessary to help him get more contact, it’s now just essential to get reps and show how his SEC success (and his junior year power breakout) translates.

45. Bailey Horn, LH RP, 25, Iowa (Stats). Acquired: Trade, July 2021.

The Cubs liked the slider they acquired from the White Sox in Horn, and while I’m sure would have explored changing it eventually, didn’t have plans to do so. But Horn saw his teammates learning the sweeper grip in South Bend and asked to see it. He played catch with it, liked how it looked (especially as a natural supination guy), and boom, it appeared in a game that night. The pitch was transformative for Horn’s 2022 season which ended with a nice show-out performance in the Arizona Fall League. He’s one of those relievers where I’ll love the outings at 95-97, and it will look a bit more fringe at 93-94, especially because the feel can come and go a bit. But a full four-pitch mix now has the two plus offerings, and the 30 innings that finished last year (AA and AFL) suggested a pitcher on the big league brink: 18 hits, 0.90 ERA, 15 BB, 40 K.

44. Ethan Hearn, C, 22, South Bend (Stats). Acquired: 6th round, 2019.

While Hearn ended up bypassing his college commitment at Mississippi State for pro ball in 2019, he ended up getting a slice of the college baseball experience by spending two seasons playing exclusively on the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. His time there ends with a .198/.304/.386 batting line, which probably has you wondering if I’m insane for putting him in the top 50 (or wondering if the system really isn’t as deep as I’m insisting). I get it, but this is an intuition pick that a breakout is coming. Hearn has the intangibles and the arm strength needed for the catching position, and I think the power is going to flourish away from Myrtle. The question hanging over his future is whether the contact can get to a passable point, and I think the swing decisions improved enough from 2021 to 2022 to tell me that he’s not too stubborn to keep improving in that category.

43. Reggie Preciado, IF, 20, Myrtle Beach (Stats). Acquired: Trade, December 2020.

In about every sense of a season being a lost year, 2022 was that for Preciado. While the Cubs took objective steps forward in player development last year, you’re not going to be perfect across the board, and you’d have to acknowledge that Preciado hasn’t yet taken the step forward that was hoped for him on backfields in the past. There’s not yet enough physical strength or whip to see the benefits of his long levers, but I think they did serve to expose him when taking the leap to Low-A last year. (Side note: the pitchers Myrtle faced in the first five or so weeks last year were so tough. So many teams sent college guys there that would be in High-A a few series later.) I’d like to see more confidence in his swing decisions and more physicality in his body this year to stay on the list moving forward.

42. Jake Slaughter, IF, 26, Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: 19th round, 2018.

If you talk to the players in the organization, Slaughter’s 2022 might have earned him more respect from his peers than any other individual. This is a guy that didn’t make a full-season roster out of Spring Training last year — a sign that it might be time to contemplate a career change — and then exploded when the smallest (and probably last) opening came his way. I’m not flabbergasted by the bump in home runs, as Slaughter has always been very strong and the Cubs do have a nice track record of adding power to certain profiles. I’m not sure any other Cub prospect uses the ground better with their swing. It was the success on the base paths and the consideration he drew at second base that really wowed me. He’s now made himself a priority in roster planning, as the Cubs will need to see how the offensive approach changes handle the upper levels, and if he deserves consideration as a five-position bench option (or even perhaps more).

41. Yonathan Perlaza, LF/RF, 24, Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2015.

A delight to watch hit on a day-to-day basis, as Perlaza shrinks the zone for opposing pitchers, and then hits the piss out of the ball when he gets one in his spot. He’s short and stocky, built like a brick house with a fully maxed-out profile. The defense is somewhere between fine and not good; I think we might be trending towards a LF/DH-only profile. But there’s a real chance he has the bat to make it all work, as I don’t have huge nits to pick in that part of his game: he walks enough, hits the ball in the air enough, hits the ball hard enough and attacks the right pitches. The two outcomes here are that 1) he threads the needle and becomes an above-average MLB hitter or 2) he gets stuck and pigeonholed as a AAA guy. Not sure I even see any kind of middle ground.

40. Zac Leigh, RH RP, 25, Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: 16th round, 2021.

If we’re judging players by their best skills, Leigh would show up higher, as his slider is among the most MLB-ready pitches that any Cubs prospect offers. It’s a bit unique for a guy capable of a mid 90s fastball to have such velocity separation with his slider, a slurvy 80 mph pitch with significant sweep and a great performance track record. The fastball is unique in a way the Cubs love, a cut-ride fastball from a low release height, meaning right-handed hitters will feel like it’s riding up and away from them. You’ll want more 95-96 than 93-94 in the velocity numbers, but I think that’s a very achievable goal. Other organizations — the smart ones — love Leigh, and I suspect we’re going to get one more pitch offering more firmly in the mix in 2023.

39. Darius Hill, OF, 25, Iowa (Stats). Acquired: 20th round, 2019.

Truly one of the best “see ball, hit ball” players in the world, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating. Hill starts with an open stance and then takes a big timing-mechanism step forward with a swing plane that adapts to the pitch he’s thrown. It’s very much a swing-first philosophy at the plate, with an old-school “hit it where it’s pitched” gap-to-gap mentality. Outer half pitches are getting punched out towards shortstop, or he’ll attack an inside pitch down the right field line. Hill showed the right steps forward in exit velocity and launch angle last year, and he came to Spring Training this year with more muscle. It’s a sign of a guy that knows the only thing standing between him and a Major League job is enough performance in the slugging percentage column to keep a path to “positive offensive player” open.

38. Ben Leeper, RH RP, 26, Iowa (Stats). Acquired: UDFA, 2020.

There are a lot of similarities with Leeper and #40 prospect Zac Leigh, both short right-handers with wipeout sliders and cutting four seamers. I’d say that Leeper’s fastball cuts more, while Leigh’s fastball rides more. Leigh gets that low 80s slurvy sweep, while Leeper throws a harder, straight-down gyro version. While the sweeper is more the rage these days, I think I’d bet that Leeper’s slider has slightly higher odds of big league success. The key will be getting to it, as Leeper battled issues allowing home runs during a June swoon, as I think the fastball command down-ticked a touch, with more fastballs finding the middle third and a barrel. Given the significant relative cut his heater achieves, it’s paramount that he locates exceptionally well to the gloveside corner, and if he does, we’ll see a multi-year big league career in 6th-8th innings.

37. Derniche Valdez, SS, 17, DSL Cubs. Acquired: IFA, 2023.

The prize of the recent International Free Agency class, Valdez is the player type the Cubs love to target with their largest bonus: shortstop by trade, power projection to dream on. I see the latter as the more realistic of those two outcomes, as Valdez has shown the ability to put on good weight and has the right kind of violence in his swing to project power down the line. But I do think there are enough reasons to wonder about the other four tools — a longer swing, non-explosive athleticism, etc. — to not warrant a top 30 spot quite yet. We’ll have plenty of years to hype Derniche to the moon when the results on the field match the love from the scouting community.

36. Pedro Ramirez, 2B/SS/CF, 19, Myrtle Beach (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2020.

There are guys that get it done on the backfields in front of scouts and crazy fans like me, and then there are the guys that get it done every time they play in games that matter. Ramirez’ scouting profile doesn’t quite jump off the page: it’s a short and mostly-maxed body type, the speed is more 55/60 than 65/70, the swings don’t suggest much power down the line. And yet, we’re 103 games into his pro career, and the .338/.402/.492 results have allowed him to build more and more respect and opportunity in the organization. Ramirez is a priority player now, as a switch-hitter with a sub-16% strikeout rate in the ACL is a lot more rare than it used to be. It’s also not just the pure slap-hitting style seemingly designed for bland contact, Ramirez has some twitchiness and legitimate bat speed. The Cubs tried him a bit in center field at Instructs, mostly because they know Cristian Hernández will hog away the shortstop innings, so Ramirez will likely split his 2023 between 2B, CF and a tiny bit still at short.

35. Jefferson Rojas, 2B, 18, ACL Cubs (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2021.

There are surely less people that know of Rojas than will agree with his ranking this high, but everything I’ve heard about Rojas suggests a guy that will blossom into a top ten Cubs prospect in due time. Plus athleticism. Increased physicality (which is the part of the game that worried me in the past). A feel for the barrel. While his professional debut in the DSL went great last summer, the plaudits that came from how well he showed out at Instructs last fall is where he earned this ranking. I think he’ll emerge this summer as the best player on the ACL team and have a lot more fans in six months.

34. Riley Thompson, RHP, 26, Iowa (Stats). Acquired: 11th round, 2018.

For an older prospect, Thompson’s 2022 season is a story of massive behind-the-scenes development. After missing 2021 with a shoulder injury that did not require surgery, Thompson arrived to Spring Training last year absolutely ready to go: I heard he was up to the upper 90s with the plus curveball back in bullpens in March. A hot start to the season hit the skids on May 5, when Thompson faced seven hitters, allowed them all to reach base (and all would eventually score). The Cubs saw something there and acted swiftly: Thompson was placed on the Developmental List for almost six weeks. In that time, in additional to some minor mechanical tweaks, Thompson implemented a slider into his mix. After a few starts to get back in the swing of things, Thompson was a revelation in the second half: 40.2 innings, 30 hits, 2.43 ERA, 20 BB, 42 K. He recently told Greg Zumach that he’s adapted the slider and added a two seamer this winter, giving him five pitches now (this guy is aces at getting better in offseason), two that showed plus more often than not last year. The pitching depth on the 40-man is going to demand a real breakout to make it to Wrigley, but I think Riley just might be capable.

33. Luis Devers, RH SP, 23, Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2017.

Perhaps no pitcher in the minors understands how to use hitter’s expectations against them like Devers. Whether it’s changing the timing of his delivery, his arm slot, pitching backwards with changeup in hitter’s counts, Devers is rarely showing a hitter the same thing twice in an at-bat (maybe even in a game). What’s amazing is how the execution doesn’t drop off with all these tweaks, a Cueto-ish skill where he locates just as well out of quick pitches as he does his regular delivery. He’s maximum fun. The Cubs are working to help his raw stuff get to Major League quality so he can succeed with the bag of tricks, and 2022 did show progress in the right direction. The fastball is trending in the right direction, as he’ll just need to eliminate as many of the 90-91 offerings as possible to get that floor up. The slider is still a work in progress, but it’s the pitch the Cubs are most comfortable with teaching right now, and they think they can get it over the hump. The star is the changeup, where velocity separation and command stand out more than movement. Double-A is going to be a test that tells us a lot in 2023.

32. Adan Sanchez, C, 18, ACL Cubs (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2021.

Sanchez accomplished everything you hope for from a bonus baby in their first year in the organization in 2022. His weight room work was successful and his raw skills successfully translated to the baseball diamond. You’ll hear plenty of credit for being mature above his years, leading to confidence that he’s going to stick behind the plate. Right now any damage with the bat seems to come pull side, but that’s a fine place to be at his age. He’ll have a few months of Extended Spring Training in Arizona this spring to keep honing his skills, and if he shows out in the Arizona Complex League, this ranking will be definitively trending up next year.

31. Luke Little, LHP, 22, South Bend (Stats). Acquired: 4th round, 2020.

It was damn near unfair for opposing hitters to have Little spend most of the season in Low-A, but the depth of the Cubs minor league rotations, and the nature of Little’s developmental to-do list kept him there until August. Little is simply one of the more uncomfortable at-bats in the minor leagues, a mountain of a southpaw, with this extremely slow and cross-fire delivery that builds and builds, before you get a heavy 96-97 sinker or sweeping slider flying in at you. The Cubs weren’t worried about results last year, but trying to build command endurance: could he maintain sufficient strike-throwing for even one time through the order? The results on that front were slightly mixed, even when he was barely ever allowing hard contact (so many lazy grounders). So the Cubs are in an interesting spot here. How long do you keep attempting the build-up to starting pitching? I do think the changeup (which he noted to Greg Z is evolving to a split-change) will get there, and he seems a prime cutter candidate down the line to round out the arsenal. But Little’s build combined with the effort in his delivery make it hard to imagine that we ever get to 5-6 consistent innings 25-30 times per year. The other option is embracing a move to short relief, and challenging him against the upper level hitters that his stuff would be a more fair fight against. I expect one more year of an attempt at the former before everyone involve embraces the inevitability (and success) of the latter.

30. Cam Sanders, RH RP, 26, Iowa (Stats). Acquired: 12th round, 2018.

I said before the Rule 5 Draft that Sanders would be the arm that I’d target from the organization if I was another team, and after seeing him so far to start this Spring, boy am I glad that no one agreed with me. It was long anticipated that Sanders would eventually move to the bullpen, and when the Cubs finally pulled the rip cord last summer, that jump to triple digits in fastball velocity followed. What held him back in the past was never quite finding the perfect main secondary offering; I’ve long liked the changeup more than most (including maybe Cam himself), and he loves to spin his loopy curveball early in the count. But we’ve seen this Spring a nastier slider than in the past, and if that’s been properly weaponized, I think he’s pretty clearly a big league reliever, with a chance at being an impactful late-inning one.

29. Luis Verdugo, 3B/SS, 22, Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2017.

There’s a real Jekyll and Hyde nature to Verdugo’s offense, with long samples of complete ineptitude followed by hot streaks that draw rampant praise from all corners of the organization. As a long-time believer in his raw skills, it was amazing to see Verdugo put it all together last year, both as the system’s best defensive third baseman as well as a really balanced offensive approach. His final 70 games: .298/.384/.456, with a 11.6 BB% and we-love-to-see-it 13.4 K%. Verdugo has great hands that show up on both sides of the ball, and while he’s not hyper-athletic by any means, there’s a fluidity in his movements that’s more than enough to succeed at the big league level. I think the Cubs are going to explore a move back to shortstop this Spring, which will be very interesting, as Verdugo has grown in height (and worked in the weight room) since he last played it. The balance of filling out a frame and maintaining middle infield athleticism is tricky, but there’s a path where he becomes a solid shortstop option for the duration of his twenties.

28. Drew Gray, LH SP, 20, Myrtle Beach (Stats). Acquired: 3rd round, 2021.

It’s never fun when a pitcher drawing tons of hope from the Scouting Department goes under the knife less than a year from signing into the organization, and yet, 2022 was always going to be a develop-off-the-field season for Gray anyway. The left-hander was drafted on the back of his exciting and elite spin rates, along with a projectable frame that has already seen tons of good weight added. I’ve heard from people around Gray in Arizona last year that he’s a very mature and hard worker, and the feeling is that we’re looking at a big season coming back from Tommy John this year. Expect to see extreme riding action on a 92-94 fastball (more velo would mean this ranking needs to be bumped up), and the Cubs will slowly work on tweaking the standard four-pitch mix into differing shapes that play off each other. Gray will likely build up slowly in Arizona for the next two months or so, but come summer, he’ll be an incredible midseason addition for Myrtle Beach.

27. Ed Howard, SS, 21, South Bend (Stats). Acquired: 1st round, 2020.

It was staggering when I first saw Howard on the backfields last summer, you just immediately could see how he’d continued to grow since I’d last seen him in person. I’m comfortable saying that he’s at least 6-foot-3, and I think we’re probably talking about an inch taller than that. The word last March on Howard was just that he was clearly seeing pitches so much better, after the long lay-off he’d seen caused by Covid in the year prior, the 2021 season was mostly spent training his eyes on the tough look of professional pitches. My optimism at that point was quite high, particularly because I’ve always thought Howard would also grow into average power as he aged. The problem here is that Howard suffered a quite significant hip injury when running to first in early May, one that required surgery and a very deliberate rehabilitation process. Howard’s excellent skills at shortstop were always more predicated on incredible footwork than raw athleticism, but still, if growth plus surgery lead to a drop in athleticism, we don’t want to see a future at shortstop taken off the table. I don’t think we’re there — I’ve heard the shortstop skills are looking good in Arizona — but we’ll have to monitor it in 2023, when he’ll return to South Bend.

26. Nazier Mulé, RHP/SS, 18, ACL Cubs. Acquired: 4th round, 2022.

It’s just exciting to have a talent like this in the organization, a ball of clay with an endless set of possibilities. While I’ll admit up front that I evaluate Naz almost exclusively as a pitcher — the hitter route is hard for me to envision in its current iteration — I love that the Cubs are going to allow him to spend 2023 exploring both avenues. We’re talking about an elite athlete here, with that twitchiness also producing elite arm speed. While already listed at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, the frame is still dripping in the potential of more muscle, giving the fastball all the (70-plus) potential in the world. The Cubs have already tweaked the slider a little bit, which I think we’ll see in the mid 80s with good gyro action. When he sees the plate, expect more singles and doubles than home runs given a level swing. The results on that side of the field mostly stem from pure instincts, which speaks to an intelligent ballplayer that will some day outthink big league hitters. I can’t wait to see this unique developmental ascent, even if everyone involved expects it will take a few years.

Author: Bryan Smith

Bryan Smith is a Minor League Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @cubprospects.