The 2023 BN Top Cubs Prospect List: 25-11, But I Swear, They’d Be Top Ten In A Lot of Systems
If you’ve missed it, this series started with a State of the System on Monday, a slew of Honorable Mentions on Tuesday, and we ranked the prospects 26-50 yesterday. Check those out if you haven’t.
Today we tackle 11-25 in descending order, which to me is a fascinating crew. You could tell me the Cubs build a future successful bullpen using just the arms below, but there’s also ambition for more than that from a few of the arms. The bats are a group of dudes with a series of exciting tools, but also the potential to be held back by one fatal flaw each.
I’ll tell you right now that I tiered these out pretty easily: 11-16 in one, 17-19 in another, and then 20-25 in a third (and that group probably extends a bit into a few of the guys in yesterday’s piece). But within those groups, man, you could probably convince me of just about any order. It’s a fun collection of guys to debate about. And that’s part of the fun of this prospecting business! Enjoy.
25. Kohl Franklin, RH SP, 23, South Bend (Stats). Acquired: 7th round, 2018.
Has: The projection that was long promised via Franklin’s 6-foot-4 frame and pedigree was realized last offseason, when Franklin’s work ethic off the field to add weight and muscle manifested on the field. The raw stuff was in the place the Cubs long dreamed it would get to, namely with a fastball that could approach triple digits without a lot of effort in his delivery. Oh yeah, and after missing 2021 with an injury, the changeup still showed out as his best pitch.
Shows: For as long as we’ve been dreaming about Franklin’s frame, there was also a member of the Cubs organization telling me that a slider would come at some point. Now is the time, as Franklin has adopted the whirly sweeper-slider grip and is showing progress with that offering. I think it’s necessary, as I think Franklin’s curveball is settling more in the average range. It’s a worthy pitch to stay in the starter’s arsenal, and I think having the full assortment will lead to better 2023 results.
Needs: To stop outings from snowballing. While I expected 2022 to be Franklin’s breakout season after some incredible Spring Training performances, it just wasn’t meant to be. The big Oklahoman ran into one big inning after the other all season, partially due to a lack of feel for his newfound fastball velocity, but part of it was due to his performance pitching from the stretch. Franklin allowed a .607 OPS with no one on base last year, but it jumped all the way to a 1.072 number with runners on. The Cubs will look at his delivery from the stretch, and his pitch usage in those scenarios, but will also bank on some regression-to-the-mean from the minor leagues’ 25th-worst LOB%.
24. Chase Strumpf, 3B/2B, 24, Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: 2nd round, 2019.
Has: With his work in the weight room and to decrease the grounders that his swing produces, Strumpf has become elite at doing damage when he makes contact. It’s a testament to the player development staff that Strumpf essentially doubled his average in HR/FB% last year, as he’s been coached to lean into his physicality and ability to backspin a baseball. He gets into a crouch in his swing and then explodes up on the baseball. This guy is a menace against fastballs in particular, with the bat speed necessary to pull pitches at any velocity with solid exit velos. He’s also run a 15% walk rate for most of his minor league career, both adding value with extra trips to first base, and signaling that he sees location really well out of a pitcher’s hand (if not spin, as you’ll see below).
Shows: You know, I thought 2022 was a big step forward for this guy defensively. There have always been a lot of questions out there, and while there’s nothing I can pinpoint that changed besides some surehandedness, I think Strumpf created some optimism that he’ll be able to make things work at third base, and that he’s a very adequate fill-in option at second.
Needs: If there’s any reason that Strumpf hasn’t been able to garner a higher standing in the organization’s infield plans, it’s some level of doubt on how he will fare against big league breaking balls. His chase rate on good breakers is higher than you’d like, as is his contact rate against those pitch types in the zone.
23. Moises Ballesteros, C, 20, Myrtle Beach (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2020.
Has: Whatever you want to call the hitting gene, Ballesteros has it. He starts in an extremely relaxed open batting stance, his hands down by his back shoulder, before a big step that he uses as a timing mechanism with some busy pre-swing bat activity … none of this is what you might teach to your Little Leaguer. But with elite hand-eye coordination, it works great. Ballesteros sees pitches really well, walking at a good rate for someone so young, and he doesn’t let that big step catch him too far out in front versus offspeed. He does a good job of holding his weight back, firing that back hip and in turn producing plus bat speed. Ballesteros naturally has a good feel for back spin, and there’s an easy plus raw power grade here. But he also doesn’t sell out for it and trusts his approach.
Shows: The natural assumption is that Ballesteros’ heavy frame can’t possibly stick behind the plate, but the Cubs aren’t close to giving up on it. Moises has a good strong arm and draws credit for a really good work ethic. It’s fair to worry if his lateral quickness will only get worse, but that’s a bridge the Cubs will cross when he gets farther up the ladder.
Needs: It’s probably a good sign that I don’t have anything great for this section. If anything, Ballesteros just needs more and more reps against really good pitches, for his plate approach to be challenged and evolve. You’d like more balls in the air, but I think that’s going to just happen with age. If he does end up the DH/C/1B type, he’ll need to slug a lot to be viable, so the offensive ambition must be higher than most other hitting prospects in the system.
22. Ryan Jensen, RHP, 24, Iowa (Stats). Acquired: 1st round, 2019.
Has: I think I’ve touted Jensen’s fastballs in this space every year since he’s been drafted, and I’ll tell you what, I’m going to do it again. His sinker has been an incredible offering since college with the horizontal movement it achieves at an elite velocity (I mean could we see 99 mph with 20 inches of run somewhat consistently? That’s absurd). During his minor league career, the Cubs have upped the usage of the four-seam fastball that runs a nice contrast and plays up in the zone. But the big development during a trip to the Developmental List last year was the addition of a cutter (in this case, the cut-fastball terminology is more apropos) that Jensen can run up to 95 mph. The trio can play off each other to guys on both sides of the plate, and there’s increased confidence it’s going to work in the big leagues, which I think was the reason he earned a 40-man roster spot this winter.
Shows: Jensen could succeed in college for 6-8 innings mostly on the back of one pitch, so it’s pretty incredible that he sits here today with six offerings. The slider is the offspeed that inspires the most hope, he’ll show it in the 85-87 range with a foot of horizontal movement. The curveball and changeup lag behind a bit, but there are places for them as show-me pitches to mess with hitters.
Needs: Jensen’s feel, particularly when he’s trying to throw a strike in a three-ball count, does draw some concern. The Cubs shortened his arm path last year during the aforementioned DevList stint with that in mind, and I think we’ll get a better idea (given more time with the changes) this year to see its impact. He’s going to start the year in a rotation somewhere, I think, but the role going forward might be a two-inning middle relief role. Given his ability to generate ground balls, it would just be nice if a manager could bring him into a dirty inning and feel confidence that he won’t hand out free passes.
21. Kevin Made, SS/2B, 21, South Bend (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2019.
Has: Plays baseball with the instinct of a tip-top prospect across the board. Defensively, he gets a shortstop grade for me, even when the tools don’t jump out, because his first step is really good. He puts himself in a position for highlight-reel plays. Offensively, Made mixes good bat speed with good pitch recognition; it seems like he’s able to hold back and make his swing decision a few milliseconds after his peers.
Shows: Jumping off the end of the last paragraph, the notable thing from 2022 was that Made was able to use that skill to swing less often. He more than quadrupled his walk rate from 2021 to 2022, mostly by allowing himself to not just target every pitch around the zone he thought he could make contact on. He also cut his groundball rate in a massive way, as he better utilized his hips in his swing, causing him to not just somewhat-aimlessly throw his hands at every pitch around the zone.
Needs: And still, I think you have to wonder if Made hits the ball hard enough consistently to be a big leaguer. You’ll see some raw power in batting practices that gives hope, but the A-ball results suggest an offensive profile that doesn’t project well. This is a boom or bust profile, where I can both see Made as a big league regular, but also as a guy that really struggles at the upper levels.
20. Jordan Nwogu, OF, 23, Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: 3rd round, 2020.
Has: Both the physical profile of an elite offensive player and the intelligent mind to understand the right ways to make adjustments. Nwogu has been tinkered with so much because of a non-conventional swing, and while he’s adopted a lot of those changes, he’s also gone back to embracing some of what’s always made him successful. Nwogu gets into a lower crouch than most pro hitters are taught anymore, with his front shoulder really closed off to the pitcher (I realized last night that Pete Alonso has a similar set-up). Nwogu likes to prioritize sitting on outer half pitches, seeing balls for a long time, and then utilizes a quick swing that comes up from the ground, through a strong lower half with fast hands and strong wrists. While it might not be conventional, it all leads to one of the better swing decision profiles among top hitting prospects.
Shows: We started to see a lot more of the power that gives Nwogu so much ceiling as last season went on, peaking in a three homer game in August. Over his final 70 games in South Bend, Nwogu would slug 14 homers, lending credence to the belief that there’s 30 homer upside here. It’s just about finding the right balance of allowing himself to hit for power on the right pitches, but not searching for it, as homer-happy stretches cause his front shoulder to fly open and upset his swing’s timing. As an outfielder, Nwogu takes good routes to balls, has above-average speed and a below-average arm. I’m grading him here as a left fielder but one with the potential to end up a positive.
Needs: A prolonged stretch of putting all the offensive pieces together. Nwogu has shown stretches of every offensive skill needed to be an everyday player, but very rarely have they been concurrent with each other. Given the unconventional swing mechanics and the offensive demands that LF/DH convey, Nwogu will have to leave no doubt with his results on the field. The second half in South Bend was a step in the right direction, but it needs to be a jumping off point more than a taste.
19. Jeremiah Estrada, RH RP, 24, Iowa (Stats). Acquired: 7th round, 2018.
Has: The best fastball in the organization. Estrada naturally is elite at keeping his fingers behind the ball when throws four seam, which (and I’ll admit this is a bit over my head) leads to some of baseball’s most elite riding action. The pitch simply appears to a hitter like it’s rising, and a large majority he throws would earn a plus-plus grade. Estrada began to throw harder as last season went along, his first healthy one after many bad-luck seasons, and when up to 97-98, you feel like he’s a closer. (I’ll also add that Estrada has a great mound temperament for big innings. He comes straight at the hitters, and isn’t afraid to challenge them in the zone.)
Shows: What really fueled Estrada’s four-level breakout last year, though, was learning the whirly slider that added a second out pitch to the mix. It’s basically a two-seam fastball grip that Estrada throws like a curveball, and it gets a good 12 mph of velocity separation off the heater. But because the pitch doesn’t have a huge track record in the organization, and because it looked a bit rusty in the Spring Training outing I saw him pitch this year, it falls in this section. Most likely, it’s nasty and plus moving forward.
Needs: He just needs to be prove, and he’ll keep needing to prove, that he can be healthy for 50-60 games a year. That’s it at this point, as the rest of the tools for dependable big league reliever are there.
18. Miguel Amaya, C, 24, Iowa (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2016.
Has: It was so impressive that Amaya was dropped into Double-A last year after a long Tommy John-induced layoff, and from the moment of his three-hit first game there, seemed comfortable at the plate. I’ve been told that’s also the expectation with his defense this year, that he’s viewed as a natural catcher that won’t be as impacted by the time away (lately from a Lisfranc fracture) as others would be. He plays with a relaxed comfort and lack of anxiousness that teammates really respond to, and it shows with a plate approach that is more advanced than you’d think from a guy with just 278 minor league full-season games under his belt.
Shows: Amaya’s swing had some obvious changes last year, namely a steepened attack angle, built around encouraging him to access the power he shows in batting practice. The key now is getting comfortable with the swing and finding the contact point necessary to pull more homers to left field. An all-fields approach is nice to have, but optimism around Amaya is on the potential to be a 20+ homer guy in the bigs. He’ll need to be a bit more aggressive to cheat on early-count fastballs to get there.
Needs: Health, reps, and time. Amaya will be out of options when the 2024 season rolls around, which not only impacts his value to the Cubs individually, but to all Major League organizations (if not for that fact, he’d rank a good five spots higher). The 2023 season demands he really gives all 30 organizations plenty of opportunity to build confidence in their evaluation of him as a defensive catcher and whether he can consistently make the hard contact he’ll need to thrive at the highest level.
17. DJ Herz, LHP, 22, Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: 8th round, 2019.
Has: A rare blend of raw stuff and deception, hitters just don’t see the ball well against Herz at all. We’ve discussed his delivery plenty over the years, but to recap, he’s as cross-fire as any pitcher you’ll see, showing big extension diagonally down the mound and to his left. For left-handed hitters, every pitch starts at their back. For righties, everything looks way off the plate. Herz is a super fluid and flexible athlete, and he’s added plenty of strength over the years. His feel for a changeup is special, and its deception only adds to a hitter’s confusion in the box. Opponents just don’t get hits against him.
Shows: The big talk around Herz this offseason has been the sweeping slider they’ve added to the mix. Given the unique horizontal release point he offers, the expectation is Herz will benefit from this horizontal pitch offering more than most. If it becomes plus like those in the organization expect, it will make for a very high floor for Herz, as he’ll be able to at least lean on a career making left-handed hitters miserable.
Needs: Despite some epic success in A-ball, the disaster inning is something that definitely follows Herz around. When he reached Double-A, Herz met hitters that weren’t anxious to swing against him, and they allowed him to beat himself. He needs to prove able to throw pitcher’s pitches when down in the count, because too often he’ll fall into a trap of either missing the zone by a lot, or throwing something right down the middle. I see it as a mental hurdle more than anything else, because when in a groove he’s able to execute pitches to all parts of the zone with ease. 2023 is an important season to show improved feel, as more of the same probably leads to the move to relief that some see as inevitable.
16. James Triantos, 3B, 20, South Bend (Stats). Acquired: 2nd round, 2021.
Has: Fantastic plate coverage. Triantos has one of the calmer pre-swing operations in the system, and I’ve always described his swing as one of “controlled violence.” The former second-round pick has great hand-eye coordination, and it’s simply very difficult to beat him. Coaches and teammates love the competitive fire that Triantos plays with, and his work ethic will serve him well as he continues in his development. There’s a possibility of someone that matures into a plus-plus hit tool here.
Shows: I think the defense has been dissected too much for someone his age. Triantos has a plus arm from his pitching days, and while not a laterally-exciting athlete, I think he’d end up a fine and steady second baseman if the Cubs wanted to pursue it. After not looking super comfortable at third to start last year, I thought he was very solid there in the second half. No reason to think he won’t find a home on the dirt and be totally competent in time.
Needs: Triantos’ build lacks in physicality just enough that he likely won’t be able to depend just on bat speed for the power necessary to stay at the hot corner. The very pretty swing will eventually need to be tweaked a bit to add leverage, which I think will be possible given that he already uses the ground pretty well. Another part of this process will be improving swing decisions, which in this case probably means swinging less, particularly in balls within an inch of the outside corner (both in and out of the zone).
15. Daniel Palencia, RHP, 22, Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2019.
Has: Let’s call it a 75 grade fastball, which I say mostly out of respect of not throwing around a perfect score too lightly. Palencia will have outings where he’ll sit 98-100 and can touch a tick or two higher, and he does so out of a low release point that makes for an impossible fastball in the upper third. I was told that if the Cubs were competitive last season, they would have considered promoting Palencia from A-ball to the big leagues in September, because they were so confident that he could succeed there with an extreme fastball-heavy pitch usage.
Shows: He’s a guy where it really depends who you talk to about the secondaries. There are times when the slider feels like a cutter and can go at about 92-95 mph, and there are times it will be in the high 80s with a more traditional side depth-and-sweep blend. If he can find some marriage of the two to get consistent shape, plenty feel like it’s a plus pitch waiting to happen. The curveball took a backseat last year but had a fair share of fans in 2021, and he’ll throw some good changeups now and again that leave confidence.
Needs: I think the previous section just speaks to the need for consistency in Palencia’s execution. In the second half, we saw a guy with a much greater willingness to attack hitters dead-on. This is how the Cubs want him to pitch, unafraid and aggressive. An odd statistical oddity last year was that Palencia had more success against lefties than righties, despite this insane difference in walk rate: 17.7 BB% vs LHH, 4% (FOUR) versus RHH. Once he pitches with the belief that he’s better than everybody, sky is the limit.
14. Caleb Kilian, RH SP, 25, Iowa (Stats). Acquired: Trade, July 2021.
Has: We saw in those first few Major League innings the potential in Kilian’s arm. He showed excellent starter velocity, but also a two-seamer with some seam-shifted wake, his cutter is my favorite of his pitches, and a curveball that was working at the big league level. The pitch mix of a big league innings eater — if maybe a bit short of a true difference making starter — are in place. (There’s also a new slider and a lot of work pouring into the changeup, but let’s see those in action before placing them in a certain section here.)
Shows: Let’s address the command problems here, because in 2021 he was a guy that threw a ton of strikes. But in 2022 he was a mess, unable to locate his fastballs consistently. Kilian and the Cubs have hinted at identifying a mechanical issue, which Kilian named to CHGO as his landing point with his left foot causing his body to fly open. In a good Spring Training appearance, I noticed how deliberately behind the ball Kilian seemed to be staying, which I’m guessing might be another trick to improve his feel.
Needs: Could there also be a mental hurdle that needs to be overcome? Kilian’s control problems were unleashed during his big league cup of coffee, but they then followed him for the rest of the season. He’ll start 2023 in Iowa, and he’ll need to prove that he can make mid-start adjustments to battle through mechanical issues better than last year. And then when he again gets the call to Wrigley, he’ll need to prove that the adrenaline rush of pitching in the big leagues isn’t something to throw him out of whack.
13. Jackson Ferris, LH SP, 19, Myrtle Beach. Acquired: 2nd round, 2022.
Has: One of the most projectable pitchers I can ever remember the Cubs having in their system. Ferris is 6-foot-4 and put in good weight room work at IMG Academy last year, and still, there’s so much potential for more muscle that could send his fastballs from good to special (particularly how lower half strength will help in his leg block). They are currently low-to-mid 90s pitches, but he’s seen 96 in the past, and the Cubs feel like it will be a regular occurrence in a year or three.
Shows: The feel for strike-throwing will come and go, which really gets into a question of mechanics (which will also impact the velocity numbers mentioned above). Ferris moves his body in a unique way in his delivery, getting into his backside and tilting his back, which skeptics might see as non-linear momentum towards home plate. He also combines a long arm swing and wrist wrap that the Cubs have worked with aforementioned pitchers Ryan Jensen and D.J. Herz at quieting, though for all involved (including Ferris), it does add a good bit of helpful deception.
Needs: Time in the Lab will be big here, as Ferris shows the right skills to throw a good four-pitch mix, but no secondary feels like it’s quite the right iteration. I expect he’s going to start in Extended Spring Training and be a big project for promoted-to-Arizona pitching coach Tony Cougoule, who was really successfully adding pitches to player’s arsenals in South Bend last year. I really expect in time that the slider, curveball and changeup all evolve from what they were last season, and yet at the same time, what they were last season inspires confidence that any could become plus.
12. Alexander Canario, OF, 23, Injured List (Stats). Acquired: Trade, July 2021.
Has: I’ll be honest, my excitement about Canario was likely to manifest in a top-4 (and I was going to consider arguments up to 2) ranking had his offseason injuries not occurred. While in 2021 Canario had both in-game power and more raw power to dream one, in 2022 it was all realized. His combination of strength, core mobility, and bat speed are special stuff. He was also peaking in power while simultaneously accessing all of his athleticism elsewhere on the diamond. Canario went 17-for-18 on the base paths in the final three months, and was playing a good center field for Tennessee for awhile during the summer. What a mix.
Shows: What made Canario’s July so exciting was how his strikeout rate was dropping in accordance with his power most seriously emerging. He was making far better swing decisions, swinging at less fringe pitches and allowing himself to get deep enough into at-bats to see that one relatively easy to hit pitch. And he wasn’t missing it. Canario has patience at the plate, sure, but the two-strike approach can get messy. Strikeouts will always be a part of his game, but the difference between 22 and 38 percent rates are massive, and both are in play.
Needs: Canario suffered two surgery-required injuries in one trip down the first base line over the winter, injuring both his shoulder and ankle. It looks he’ll start some baseball activities soon, and it will be a great story over the summer when he returns. But expectations won’t really return until 2024, and the most important thing between now and then is the rehabilitation work necessary to not lose any athleticism.
11. Porter Hodge, RH SP, 22, South Bend (Stats). Acquired: 8th round, 2019.
Has: Pretty much the personification of the pitch mix the Cubs are prioritizing right now. Hodge supinates the baseball as much as anyone you’ll see, which made him the ideal candidate to throw a sweeper that can get 20+ inches of horizontal movement. It also provides legitimate cut movement on his four-seam fastball; it’s a pitch (like Ethan Roberts) that will break MLB Gameday’s pitch recognition algorithm … they will call it a cutter. Hodge’s velocity kept ticking up as last season went along, peaking at 98 mph in an August Midwest League start. The slider is a true 65 grade for me, an absolute frisbee that guarantees a floor as a reliever.
Shows: Hodge took control of his career a year ago, making the decision to lose weight and increase his flexibility. He saw immediate results, and it informed greater and greater work ethic, which then continued to manifest in greater results. Hodge has a great 6-foot-4 frame that does still have muscular potential, and you really wonder where things will go when that’s all realized. I’ll also throw here that I really like Hodge’s curveball, which is probably the offering he’s most comfortable with when he gets into tighter situations.
Needs: The only question I have about Hodge, who was truly one of my five or so favorite players to watch in the system last year, it’s really a hypothetical one. I worry sometimes that Hodge pitches so much on the side of the baseball that he’ll go through stretches where the feel will escape him. Is the walk rate going to get to a place — like eight percent or so — that keeps him in a rotation? I think it can, but I can also see a path where it’s slightly too high and he ends up in relief.