The 2023 BN Top Ten Chicago Cubs Prospects
We made it. Thank you all for the kind words on last week’s big look into the system, which included a dive on the organization’s player development, fortysomething guys who just missed, some fun ceilings in the 26-50 range, and some fun debates with that 11-25 group. While I’ve tweaked this top 10’s order a few times this offseason, since my first rough draft in October it has been these ten names.
Today’s reports have the same Has/Shows/Needs sections as in the past, but this year I added a section called Track. I just wanted to have a space to talk about where I think the player will be assigned out of the gate this season, and how the expectations of that assignment fit into their long-term development plan.
Enjoy … I’m off to Mesa and those backfields.
10. Ben Brown, RH SP, 23, Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: Trade, July 2022.
Has: The fastball-curveball combination gives Brown a foundation that a lot can be built from. As a starter, while Brown will show two other pitches, the usage of these two will carry the way. The fastball had very good whiff rates and has carry at 94-98 mph. The curveball is among the more unique in baseball, essentially hitters will think of it like a slider with significant vertical break. Brown gets that curve up to 85, even 86 mph sometimes, and his comfort with it both early and late in the count is huge. In modern baseball, I think you’ll see it become the pitch he throws the most often. If he moves into relief, he’ll ride that two-pitch mix right into late inning usage.
Shows: Brown felt like he wore down athletically as last season went along, understandable for someone that threw 88 more innings in 2022 than 2021 (the year he returned from Tommy John surgery). It manifested itself with an increase in walks after the Cubs acquired him, and after a promotion to Double-A. Brown spent a considerable amount of this offseason at the Cubs Mesa complex, working in the weight room to add the blend of muscle and flexibility that will help get him to be a 120+ inning guy with no mechanical breakdown along the way.
Needs: The third and fourth pitch have been a priority this offseason. I’ve heard the changeup is further along than the slider at this juncture, both new grips that he has learned since joining the organization. The Cubs will allow him to wean both pitches into his pitch mix, but if he’s having trouble implementing them fully, I wouldn’t be shocked if he spent a couple weeks midseason back in Arizona on the Developmental List working on integrating them completely.
Track: Brown will begin the 2023 season back in the Double-A Tennessee rotation and on the 40-man roster. He will be an option as a second starter on midseason doubleheaders if the day lines up right, but mostly I think the goal is that he pitches well enough to move to Iowa midseason and put himself on the 2024 radar. Any September cup of coffee will be a bonus.
9. Owen Caissie, OF, 21, Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: Trade, December 2020.
Has: There is an overwhelming confidence that Caissie’s power is coming, and when it fully arrives, that it will be the plus tool that carries him to the big leagues. Caissie is not done physically filling out his big 6-foot-4 frame, and the incoming strength will only help in the home run department. He doesn’t sell out for power at all, still operating with something of an inside-out, opposite-field philosophy. I’m confident the Cubs will be able to get the groundball rate down and more hard-hit balls pulled to right field; this is usually something that begins happening at the Double-A level, actually. When he does barrel the ball, Caissie’s exit velocity numbers inspire a lot of confidence about the hitter he’s growing into. (Also, to a man, this is who all the other prospects say knows the most about hitting.)
Shows: Caissie fought his plate approach a lot more than I expected in 2022, as the Cubs challenged him with a High-A assignment out of the gate, and then with a stint in the Arizona Fall League. In both places it took him some time to get comfortable, and during that interim, he didn’t lean on his patience at the plate as much as you’d like to see. The plate coverage and the ball tracking is good enough that Caissie should be a 12+ percent walk guy moving forward if he prioritizes it. Some swing and miss is inevitable; long levers and a flat swing path do make him a bit susceptible against high heat.
Needs: It will be easy for a guy of his profile to be pegged as a platoon player down the line, so Caissie needs a good season against southpaws to fight that argument before it begins (the World Baseball Classic home run will help). Increased flexibility would help both at the plate and in the field, though I do think we saw that more in 2022, when he played a far better outfield than he did in 2021. First base still remains as an option down the line, but it doesn’t feel like the guaranteed inevitability that it did one year ago.
Track: I think he’s headed toward being one of the younger players in Double-A, but he’ll likely be spending the entire 2023 season there in Kodak. There’s absolutely no rush at this point, the Cubs wouldn’t be opposed to even send him back there in 2024 if the power is still being realized. Caissie is still so young.
8. Cade Horton, RH SP, 22, South Bend (Stats). Acquired: 1st round, 2022.
Has: To go from a guy with a career collegiate ERA above nine to a top 10 pick in six weeks demands a ridiculous jump forward in stuff, and that’s what we have here, the best across-the-board stuff guy in the system. Horton’s career took off when he brought a slider from playing catch to games, ultimately peaking in a dominant NCAA tournament run. The pitch did have some inconsistency in movement, as you might expect with a new toy, but pretty much every version was excellent. I think eventually the Cubs will separate it into two: a wipeout offering in the 85-88 range and a cutter-ish version in the 90-92 range. Because of plus athleticism, he was able to find command it well enough to have it be his primary pitch, allowing him to finish off hitters with a 95-98 mph cut-carry fastball.
Shows: Let’s be honest, the reason I have Horton ranked here is because everything was just something he “showed” for a very brief amount of time last year. It’s hard until we see more on tape to have total confidence in what Horton is and isn’t right now. I threw out Dylan Cease as a comp on draft day, but it’s pretty impossible to have a ton of confidence in projections at this point.
Needs: The tools in place the Cubs have to measure consistency – with both mechanics and pitch shape – will be paramount to maximizing Horton’s potential. I think the curveball and changeup probably get new grips, and we mentioned how the slider might even split into two. I like the delivery, but there will be bumps on the road where he’ll fight it, and the Cubs will need to step in and show him how to find that best strike-throwing self.
Track: Horton threw 53.2 innings last year in games, so the Cubs will probably be looking at about 80-90 this year. I expect he’ll start by facing 9-15 hitters for a handful of outings before slowly increasing it, peaking at about 80-pitch starts in summer. It remains to be seen if it’s Myrtle Beach or South Bend to start, but he’ll be in Indiana at some point.
7. Jordan Wicks, LH SP, 23, Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: 1st round, 2021.
Has: Six pitches now, which he used to maintain a healthier strikeout rate than you might expect from someone with the “polished college pitcher, back end starter” narrative around them. Wicks’ changeup is still my favorite offering, and I think that hitter’s swings and the results vsRHH tell you more than the pitch data behind it. However, he hasn’t been super comfortable in using that pitch against lefties, and so it was a blessing that he developed great feel of a slider so quickly last year. Lance Brozdowski at Marquee has said that it’s his offering with the highest Stuff+ grade because of the sweep he gets.
Shows: From the first time I watched Wicks on tape, I wanted him to add a cutter (perhaps it’s just that he sort of looks like Jon Lester out on a mound), and late last season we saw it. The pitch was designed as a soft contact offering, and it surprised everyone involved as it produced an above-average whiff rate in Double-A. I think Wicks will eventually be a four-seam/cutter/changeup guy against righties and a fastball/slider/curveball guy against lefties primarily, but he also has the mentality that you get a feel pregame for what’s not working, toss it out, and still feel confidence that you have more than enough tools to win with.
Needs: There’s an open question out there whether the fastballs need a touch more to get where he’s going. The Cubs do believe a little more velocity is possible if an all-out effort is made to achieve it, but you also wouldn’t want to sacrifice command for just another tick. Wicks contact profile involves a little more hard contact than you’d like to see from a top pitching prospect, but despite his age and experience, I do think that might get ironed out as he gets more experience utilizing his full arsenal around the entire strike zone.
Track: I’ll be really curious how the Cubs will handle Wicks if he comes out of the gate on fire. There’s some thinking that because he’s not Rule 5 eligible until December 2024 (meaning he doesn’t need a 40-man spot this year), you keep the development really slow. But I think first round picks often escape that business of baseball, 40-man nonsense, and when he shows he’s ready, you move him up. I don’t think Wrigley this season is off the table.
6. Cristian Hernández, SS, 19, Myrtle Beach (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2020.
Has: He really does have the starter kit for being a difference maker, with a fluidity in his movements that just stands out above everyone else in the system. The part of his game that drew the most praise last year was on defense, where Hernández looked the part of an everyday shortstop. He moves very well laterally, has improved his footwork since joining the organization, and has more than enough arm for the position.
Shows: We’ve yet to see the power-speed combination really show up in games, but there’s enough you see in workouts to have confidence it’s there. Hernández’ swing explodes through the zone, and his batting practices certainly suggest a slugger in waiting. He’s still rail skinny and dripping in projection, we’re probably 25 pounds of muscle away from where we’d headed. I also think spending 2023 with legendary manager Buddy Bailey is going to be good for his habits and preparation, which will in turn lead to more day-to-day consistency in the box scores.
Needs: The priority needs to be making more contact, even if you have to sacrifice some of the beautiful violence in that swing. Early videos from this year show the Cubs are working to quiet some of his pre-swing stuff, and his finish is far more controlled than in the past. But I think the biggest thing is the mental hurdle of thinking about being quick to the ball and trusting your barrel to do the work instead of trying to kill the ball and just getting too long as a result. Trusting the process is harder than it sounds.
Track: He’s headed towards full season ball, and the plan is almost surely to spend the entire 2023 season in Myrtle Beach. Sure, he could force the issue with an absolute bust out, but that’s not even the expectation.
5. Matt Mervis, 1B, 24, Iowa (Stats). Acquired: UDFA, 2020.
Has: I met Matt in October at the Arizona Fall League, and the first thing to say is: this man is a brick house. He made teammate Jasson Dominguez, the Yankees prospect literally nicknamed The Martian, look small in comparison (particularly in the shoulders). It was in that context that I could really appreciate that this power breakout in 2022, one that spawned a nickname, comes from a legitimate place. Mervis does a phenomenal job of holding his back hip and then exploding through the ball with a stiff lead leg. Mervis will cheat a little bit pull-side, but the juice is worth the squeeze in the end.
Shows: Last year was a whirlwind, but the success came around a plate approach that Mervis was able to keep adapting as the year went along. In High-A, he was able to sit dead-red on fastballs and be ready to fire whenever he saw one around the zone. The better breaking balls in Double-A made him a more patient hitter, and then the fastballs were few and far between when he got to the backwards-pitching Triple-A level. Processing that much so quickly can jumble a plan a little bit, and I think it will be useful for Mervis to dial into that plate approach this year in Iowa and then carry it with him when the promotion to Wrigley occurs.
Needs: Mobility is the big thing to me that Mervis will have to keep an eye on as he ages. There can be a stiffness to his movements – it’s the reality of his size and brand of athleticism – and he’ll need to just keep battling that with his off-field flexibility work. I think he can play something a stone’s throw from average at first base right now. In the years ahead, sticking there will take continued work.
Track: It’s Iowa to start, and the hope is that he catches fire again and beats the door down before too long. In my perfect world, he’s starting five times per week come Memorial Day.
4. Hayden Wesneski, RH SP, 25, Chicago (Stats). Acquired: Trade, July 2022.
Has: Those gloveside-moving pitches are special. The slider gets all the love, and it deserves it, a frisbee with 20 inches of horizontal break. But it’s his location of the pitch down in the zone, a strike when he wants it to be, and a chase when he can afford it to be, that makes the pitch play up at a plus-plus level. And I think there’s a good case his cutter is the most underrated offering in the organization, particularly in the way he can manipulate a hitter’s eye level with it. I’m not surprised it’s the pitch that yielded the lowest exit velocity of his offerings last year. Those two pitches combined for 44.3% usage last year, I’m wondering if they top 50 in 2023.
Shows: All we’ve seen so far are the positive ways in which Wesneski’s mound presence benefits him. He’s a crazy-man out there in the best way, stalking around the mound between batters, cussing at himself for minor misses in neutral counts, that wonderful closed-eyed deep breath before each pitch. When he’s in a groove, it creates a personality that fans are rightly already falling in love with. I’m still a bit curious – because it hasn’t happened yet – if it all serves a positive purpose when things start to snowball on him.
Needs: I’m on the record as being curious if his fastballs will hold up as enough. The sinker probably has enough lateral movement to work in its current form, particularly when Wesneski is locating like he did in 2022. The four seamer I’m a bit more dubious about. Those times it clocks in at 91-92 aren’t going to be big league sufficient, I think the hope will continue to be that he can raise the floor on that pitch.
Track: I think he’s got a real chance at Rookie of the Year. I think he’s going to be one of the Cubs best three starters, and I think he’s going to be a stalwart of the Cubs rotation for the duration of the 2020’s.
3. Kevin Alcántara, CF/RF, 21, South Bend (Stats). Acquired: Trade, July 2021.
Has: Sometimes with the super-tooled up players, we’re so busy marveling at what they can do that we forget to appreciate how they play the game. But what I loved about Kevin’s 2022 season was appreciating the different ways his instincts create positive baseball results. He’s able to play a good center field not due to great foot speed, but due to an elite first step (I think he’s going to make a special defensive right fielder). He picks and chooses the right times to steal. He reads curveball spin out of a pitcher’s hand well and can sit back and wait for it. When he’s struggling, he did a good job leaning into his plate approach and seeing more pitches. Just someone who is always helping the team.
Shows: He doesn’t really see the negative consequences of his super long levers at the plate. Alcántara is really good at getting his hands in and getting good contact on inside pitches, which is the way he’ll be pitched his entire career. He doesn’t have bad habits in terms of leaking open or cheating pull-side, in fact he does a nice job of staying through the ball, often inside-outing pitches to right field. And yet, when he catches one flush, they sure go far. More coming in that department.
Needs: Weight and muscle. Muscle and weight. Weight and muscle. Muscle and weight.
Track: He’ll start with a couple low-pressure months in South Bend – that April cold will be new for him, I imagine – and then we’ll see. I think the Cubs would move him to Double-A if the results are there. Also think he’ll get a look at LIDOM next winter, which would be fun. This year’s results will probably tell us where on the mid-2024 to mid-2025 spectrum that Alcantara’s ETA lies.
2. Brennen Davis, OF, 23, Iowa (Stats). Acquired: 2nd round, 2018.
Has: Big league power. After my rankings last year, I went to Arizona for Spring Training, and Davis was one of the best three hitters on the big league squad. His power would have been a welcome addition to last year’s Chicago team, but alas, his back had other ideas. I feel pretty confident that he’ll get back the power stroke in 2023, as he’s put in the weight room work to earn those balls over the fence.
Shows: For years I’ve always talked about how quick Davis has been to adapt and figure it out, allowing the Cubs to keep playing with his swing as he grew and power became a bigger part of the calculus. Well now the part that needs figuring out is how to get the strikeout rate down to 25 percent. Last year, Davis had the look of someone lacking confidence in his own swing decisions, you’d get a lot of check or half-hearted swings. He was fighting his instincts, which I think is natural for someone that was hurting in April, and rusty in September. Some strikeouts will be there, though I do wonder if the Cubs might look to steepen the attack angle a bit, as Davis is susceptible to dumping his barrel and getting beat in the upper third.
Needs: To get back to being an athlete. The back injury last year just led to a stiffness in Davis’ movements that impacted his game at all levels. The mobility, the flexibility, the twitchiness of his younger self was all gone. I think there’s a middle ground to be found, and I hope that the offseason work away from the diamond was with increased athleticism in mind. I’m not asking for a five tool player here, I’ll take an average left field with plenty of fluidity in the batter’s box.
Track: There is no timetable in 2023 on Davis’ ETA. The priority is at-bats in Iowa, and rediscovering his comfort in playing the game day in and out. If his results warrant the big leagues, it’s right there, and might be particularly available after the Trade Deadline.
1. Pete Crow-Armstrong, CF, 21, Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: Trade, July 2021.
Has: The floor of someone that’s going to add at least a win’s worth of defensive value to his team every year for the next decade. I don’t think the skills in the field have been overhyped, even if it seems this has been the offseason of walking about his skills in the field. The jumps are great, the arm seems improved this spring from last year, the closing speed is excellent. But Jordan Nwogu mentioned to me that he learned a ton from PCA last year in glove awareness, Pete has talked before about feeling the glove as an extension of his hand. Simply put, he’ll be competing for a Gold Glove the instant he is called up to the big leagues. Also, let me predict here that I think we’re getting 40 steals in 2023.
Shows: Boy was I impressed with the power he showed last year. I thought it was years away and would be a minor part of the equation, but he really had a good feel for the pitches he could look to pull with some uppercut tilt. He’s added a good deal of muscle in the last five months, and when combined with his plus bat speed, I think we’re looking at a consistent 20 home run future.
Needs: To swing less. I was a bit slow in 2022 to admit that PCA had overtaken the number one spot in my rankings, and it was because I think smoothing out the consistency with the bat really boils down to improving his swing decisions. Pete’s a gamer, and so his natural instinct is to swing his way out of slumps, and so we get longer gaps between base on balls than we probably should. His value on the basepaths will be best utilized if he’s running a double-digit walk rate, and I think that will be preached in his ear a lot this season. You love that he’s a guy that wants to bat leadoff and swing at the first pitch of the game to get things started, but there’s something to be said for smoothing out those anxious instincts, too.
Track: He’ll be off to Tennessee to start this season, with the hopeful plan to split the year between Tennessee and Iowa. In that perfect world, he makes his debut on Opening Day 2024 just days after turning 22. Any bump in the road in 2023 probably pushes that debut to midseason, which is a fine (if less storybook) outcome too.