Cubs Prospect Notes from the Back Fields: New Names, New Builds, New Roles

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Cubs Prospect Notes from the Back Fields: New Names, New Builds, New Roles

Chicago Cubs

Last week marked my fourth annual opportunity to spend a back-fields-focused week in Arizona, one of my favorite experiences of every year I’ve been able to do it. The Cubs’ fields are accessible, there’s seemingly always something going on, and it’s the right time of year to learn things about the season ahead. While some inclement weather shortened the baseball experiences to three days, here’s an emptied-out notebook of some things I saw in the Southwest …

  • The Cubs were really proud of their player development department in 2022, but it was clear that it took about 2-4 weeks into the regular season for guys to fully lock in (particularly on the offensive side). When I asked one coach about which players were standing out in camp so far, he hemmed and hawed, and before ultimately answering said, “what stands out is that this is the most ready-for-the-season group we’ve ever had.” It made me wonder if the front office saw the same thing that I did in April last year and set off to correct it. We’ll see.
  • The star of the trip for me was Owen Caissie, but I can’t really tell you anything that looks different. If there are swing changes that have been made, I’m not quite astute enough to have noticed them. It’s just that the guy I saw in October in the Arizona Fall League seemed slightly lost in his timing, something I think can happy for him with fairly busy pre-swing motions. But the guy I saw a few days ago was dialed in as can be. I noted in his prospect ranking write-up that Double-A is often the time that power arrives, and I’m wondering if we’re about to see that type of breakout from Owen in the Southern League.
  • This is some inside baseball, but when I first arrive to the Arizona back fields, I have a sort of de facto tradition: I walk to each field, and try to identify each player I see. When doing so, I’m asking myself one question first — does he look different than I remember? This year, one player jumped out by that test: Kevin Made. The 21-year-old shortstop has definitely added physicality since I last saw him, particularly strength and thickness in his thighs. What has me curious, what I’ll be watching for this season, is how that thicker physical appearance will manifest on the diamond. Could see see more power (see below)? Could we see less range up the middle (he did play third when I saw him)?
  • Speaking of, I think we can probably put to rest any idea that Reggie Preciado is a shortstop again. I expect other players (namely Cristian Hernandez and Pedro Ramirez, who took awesome at-bats every time I saw him) will be prioritized for innings up the middle, and Preciado looks like he’s starting filling out a bit. I will say that his swings looked much better this year than I saw last year in Arizona, with a double from the right side particularly sticking out in my memory. But he’ll really have to prove that thump is in there now.
  • The other player who really made an impression physically was Andy Garriola. I didn’t include the Cubs’ 14th round pick in my Honorable Mentions of my recent prospect list, but I already regret it. The guy almost has a big league body type already, with really developed strength throughout his 6-foot-3 frame. (I noted this observation to AZ Phil from The Cub Reporter, who said, “yup, longest homer I’ve seen this spring, too”). Garriola has a crouched batting stance with his hands low in front of him, and between that and the build, I couldn’t help but think of Pete Alonso. NOT that I’m trying to inject that type of hype on Garriola!
  • Another thing I’ll make a point to look out for is who is not out participating in drills, which is a surefire sign that the player is battling some sort of injury/delay. Meghan Montemurro’s reporting at the Chicago Tribune highlighted the unfortunate injuries for Naz Mulé and James Triantos, for instance. I can tell you Ed Howard is not yet participating in drills (though I did see Ed in sweats on my last day), which tells me the Cubs are taking it slow with the first-round pick, not looking to push him to participate in South Bend’s freezing April temperatures. I don’t know the reason Luis Devers wasn’t around camp, so that’s a bit of news to watch out for.
  • There’s some nervousness around camp about the impending decision on what relievers are ultimately assigned to Triple-A Iowa and Double-A Tennessee, because there’s a feeling the Cubs have a lot more than 16 good arms ready for those bullpen jobs. For instance, Ben Hecht was mentioned to me as one of camp’s standouts, sitting 95-96 and fully healthy from 2021 arm surgery, but is there a spot for him? (On the offensive side, I wonder the same for Levi Jordan, who is a long-time favorite of mine that had a monster day in the AAA game I saw.)
  • I always enjoy when the Cubs explore role changes for guys in Spring Training, and I have a couple to report from what I saw. Adam Laskey was sent out for a third inning in a Double-A game I watched, which tells me that a return to a starting role is not out of the question for him in 2023. I suspect he’ll begin the year as a piggyback reliever, with his results then dictating the next step. His curveball was the star offering on that particular day, and I’d like him to go with the maximum breaking ball usage possible in outings this year.
  • Also saw one experiment that I’ve been asking for: B.J. Murray at second base. Didn’t get any chances difficult enough to make judgments, but I think it’s something I’d definitely like to see 20-30 times this season.
  • A deep-cut pitcher to store in the back of your brain: Oliver Roque. Wasn’t someone on my radar last year, but I liked what I saw in one Low-A game I witnessed. Roque has a big body with a good amount of projection remaining, and he already showcases an above-average slider. Put those two things together, and that’s a guy I could see breaking out in 2023 or (maybe even more likely) in 2024.
  • A guy who I heard has been really good, earning a starting spot with a small jump in velocity: Didier Vargas. I’ll be tracking his early season starts as a potential breakout guy.

Author: Bryan Smith

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