Six Stars of the Cubs Farm, 4/26: Top Prospects Galore – Wicks, Horton, Alcántara, Little, More
Shouts to that Nelson Velázquez at-bat last night in the 9th inning. That was a strikeout last year, and while he couldn’t quite time up the Josh Hader fastball, he battled and won the match-up with a walk. Just another reminder how development doesn’t stop when the “prospect” label fades.
Let’s break down a loaded day in the minors for the Cubs …
Honorable Mention: Another hitless-but-wild outing for Cam Sanders, who has allowed just four hits but 14 walks in nine mostly good Triple-A innings … Jake Slaughter, with two doubles last night, is looking much more comfortable with Iowa the last week (following Brennen Davis’s lead) … More extra-base hits for Miguel Amaya and Owen Caissie, both of whom have their OPS comfortably north of 1.000 … Carlos Guzman, whom the Cubs acquired for Zach McKinstry late in Spring Training, had a very nice Double-A debut where he showed 95 mph and two breaking balls, one around 80 mph that was getting a lot of horizontal movement … Haydn McGeary is going to get the long-form treatment here soon, but damn did he just miss out on this list with a night where he reached in all four plate appearances … Three more singles for Cristian Hernández, who just seems to be very comfortable letting the ball travel deep and looking to punch balls back at the pitcher. I love the adjustment.
But if there’s one player who deserves some longer Honorable Mention treatment, it’s Myrtle Beach reliever Johzan Oquendo. The Pels swept a doubleheader where they asked for longer-than-normal outings from three different relievers. Oquendo’s performance was the one that (I have a feeling) will stick in coaches’ minds all season: 3 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 6 K. He flashes a plus slider has some feel for a changeup, and now has 103 strikeouts in 66.1 career Low-A innings.
SIX: MANY HOME RUNS
You’ve heard about the ridiculous Pete Crow-Armstrong grand slam, mostly highlighted by fighting off so many solid breaking balls until he got a fastball that he could (somehow) pull. Parker Chavers hit two homers in the first Myrtle Beach win, and Chase Strumpf hit his second in as many games.
But my favorite long ball probably goes to Moises Ballesteros:
Ballesteros’ batting line now sits at .267/.375/.489 with just nine strikeouts in 56 plate appearances. He can turn and backspin a ball, he’s expert at slashing liners to left-center, he probably makes the best swing decisions on the team.
FIVE: Cade Horton
The camera angle in Charleston really allowed us to see the demon nature of Horton’s slider:
The Riverdogs actually adjusted after those first two-inning strikeouts and focused on putting the ball in play, but nothing was particularly threatening. While I think Horton’s affiliate placement isn’t particularly important right now — it’s really just about getting the work in — I do think he’s missing something by being head-and-shoulders better than Low-A hitters. You want your top prospects to be forced to make adjustments by seeing what they can’t get away with, and right now, it doesn’t feel likely that Horton is getting challenged in any at bats.
FOUR: Christopher and Rafael Morel
How fun is this? Two home runs (and SIX total runs) for the brothers from Santiago across three games yesterday. While Rafael had the Wednesday hits lead between the two, the story here (maybe organization-wide) is how Christopher just keeps putting his prodigious talent on display. This was against one of the better southpaw pitching prospects in the game:
He’s played outfield in the last three games here, as that better fits Iowa’s needs right now, but I’d like to see him on the dirt more. I watched his last five games at third base to try and find something meaningful to say about his defense, but he’s not been particularly tested. The one error was a bad throwing miss that Matt Mervis had no play on, and Morel had two nice-enough plays coming in on balls, but overall, I don’t know that this stint in Iowa is teaching us anything about that part of his game.
THREE: Luke Little
His longest career outing, 5.0 IP, and I thought the good news was that Little improved as the outing went along. He was really good in the first fifth inning he’s pitched in years, striking out the first two hitters he faced in the frame before pitching around a single.
If I’m not mistaken, Little’s slider looks like it has improved since last season, as it looks like he’s achieving the same amount of sweep while maintaining some ride. It’s a devastating offering against lefties, in particular. I also wonder if the Cubs are trying to increase the cut-ride component of his fastball, as it appears by the eye test that Little is supinating with his four seamer more than I remember in 2022. Interesting changes that match the m.o. of the organization right now, and Little is pitching his way toward a summer promotion to Tennessee.
TWO: Kevin Alcántara
Three doubles last night for the Jaguar, officially sending his 2023 OPS a good 100 points above the current Midwest League average. At age 20. Last night was a story of a right field approach, with two doubles and a single all towards right. Here’s one, which almost has the look of a hitter doing drill work in the batting cage:
Just fantastic work from the right side of his body on that swing, staying back and letting his strength do the work. The guy is absolutely electric, and while the Cubs are mostly just letting the instincts drive results so far, more development is coming.
ONE: Jordan Wicks
First let’s start with the nerdy details (though please note the whiffs number should be 19, I actually counted one called-strike as a check swing):
And then let’s go with the video evidence:
What’s fun is that Wicks had a pretty dominant outing here, and I don’t think it was particularly the best version of his stuff that I’ve seen. The changeup had good action, but his feel came and went, with lots more misses to the arm side than normal.
The thing that jumped out was that Wicks had nine swinging strikes off his fastball, which I’d think has to be a career high. The pitch just played, even at non-spectacular velocity, I think because he’s now able to mix in so many other offerings. What made Wicks a first-round pick was his feel at keeping hitters guessing, and as the Cubs have expanded his repertoire, he’s maintained good feel and control with all pitches.
Across parts of two seasons, Wicks now has these career Double-A numbers in 12 starts: 44.1 IP, 36 H, 3.65 ERA, 17 BB, 58 K. A Major League debut is unlikely this year — for the same 40-man reasons that Matt Mervis wasn’t called up last September — but Wicks could push his way into a chance at a 2024 rotation spot.