Thoughts on the Cubs top prospects heading into the MLB Draft

Ryan Jensen (photo by Rikk Carlson)

The Brennen Davis Tier

There is an unquestioned top prospect (at least stateside) in the Cubs system, and it is Brennen Davis.

Drafted as a raw, two-sport star from the prep ranks in Arizona three years ago, his ascent to the top of the Cubs prospect list and up through the ladder of the Cubs Minor League system has occurred quicker than any could have dreamed.

Always a guy with a good eye and contact oriented approach at the plate, a swing overhaul during the 2018-19 offseason changed Davis from a guy punching at the ball as an amateur, to one incorporating his lower body and with increased loft in his bat path which enabled Davis to access power within games. Added mass and increased strength has increased his raw power as well.

Davis has not become a free swinger though. He’s continued with his gap-to-gap approach, it is just that he is now able to drive the ball to and over the wall in the power alleys instead of settling for singles. There is an abbreviated, two-handed follow through on his swing, which indicates to me Davis is more interested with staying in control of the bat rather than letting loose. That mentality will likely turn some potential homers into doubles, but should help him maintain solid contact rates as a trade off. I’ve not been able to spot any holes despite possessing pretty long levers in his swing.

While Davis still runs pretty well once he gets under way, his once plus speed only plays as above average now, and could continue to trend toward average as he continues to physically mature. Davis is getting more of a chance in center field this year after splitting his time with left in 2019. I think he can stick in center for a while, but a move to corner seems likely, especially if his speed does degrade. His arm is fine, so he could settle into RF, but probably wouldn’t be a difference maker out there.

He was hampered by a hamstring issue his final year of high school, suffered a finger injury cut his 2019 campaign short, and then he missed the start of this year as well. There isn’t enough there to consider him injury prone, especially since the finger issue was caused by a hit by pitch, but Davis should be monitored. His body has changed a lot over the last three years and as he added some bulk he has lost a bit of fluidity.

The Cristian Hernandez Tier

I don’t have much information on the 17-year old IFA signing from last year. Considered a top five prospect in the class, and by some reckonings top three, Cristian Hernandez is an agile and strong 6’1″ athlete. He’s one of those dream about projection types who you hope retains his quickness and finesse as his body matures into a more powerful specimen.

If he does, then you’ve got a shortstop with above average to plus offensive tools across the board. A potential star. Even if Hernandez outgrows short and moves to second or third you’ve still got a potential impact player, but it places a heavier burden on the bat to develop.

It doesn’t look like we’ll see him stateside in 2021, so expect most updates to remain in statistical form, as we rarely get scouting reports out of the DSL.

Solid Starters Tier

Miguel Amaya and Ed Howard are guys that have and/or could pop up in the back end of some Top 100 prospect lists. They aren’t overwhelming athletes but they have enough tools to combine with their plus instincts and plus work ethics that they should develop into everyday options for the Cubs down the road. Much like Nico Hoerner, they probably won’t end up as impact guys, but they could become the type of steady contributors every team needs and the Cubs have been lacking in recent seasons.

Amaya remains a good receiver with a good arm who should become a reliable starting caliber backstop. His offense is driven by a good eye and above average power. Most comfortable using the right center field gap at this point, Amaya does flash some plus pull power, but given the rigors of the catching position I wouldn’t expect more than 15-18 homer output from him in the future. He’s a collection of average-to-above-average tools who could settle into the 6th or 7th spot in a Major League lineup for a while, but he falls a bit short of a star profile.

Now, Ed Howard does flash some plus tools. His actions at short are smooth and quick, which makes up for speed and arm tools which are more like 55s than they are 60s, so overall there is plus package on defense.

The story is similar on offense, but the total package is far less refined right now. The raw tools are more above average than plus, but there is an outside shot it all comes together to form a plus offensive player. His bat speed is good. The plate discipline, pitch recognition, and bat control all flash. But as a cold weather prep bat his progress was further stunted by the pandemic layoff. He just hasn’t seen enough quality live pitching the last two years for him to have developed a consistent approach yet.

I have seen some occasional issues with handling velo up in the zone, but at other times he has turned those pitches around. The same goes for a little too much tightness while trying to adjust to offspeed down in the zone, but again, at other times he’s handled it fine. I’m not worried much about Howard’s numbers this year other than plate appearances. Just getting him at bats is the most important thing.

The potential to fill an everyday job at one position does exist for Christopher Morel (third base is likely his best position long term), but ultimately I envision his role as a multi-position de facto starter. Think Javy Baez serving as a 9th starting position player as he moved between 2B-SS-3B in 2015. Even when he didn’t start he almost always played a key role off the bench, taking multiple ABs and serving as defensive replacement. Morel will eventually fill a similar role, except he won’t just move around the dirt, but more like Kris Bryant, he will move around the grass as well. He’s inexperienced in the outfield but his range and plus arm play anywhere, and I have little doubt he’ll develop into a good option.

Comparisons to Baez don’t end there. Like Javy, Morel plays an aggressive, exciting brand of baseball, and always with a smile on his face. His raw tools fall short of Javy (who has always had otherworldly instincts and hand speed/strength), but Morel does have good bat speed and wiry strength. Whereas Javy has 35+ homer power, Morel likely settles in more as a 20-25 guy. Morel is also an aggressive hitter like Baez, so walks will likely not be a big part of his game (even though we’ve seen some recent progress there), but he also doesn’t take aggressive hacks like Javy, instead settling more often for solid contact.

The There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect Tier

At his best Brailyn Marquez projects to be just as high of an impact player as Davis. Unfortunately, Marquez is not anywhere near the athlete, and has shown nowhere near the aptitude for locking in adjustments.

There is no questioning the fastball. There simply aren’t many lefties on the planet capable of hitting triple digits. As a starter Marquez sits in the 94-97 range, but has more available when he needs it. Should he convert to the pen, consistent 97-101 is possible.

Marquez was still working on the shape of his breaking ball when last we saw him in 2019. At times it looks like a good compliment to his heater, but his feel and command of the pitch comes and goes. I don’t think it will ever be much of a weapon against right handed batters, but should be enough to get lefties to chase.

If Marquez is to succeed as a starter he needs a reliable secondary pitch and to me the more likely is his changeup. It flashed in 2018 and again in 2019, but in the lower levels he didn’t need it much and didn’t seem to trust it either. I think there is a potential above average swing and miss pitch there though, and I wish the Cubs asked him to throw it more often.

Marquez is a big guy whose height and physique has changed quite a bit since turning pro. He’s very powerful, with a thick lower body, so he should be able to hold up under a starter’s workload. But he also isn’t the greatest athlete. The combo of size and below average athleticism has led to inconsistent mechanics. It is the main reason there is still question as to his ultimate role. There are some traits of a top of the rotation starter, but he needs work on repeating his mechanics, tightening up his secondaries, and it is difficult to project if Marquez is a good enough athlete to accomplish it.

Kohl Franklin represents a better bet to stick in the rotation long term. Only throwing in the mid-80s in the late stages of his prep career and forbidden the throw breaking balls at a young age, the nephew of former big league closer Ryan Franklin was given an overslot bonus in the 6th round of the 2018 draft in the hopes that his projectable 6’4″ frame would add velo as he matured, and that with more experience he’d develop feel for a breaking ball.

The velocity has spiked as hoped. Franklin worked in the low-90s (T95) late in 2019, and there were reports he took a further step forward during the time away from the field in 2020, but we’ve yet to verify it in game action or whether he can sustain it over longer outings.

If Franklin can work in the mid-90s with consistency it opens the door to him becoming a middle of the rotation arm, and potentially even more. Probably because he couldn’t rely on a breaking ball, Franklin displayed an advanced feel for a changeup as young pitcher in 2019. It was consistently average or better and on occasion flashed plus or even plus-plus. It was one of the best I’ve seen from a prep arm pitching in the Northwest League.

His breaking ball did lag behind in 2019, never flashing more than average despite reports of good spin rates. He changed his grip a couple of times and I’ve heard he reworked it again during the pandemic. We’re in waiting mode to see how the new velo/breaking ball package plays in game action.

I liked the attack mentality Franklin showed on the mound in 2019. He doesn’t nibble or back down from hitters. So, if the stuff has improved as much as some reports suggest, I’m confidant Franklin will put it to good use. I’ve heard the injury which has kept him out reported as a shoulder or an oblique. It is possible there were two separate injuries as Franklin did begin to ramp up a while back before backing off again.

A surprise pick in the first round back in 2019, Ryan Jensen is a 6’0″ righty with two distinct plus fastballs. His size, long arm action and inconsistent secondaries put a lot of question into whether Jensen can stick as a starter, but two things he did show in college, and among the main reasons the Cubs felt comfortable drafting him, where they did was his athleticism and stamina allowed him to maintain his velocity deep into starts.

So far the Cubs have not allowed Jensen to pitch deep into games, but his spotty command along with a fastball dominant approach wouldn’t likely hold up in that regard anyway. His slider certainly has the upside to provide a viable third pitch, but as of yet he hasn’t sustained it throughout an outing, let alone from start to start. The hope is Jensen’s athleticism eventually wins out enough to lock in his slider and his complicated throwing motion. If not, there is still late inning relief as fallback option, just as there is with Marquez.

A grip it and rip it lefty, D.J. Herz is another athletic pitcher who flashes the stuff to start, but with a high energy delivery and as it stands now erratic command, is more likely to profile into a relief role. Unlike Jensen, Herz has shown more consistent feel for his secondaries, with both a power curve and changeup that have elicited swings and misses with Low-A Myrtle Beach this year.

While his velocity is a more modest 92-95, it appears Herz gets tremendous backspin on his four seamer. Combined with a crossfire delivery and plenty of extension he often blows the ball past the less advanced hitters he is facing with ease. His curve plays plus to lefties right now, and the changeup has flashed as above average to righties. With more work I could see both becoming reliable pitches as he moves up the ladder.

The real test will be once he gets a shot in South Bend. More hitters can handle velo up in the zone (or lay off it). So Herz will need to refine his command and control to remain as effective as he’s been with the Pelicans. I have my doubts he will be able to harness his delivery on a consistent enough basis to command his pitches as a MLB starter, but we are still a long ways away from having to close the book on that.

The Upside Tier

I hedged on where to place Chase Strumpf. He’s never going to be a great fielder, but I think he can become a passable option at second and third, with left field and first base versatility if need be. Where Strumpf’s value will lie is with his bat. And if he hits enough he could certainly settle into being a solid starter, but I think the more likely role for him is as a part time player.

My main concern with Strumpf at the plate in 2019 was his inability to drive pitches on the outer third with any kind of authority. Often he had to settle for fouling them off. He’s made strides with that this year though. Not only is he more willing to go the opposite way, but he is also stronger, so he can even do occasional damage when driving the ball to right field. This is important because the bat needs to develop near its full potential for Strumpf to have an impact beyond a platoon option or AAA shuttle player.

The rest of the group in this tier is on the younger side. Owen Caissie and Reggie Preciado are the two main pieces from the Yu Darvish deal this past winter.

Caissie projects as a slugging corner outfielder and/or first baseman with a patient approach at the plate. He’s not a bad athlete but I’ve yet to find anyone who has seen him in the outfield project him as anything but average or worse defensively, which is why a move a first could be in the cards down the road depending on how much he fills out.

And Caissie does have the type of frame to add significant weight. He’s broad shouldered but still relatively thin. He doesn’t tap into much power yet, but give him 20-30 pounds of muscle in the future and it is easy to see a potential 25+ home runs from the left handed batters box.

There’s a greater range of outcomes and a higher ceiling with Preciado. Right now the Cubs are keeping him at shortstop because his hands play there and he still possesses enough range to make the necessary plays. But, like Caissie he is also 6’4″ (albeit with a narrower frame), so the expectation is that he will eventually outgrow the position. However, some guys manage to hold onto their athleticism as they fill out, and it is possible Preciado could fall into that category given his frame.

Preciado has impressed scouts with his bat speed and ability to get the barrel to all parts of the zone on time from both sides of the plate, despite his long levers. That means his hit tool could keep pace with his emerging power, but all could depend on his strike zone judgement and ability to adjust to offspeed pitches, which reportedly lag behind some of his other tools right now.

Both guys have gotten off to hot starts in the ACL and you will find scouts willing to place one or both inside the Cubs top 10 or even top 5 prospects. I look forward to seeing one or both in Myrtle Beach later this year.

Three players who have already gotten their shot in Low-A this season are Yohendrick Pinango, Kevin Made, and Luis Verdugo.

Pinango is the most advanced of the trio. Despite taking aggressive hacks, he’s shown me the ability to get the bat head through on time to all quadrants of the strike zone despite a heavy bottom hand swing that results in a lot of backhand tennis slice action on the resulting contact. It means that right now Pinango hits the ball on the ground or on a low line drive trajectory to the opposite field with regularity.

As a corner outfielder that does not result in the greatest profile, but we’ve also seen flashes of Pinango turning on mistakes in hitter’s counts to drive the ball with authority to his pull side. After finishing without a home run in 62 games down in the DSL in 2019 he’s got 3 in 49 so far this year.

The 19-year old is one of the youngest players in Low-A, often facing competition 2-4 years his elder, and has held his own all season. There isn’t much in the way of physical projection with Pinango, so the hopes with him fall onto his ability to adjust his swing to make hard contact (in the air) with greater consistency. I’m bullish right now on his ability to do so, given his advanced feel at such a young age, but he’s going to have to thread the developmental needle a bit to end up a future big league regular. His ceiling is probably as an average left fielder who makes contact at a high rate and hits 15 or so home runs.

I haven’t seen much of Kevin Made yet as an injury kept him out of action for quite a while in Myrtle Beach, but it is easy to see what the Cubs saw in him when they made him a key part of their 2019 IFA class. He’s of a similar build and projectable frame as Cristian Hernandez, his tools are just a little less loud at the plate. He looks like a pretty high floor player though, as he is pretty sure to remain an average or better defender at short even as he fills out.

It is that potential added strength which makes him intriguing in the long run. He currently shows a compact, line drive swing which should produce plenty of contact. Add 15-20 pounds of muscle on him over the next few years and he is likely to add double digit home run power to his profile.

Verdugo graded out as a pretty good shortstop himself in his short season stints according to scouts, but he’s made the conversion to third this season to accommodate Howard, Made and potentially Preciado and Hernandez in the coming years. His foot speed has never graded highly so despite the hands, actions and arm to stick at short, the thought was that he’d eventually outgrow the position due to range issues. Third base is an excellent match for his skillset though, and he could develop into a plus defender there.

The question will be with his bat. He’s got enough bat speed and raw power to hit 20 homers in the future, but his approach has been too aggressive and his swing has gotten too long at times. I’m still a believer though. When Verdugo is right I see glimpses of Chase Strumpf at the plate. There is definitely a question of whether Verdugo will be able to make enough contact against top pitching, so at this point he remains in the wait and hope category of prospects. Verdugo has been a slow starter at each level so far, so a 2nd half improvement could be upcoming.

Although he’s fallen behind fellow 2018 draftee Brennen Davis, the Cubs have pushed Cole Roederer pretty aggressively up the organizational ladder, and I’m not sure it has been to his benefit. He’s kept his head above water, but has also never gotten into a sustained groove or had an extended hot streak to help stoke his confidence.

He has gotten stronger since turning pro and displays average or better pull side power, but he’s struggled to get the ball in the air, or use the whole field consistently (he has flashed opposite field gap power). An injured elbow has kept him out of action since late May, robbing him of some much needed at bats. I have been pleasantly surprised by his work in center field which is why I can still see a potential 4th outfielder or strong side of a platoon role in his future. If his range slips, limiting him to left, it will place a burden on the bat I’m not sure it can withstand.

Ismael Mena received the highest signing bonus among the four prospects acquired from San Diego, but he is currently considered the most raw of the bunch. A plus runner who has grown in height since turning pro, Mena currently projects as a solid defender in center field, but there are questions as to how much he can hit. And with his body still maturing there is some concern he loses speed and will be forced into a corner which would place even greater emphasis on his bat to produce.

From reports, Mena strikes me as a height/weight/speed tools package who is still really raw and a long way from making an impact on the baseball diamond, but if it all goes right you could have a versatile player capable of helping your ball club in all facets of the game.

The More Proof TINSTAAPP Tier

It is impossible to know where this batch of arms currently stands.

Chris Clarke is a big guy capable of hitting mid-90s and pairing it with a big curveball but he’s been missing from game action throughout the start of the 2021 season with an undisclosed injury.

Riley Thompson seemed on the verge of a breakout 2021 as he improved his fastball command and incorporated a potential plus changeup in 2019. His curveball hadn’t developed as hoped, despite reports of good spin, but I did hear it looked better at the South Bend alternate site last year. A shoulder injury has kept him out thus far in 2021 though.

Tommy John surgery struck down Michael McAvene during his collegiate career. He was able to avoid another surgery despite a strained elbow suffered this spring, but it has resulted in a lengthy rehab. The Cubs intended to use the former Louisville closer as starter, but we’ll have to see if this latest injury changes those plans for the second half of 2021.

Someone who did not avoid the knife was lefty Jack Patterson. A guy who suffered through a series of unfortunate injuries in college had bad luck strike again. He emerged as one of the feel good stories of 2019, relying on a 92-94 mph fastball with good natural sink and good slider. His curve tended to blend with his slider but did get some takes in the zone. I do believe the intention was to rework the pitch at the South Bend site last year.

Yovanny Cruz emerged as an old school sinker/slider/changeup guy in 2018. Since then he unexpectedly added significant size and saw a velo spike up to the mid-90s and touching higher. Injuries and a bout with control issues limited his starts in 2019 and it appears bad luck has struck again in 2021. Though not confirmed it appears Cruz also underwent TJS just before the season.

I haven’t heard any reports on what has kept Josh Burgmann out of game action in 2021. He struck me as a potential back-of-the-rotation or middle relief option with an average fastball but good breaking balls off the 2019 video I saw of him. If he managed to add any velo during the time away in 2020 it would be a boon to his chances to stick as a starter.

You can probably throw Richard Gallardo into this category too. He’s added some velo this year, but his stuff still rates pretty average to me across the board. He commands it well for a young pitcher, so I’ll never say never, but there isn’t really any physical projection remaining with him.

Suddenly The Cubs Have A Bunch Of Hard Throwing Relievers

Manuel Rodriguez is the guy on the 40-man roster, and Burl Carraway received the draft day headlines, but as I write this Ben Leeper is the Cubs top relief prospect.

Unchosen in the abbreviated 5 rounds of the MLB Draft last summer, Leeper was one of several hard throwers the Cubs targeted as undrafted free agents. It has proven a wise investment. Slowed by a second Tommy John surgery and the subsequent control issues that sometimes follow it, Leeper never really got in a groove while on campus, but it has been a different story as a pro.

His velo has not only come back fully, but he’s even improved upon it, sitting mid-90s and regularly dialing up 97-99 when necessary, with a ton of life up in the zone. His upper-80s slider is a deceptive pitch which gets more downward movement than lateral sweep. I’m not fully sold on it being a true plus pitch against MLB competition, but I’m getting there the more often I watch. The Cubs have also asked him to experiment with other third pitches.

While he is more control than command, the carry he gets on his fastball up in the zone gives him a little leeway with its placement. A tad more consistent command of his slider could turn Leeper into a viable closer candidate. As it is he should settle into a setup role in the near future, but since he is not eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this offseason, other arms could get added ahead of him, pushing a potential debut into next season.

Rodriguez uses a good four seam and power curve combo to bully Minor League hitters. His fastball lacks the same life Leeper gets on his, which will force Rodriguez to be more precise with its location, and I’m not sure he has the command to do so. I think it will lead to Rodriguez being a bit too prone to the home run ball to be counted on as a primary high leverage arm, but his stuff is more than good enough to settle into a middle relief role.

From a pure stuff perspective Burl Carraway may not have a match among Cubs relief prospects. He generates a ton of spin on his fastball and curve. Carraway has also tried to expand his repertoire with a slider and/or changeup. At times he has been unhittable at High-A. Unfortunately, he’s battled mechanical issues, leading to an extremely high walk rate. If he gets straightened out Carraway could make a leap up the developmental ladder quickly.

Max Bain and Cam Sanders are a couple of power arms currently being trotted out as starters, and who have the stamina to carry their stuff long enough in games, but have struggled with consistency and likely end up in the pen down the road. There is no reason to pull them from the rotation in 2021 though. Let them continue to get innings, and it is possible one or both could find a groove as a starter.

Ethan Roberts isn’t very tall (listed generously at 6’0″) but he uses the lack of height as a weapon to give his high spin fastball a unique path to the top of the zone. The pitch also has some late cut which has proven a challenge for opposing hitters to square up. He pairs it with a changeup and an elite RPM breaking ball which has likewise been difficult to barrel.

This article is already stretching out longer than I intended, so I won’t go into detail on any other relievers, but the Cubs do have plenty of other arms to keep an eye: Dakota Mekkes, Michael Rucker, Cayne Ueckert, Dakota Chalmers, Brendon Little, Darius Valdez, Brandon Hughes, Hunter Bigge, Eury Ramos, Joe Nahas, Bradford Deppermann, Jose Albertos, Jeremiah Estrada, Sam Thoresen, Luke Little, just to name a few.

Bats with lower upside who can still provide MLB depth

There are also some bats to keep an eye on who I don’t project as having MLB starter upside but who could provide the club with valuable depth as shuttle or maybe even full time bench players: Alfonso Rivas, Andy Weber, Nelson Velazquez, Yonathan Perlaza, Edmond Americaan.

A few high profile signings/draftees who have gotten off to rocky starts at Myrtle Beach include Yeison Santana, Ethan Hearn and Jordan Nwogu. They all have tools but need a lot of work at the plate (Santana with pitch selection and Hearn/Nwogu with swing adjustments). I have my doubts with each, but I wouldn’t argue with scouts who like them. I’ll never be surprised if a toolsy player succeeds.

Other ACL Notes

I have heard or seen mixed reports on high profile signings/draftees Ronnier Quintero, Koen Moreno, Raphael Morel, Tyler Schlaffer, Felix Stevens, Benjamin Rodriguez, and a few others. I’ve yet to see any of them for myself to lend weight to either side of the ledger. Hope or condemn any as you see fit.

Comments

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    Thanks so much for this. It's a bit disappointing that for all the tools the position players have it seems power is the one most coveted. We still don't have the speed and top of the order prospect we need because Joc or Ian is not the answer there. I hope we can bring some of these players up to the show this year because that will be all to look at.
    I find myself again where I was years ago in that the only interesting thing to look at were prospects or aging Billy Williams or Ron Santo, still good players though. I think our farm system is much better stocked than it was years ago so maybe I won't have to wait for 60 yrs to see another WS appearance and win.

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    Agreed to say the Cubs have come empty when it comes to acquiring
    a lead off man. Using Contreras to lead off is disappointing and makes me wonder if the Cubs know what they are doing.
    David Ross has stated today he is not ready to give up
    on Arrieta yet. Be careful David, before management gives up
    on you !
    Happ is a bust when it comes to being an adequate
    fielder, regardless of any position he plays.

  • In reply to ronvet69:

    There are like 5 good leadoff men in the Majors at any given time. It is not a giant FO failure to not have or develop one. It is really, really hard to find.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Michael,
    I know lead off men are hard to find, but the Cubs have got to find something better than what there putting out right now.
    In one of your earlier blogs, someone stated Nico Hoerner will be a serviceable player.
    I couldn't disagree more. The more I see this kid the better I think this guy will be special. Only time will tell.

  • In reply to ronvet69:

    They have a guy... Tony Rizzo. Although Joc did fine today. But it does seem like that’s been a weakness since Fowler. Let’s get Nico this year & maybe next before adding Leadoff to his responsibility. But I like his approach.

  • In reply to Milk Stout:

    Agreed ! I think Nico will fill the bill !

  • If one believes the Mully and Haugh program, you'll be seeing these guys real soon, in front of the Gallagher and Horizon signs.

  • In reply to jack:

    Hope you're right !

  • Great article here, Michael. Appreciate all the effort it had to take, to accumulate all of this info. Thank you.
    It’s a shame that injuries to Franklin and Marquez have hampered their opportunities for development, so far this year.

  • Bryant out, Baez out, the Cubs play small ball and WIN ! Makes you wonder ????
    Q.
    When the Cubs drafted Nico and Brennen Davis, was Theo out out of town ?

  • In reply to ronvet69:

    Nico and Happ make you wonder about Theo's development program.

  • Terrific write-up Michael. Thank you so much for all your work. Hopefully some of the injured players will make it back sooner rather than later.

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