The Cubs are a really fascinating organization, leading to an incredibly interesting farm system. As we all know, the Theo Epstein era was marked by great success and an eventual World Series Championship, but by the end of his tenure, the Cubs were left with a mediocre MLB squad and an inadequate farm system. Jed Hoyer took over and began an attempt to usher in a new era of winning baseball in the Windy City. His first priority was to restock the farm system. Many likely remember the 2021 trade deadline firesale in which Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Craig Kimbrel were dealt. All of this came after the Yu Darvish trade and Kyle Schwarber non-tender in the prior offseason. While it significantly tested the patience of Cubs’ faithful, the North Siders have acquired an intriguing mix of prospects that could contribute at the big league level relatively soon. Here’s a breakdown of my top 10 Cubs prospects, along with some notes on all of them.
1. Pete Crow-Armstrong, CF
Not too long ago, there was a time when every media publication would’ve had Brennen Davis in this spot. Due to the combination of Davis’ injury history and Pete Crow-Armstrong’s incredible performance in the 2022 campaign, he has become the overwhelming choice for this number-one spot. The MLB Pipeline team voted Crow-Armstrong as the best defender in the minor leagues. When acquired from the Mets, he was viewed as a great defender who would be a below-average big-league hitter. Pete proved doubters wrong this season and made the Mets’ brass extremely bitter that they gave him up for only two months of Javier Baez. PCA posted a 174 wRC+ in A ball and a 125 wRC+ in A+ while flashing above-average power at both levels. If Crow-Armstrong can be an average hitter, he’ll be a valuable MLB player, but if the bat can play like it did this year, we’re looking at a perennial All-Star.
2. Kevin Alcantara, OF
While interviewing with Dylan for a TDA author position, I used Kevin Alcantara as an example of how to evaluate a player’s physical projection. The outfielder, standing at 6’6”/185, is pretty much the definition of physical projection. Acquired for Anthony Rizzo from the Yankees, Alcantara has immediately become a huge piece of the Cubs' future plans. He raked at Low A this year and showed off impressive power and plate discipline. I figure he has about 20 pounds of muscle to put on, which should come through more years on an MLB-caliber strength regimen. His raw power and exit velocities are already impressive, so when he increases his physicality, I can envision him smacking 25-30 home runs per year. Defensively, he’s pretty solid, but there’s not a whole lot to say about the glove. He’ll likely end up shifting over to a corner and be above average there. Of Chicago’s top-tier prospects, he’s the furthest away from Wrigley, so his development (or lack thereof) will say quite a bit about the Cubs' player development team.
3. Hayden Wesneski, SP
While I’m admittedly higher on Wesneski than most, it’s hard not to love the guy after his electric September in the bigs last season. Part of the wacky Scott Effross deal, Wesneski could be a part of the Cubbies’ rotation as soon as next year. The fastball is low to mid-90s but has great life. He couples the fastball with an absolutely devastating slider. His flashes of greatness last year might have earned him a shot at the rotation at the beginning of 2023. If not, he’ll open the season in Triple-A or in the bullpen and eventually transition into a starter role. He’s pretty polished for a prospect and experience is going to be the biggest key to his development.
4. Brennen Davis, OF
I touched on Davis a bit earlier. He’s an athletic specimen and an exceptionally good baseball player. Going into 2022, he was considered to be a top-30 prospect in the MLB. While the performance wasn’t great in 2022, it was in a limited sample and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. The bigger concern should be his lingering back issues that essentially set his development back a year. 2023 will be very telling for Davis. He could either propel himself back into the elite prospect conversation or fall further behind the competition. From a 5-tool perspective, Davis is right there with Crow-Armstrong at the top of the Cubs’ system. He has incredible bat speed and put up amazing power numbers through most of the minor leagues. His athleticism helps him out in the field, and he’ll grade out as a perfectly adequate defender anywhere in the outfield.
5. Matt “Mash” Mervis, 1B/DH
Mervis is a feel-good story and a testament to the Cubs’ player evaluation team. Signed as an undrafted free agent in the shortened 2020 draft, Mervis burst onto the scene with an astonishing 2022 season at Triple-A Iowa. The 24-year-old earned the nickname “Mash” after sending 36 balls over the fence across 3 levels. His 2023 MLB debut is a matter of when, not if. The Eric Hosmer signing shouldn’t provide any kind of blockade, as they can both play at 1B and DH. The Mervis show is set to hit Wrigley very soon, but he’s going to need to keep the power output high and continue to make consistent contact to establish himself as the Cubs’ everyday first baseman moving forward. Matt has been a factor in every 2023 ROY prediction, so look out for the possibility of him slugging his way to the award.
6. Cristian Hernandez
Hernandez is by far the hardest prospect in the system for me to evaluate. He is the Cubs’ most highly touted international prospect since Eloy Jimenez and Gleyber Torres (you probably didn’t remember they were both in the Cubs’ system) and has had high expectations since he was 16 years old. He’s physically projectable, silky smooth at shortstop, and has a very impressive bat for a 19-year-old. His numbers in the Arizona Complex League didn’t quite live up to expectations, but you really can’t fault him for 150 at-bats of mediocre baseball. The tools are what puts Hernandez on this list. That being said, in the next year or two, he’s going to need to translate those tools into results to keep his status as a blue-chip prospect. From the minimal film I could find, his swing seems a bit inconsistent and he just looked a little out of sorts. This offseason provides him an opportunity to get back on track, and he will likely be given an opportunity at A ball next year.
7. Jordan Wicks, SP
To be 100 percent honest, I really couldn’t separate Wicks and Ben Brown, my number 8 Cubs prospect, while making this list. They’re interchangeable, but I’ll give Wicks the slight edge for the sake of this article. Wicks was a really safe pick in the 2021 draft. There’s not a lot he will do that can blow you away, but he has good stuff and is pretty crafty on the mound. When he was drafted out of college, the main focus from the player development side was giving him a 4th pitch. Other than that, he came out of the Big 12 more polished than most college prospects. He won’t need much more time in the minor leagues and can probably be written into rotation plans at the big league level by 2024. The changeup is his best offering, but his fastball is a solid pitch, and his curveball and slider have both made progress. The Cubs’ Pitching Lab has aimed to make his slider a bit more of a sweeper to give his arsenal a different look. Similarly to Wesneski, I think experience is probably the most important part of his development at this point.
8. Ben Brown, SP
In my opinion, the David Robertson for Ben Brown deal was one of the most lopsided trades at this year’s deadline. Brown offers mid to high 90’s velocity and has an impact slider. I’d really like to see his 3rd offering (curveball or changeup) improve because right now, I look at him as a two-pitch guy. Brown had great success in the minors this year and vaulted himself up every single prospect ranking list. Unlike Wicks, I think it’s beneficial for Brown to get some more time to develop in the minor leagues so the player development team can work with him on expanding his arsenal. That would also give Ben needed time to play around with different pitches. Worst case scenario for Brown, he ends up becoming a viable late-inning reliever with the fastball and power slider combination. Best case scenario, he’s a Jack Flaherty-type pitcher who can get by with a more limited arsenal due to good command and really good movement on both of his primary pitches. Brown will be an interesting one to follow in the coming year.
9. Daniel Palencia, SP
I want you to think about everything I said about Jordan Wicks and reverse it… now you’re thinking about Daniel Palencia. Daniel is by no means a high-floor guy. I could see him being an effective starter, a lights-out closer, or out of baseball five years from now. Palencia is a firecracker with a cannon for an arm. He flew under the radar until late last season when he started to put up some really impressive numbers at A+. The fastball sits high 90s and can make its way up to triple digits under the right circumstances. I think he has the best fastball in the entire system. His pitching mechanics would probably scare every pitching coach in the country, as he has a really long arm motion and the rotation is a bit too herky-jerky to be considered “repeatable”. However, concern about mechanics significantly decreases when you consistently throw 98 miles an hour. There is some injury risk in the long term, and his stuff profiles as more of a reliever’s arsenal than a starter’s. This is going to be another project for the player development team, but Palencia’s genetics and pure talent are a great starting point. If they can fine-tune the slider and add another solid pitch, Daniel Palencia could break out and establish himself as a clear-cut future starting pitching option.
10. Owen Caissie, OF
Last but not least, Owen Caissie. The front office put some faith by sending him to A+ at the beginning of the 2022 season, which is a bit of an aggressive assignment for 19-year-old Caissie. After an abysmal first month, Owen started to adjust and ended up putting up very respectable season-long numbers. Part of the Darvish deal, Caissie looks like the best player out of the return package. At 6’4”/190, he’s a pretty strong guy and produces top-tier exit velocities, leading to sky-high raw power grades. It’s started to translate into some game power, but there’s still a long way to go in that department. He made some strides defensively this year and looks to be a decent option in right field. With a build like Caissie’s and the surplus of outfield depth in the Chicago system, it’s hard not to envision him as a future first baseman, but Owen runs well enough to stick in the outfield.
SP Cade Horton, SP Jackson Ferris, 3B James Triantos, OF Alexander Canario, SP DJ Herz, SS Kevin Made
There are better days ahead on the North Side. Kudos to Jed Hoyer and crew for stockpiling farm system depth after selling off the old core. 5 of my top 10 were acquired through trades since December 2020. While this system still lacks a player who is a can’t-miss, future perennial MVP candidate, the overall depth makes them one of the more formidable systems in Major League Baseball. While most of these guys might still be a year or two out from Wrigley, it will be really interesting to track their trajectory throughout the minors and see where they end up.
"Brennen Davis second Triple-A at bat = 2nd Triple-A homer!" via Minda Haas Kuhlmann licensed under CC BY 2.0