Cubs Insider’s Inaugural Prospect List, Pt. 2: Top 20 Bats
The first half of our inaugural prospect rankings covered the 20 best pitchers the Cubs’ system has to offer. You can’t tell from the results at the MLB level yet, but that group of arms is much deeper bunch than the position players you will read about here. That said, the hitters have much more promise on the top of the list, with three players who could be labeled the top prospect in the entire organization.
Though not yet the powerhouse of 2013 and ’14, the system has improved a great deal from where it was over the past couple seasons. Four top 100 prospects lead the way and I would argue that the depth at the back end of the farm is greater than any other in Major League Baseball. Being in the middle of the pack as an organization isn’t normally something to celebrate, but it’s a lot better than being at the bottom.
Before you dig into the top 20 bats, just a reminder that a player has to have made his debut at Eugene or higher in order to be eligible for our list. Actually watching a player is integral to the scouting process, so ranking prospects without seeing extensive film makes an already subjective process far too speculative for my tastes.
That means you won’t find Luis Verdugo, Ethan Hearn, Yohendrick Pinango, Ronnier Quintero, Kevin Made, Jose Lopez, Rafael Morel, and Bryan Altuve listed below. Each of them would have been at least considered had they played short-season ball last year, so you’ll just have to remain patient if you’re waiting for them to be ranked by CI.
Enough yapping, let’s get into the bats!
The affiliate associated with each player is the highest level they played at in the 2019 season. All statistics are courtesy of Minors Graphs and Fangraphs.
#1 – Brennen Davis (20) – South Bend
204 PA – .309/.377/.531 – 160 wRC+
18.6% K – 8.8% BB – 11.2% SwStr – 8 HR – 4 SB
Starting off hot, right? Yes, this is a kid who has compiled only 276 times as a professional, all of which came as a teenager. I hear some of you out there yelling at me that it’s too soon for something like this! Don’t care. Not one bit. Davis is the best prospect in the entire system, a true five-tool player and has the potential to be a legit middle of the order bat in Chicago.
When I watched him take batting practice this year, the ball just came off the bat differently from the other guys. The sound rang out through the empty ballpark and as soon as I heard that distinct noise, I knew. Davis will begin the year in Myrtle Beach and finish the season in Tennessee as long as he stays healthy. This is a dude.
#2 – Miguel Amaya (20) – Myrtle Beach
410 PA – .236/.351/.404 – 122 wRC+
16.8% K – 13.2% BB – 9.9% SwStr – 11 HR – 2 SB
Without even digging into the offensive side of things, Amaya really popped onto radars everywhere because of his defense. He has a cannon for an arm behind the plate and is already advanced when it comes to working with pitchers that are a few years older than he is. Typically the slowest aspect of the game to develop as a young prospect, already having a leg up in that department means Amaya’s bat will determine how he advances through the system.
The offensive numbers weren’t exactly pretty on the surface in the pitcher-friendly Carolina League, but let’s take a deeper look at stats that tell a better story. His walk rate has improved each of the past three seasons (4.5% in 2017, 10.4% in 2018, and 13.2% in 2019); his strikeout rate has gone down (20.1%, 19%, 16.8%); his ISO has increased (.110 to .149 to .167). All of that served to push his wRC+ to 122 with Myrtle Beach, higher than it had been in South Bend. Now on the 40-man roster, Amaya will start in Tennessee and more than likely spend the whole year in Double-A.
#3 – Nico Hoerner (22) – Chicago
397 PA – .293/.340/.414 – 119 wRC+ (minors)
10.8% K – 6.3% BB – 6.2% SwStr – 6 HR – 8 SB
This might look like contrarianism because Hoerner is atop many other lists, but it’s really just a matter of ordering these top three however you prefer. Hoerner is just about ready to slot in at second base now, with the ability to back up Javy Báez at shortstop or fill in at the center field if needed. He will hit for a high average and will limit the strikeouts, mostly because he refuses to swing and miss. In fact, his 6.2% swinging-strike rate in the minors last year would have ranked seventh best in the majors last year.
The only thing that worries me about the Stanford grad is his ability to draw walks. If he can bump up that walk rate by just a few ticks, he could be slotted in as the leadoff man in Chicago for many years to come. Even if he doesn’t, he will do plenty of other things to be the second baseman for the foreseeable future.
#4 – Cole Roederer (20) – South Bend
448 PA – .225/.319/.366 – 101 wRC+
24.3% K – 11.6% BB – 12.6% SwStr – 9 HR – 16 SB
We are going to get Roederer vs. Davis comparisons for the next several years, which is almost unfair when you consider how quickly the latter jumped to the top of the list. Don’t sleep on Roederer, though. He is a freak athlete and has yet to truly hit his stride after being a little overmatched in a pitcher friendly league in 2019. The environs won’t be much better at Myrtle Beach, but the weather will be nicer and Roederer improved drastically as the temperature warmed up in South Bend.
He has the sweetest swing the system has to offer and, although his speed isn’t elite, the jumps he gets in center are next level. He can stick in center or even slot over to left if the power starts to develop as many believe it could. Expect to see Roederer spend the full year on the beach.
#5 – Chase Strumpf (21) – South Bend
171 PA – .248/.374/.406 – 124 wRC+
24.6% K – 13.5% BB – 12.0% SwStr – 3 HR – 2 SB
Strumpf is following in the footsteps of the many advanced college hitters this front office has drafted over the years. I’m not going to say he has the upside of Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber, but the second rounder out of UCLA could move through the system at lightning speed. He dealt with some back concerns last year between his junior season for the Bruins and his short stint in the pros, but has a legitimate shot of beginning the year in Myrtle Beach this season.
Strumpf is a second baseman now, but could ultimately end up spending some time in left field moving forward as defense isn’t his calling card. With an advanced approach, a legit hit tool, and potential for impressive power, it will be the bat that carries him through the system. That’s particularly true if he can stick around at second base.
#6 – Chris Morel (20) – South Bend
278 PA – .284/.317/.467 – 124 wRC+
21.6% K – 4.0% BB – 13.0% SwStr – 6 HR – 9 SB
You know that feeling Javy gives you when you watch him play? That is what makes Morel the most electric player in the system. He hustles his butt off, makes outstanding diving plays from third base, has a cannon for an arm, and swings as ferociously as physically possible. He figures to move through the system meticulously, probably spending the whole year in Myrtle Beach, as he looks to stay healthy and complete a full workload. If that firepower turns into consistent results, he could legitimately be vying for the top spot on this list come next year. If he can’t rein in that excitement while striking out too much and walking too little, it might be a steep fall down this list.
#7 – Nelson Velazquez (21) – South Bend
306 PA – .295/.340/.451 – 121 wRC+
26.1% K – 7.5% BB – 16.0% SwStr – 6 HR – 5 SB
There is a lot to like about Velazquez and only a few things that jump out as red flags. I’ll give you the bad news first: He strikes out quite a bit and swings and misses at a pretty alarming rate. The good news is that he is a really good athlete with room to add some strength, can play all three outfield spots well, and has displayed light tower power at a young age.
He is a leading candidate for a hitting lab experiment that could pay off big time if he can tap into the raw power a little more while reducing his whiff rate a little each year as he gets older. Add Velazquez to the list of Myrtle Beach outfielders to begin this season and expect him to spend a little extra time down there so he can work on his swing-and-miss problems before he makes the big jump to Double-A.
#8 – Andy Weber (22) – South Bend
544 PA – .278/.335/.405 – 113 wRC+
20.2% K – 7.9% BB – 10.2% SwStr – 3 HR – 5 SB
Weber was the starting third baseman on opening day for the defending College World Series champion Virginia Cavaliers as a freshman, if that tells you anything about his makeup. He eventually found a home as a second baseman and now mans the shortstop position as a pro. His athleticism was on full display as he improved defensively over a full season at his new position in 2019.
He led the entire system with 36 doubles, which is what his game is all about. None of his tools will jump off the page at you, but none lag behind either. I feel like the greatest compliment you can receive from a baseball old-timer is that you are a “real nice ballplayer,” and that describes Weber perfectly. He will be the starting shortstop in Myrtle Beach when the season rolls around.
#9 – Zack Short (24) – Iowa
259 PA – .236/.363/.406 – 103 wRC+
27.4% K – 14.7% BB – 10.6% SwStr – 6 HR – 2 SB
In spite being a little further down, Short is closer to reaching Chicago than anyone else on this list save for Hoerner. You know exactly what you are going to get from Short every time out: Great defense up the middle and a ton of walks. The glove is good enough to be above average in the Bigs right now and he knows how to work a deep count.
That can lead to a lot of strikeouts as he is forced to get defensive when he gets down in the count, so Short’s focus this year is on hitting the ball squarely without selling out for power. That could be a critical part of his development and a big step in moving from a career bench bat to a semi-regular player in Chicago, a la David Bote.
#10 – DJ Artis (22) – Myrtle Beach
277 PA – .262/.368/.345 – 114 wRC+
24.2% K – 12.6% BB – 9.4% SwStr – 2 HR – 19 SB
Artis was drafted in 2018 in the 7th round after putting up the most ridiculous numbers you are ever going to see during his time at Liberty. He dealt with injuries throughout the 2019 campaign but was terrific when healthy. The speedster gets on base, plays great outfield defense, and has the potential to significantly lower his strikeout numbers. He is already the fourth member of this list that will find his way into the Myrtle Beach outfield beginning in 2020, so manager Steven Lerud is going to have one heck of a time with lineup construction.
In an ideal world, Artis will find a way to hit for more gap to gap power while also lowering his strikeout rate to match his swinging-strike rate. Conservatively, I think he profiles more as a fourth outfielder type moving forward, though his ceiling is a legit leadoff hitter. As the de facto president of the DJ Artis Fan Club, I am currently accepting new member applications and officer nominations.
#11 – Pedro Martinez (19) – Eugene
233 PA – .312/.386/.439 – 131 wRC+
26.6% K – 10.3% BB – 19.3% SwStr – 2 HR – 19 SB
I am required by law to clarify that no, it’s not that Pedro Martinez. This particular player burst onto the scene last year with a hot start in Arizona before his promotion to Eugene. He is a bat-first player with speed to burn who appears destined for second base. He begin the year in South Bend and needs to limit the swing and miss, but the upside is legit if you just remain patient.
#12 – PJ Higgins (26) – Iowa
439 PA – .281/.349/.416 – 109 wRC+
18.2% K – 9.6% BB – 8.7% SwStr – 10 HR – 5 SB
It was a little surprising that Higgins wasn’t poached from the Cubs in the Rule 5 Draft in December because he profiles so well as a 26th man. He has good bat-to-ball skills, is good defensively with a big arm, and has the ability to play three other infield positions. His floor and ceiling are nearly identical, but I think he gets some playing time in Chicago this year.
#13 – Edmond Americaan (22) – South Bend
314 PA – .274/.341/.419 – 118 wRC+
22.9% K – 7.0% BB – 11.9% SwStr – 4 HR – 16 SB
The tools are just too much fun here. Americaan was a 37th rounder in 2018 and has terrific speed to go along with some decent pop. He is still pretty raw and definitely older than most guys at his stage of development, but we will see if those tools turn into a positive statistical output in South Bend this year.
#14 – Cam Balego (24) – Myrtle Beach
468 PA – .249/.368/.390 – 125 wRC+
18.6% K – 12.4% BB – 8.6% SwStr – 12 HR – 1 SB
It is going to be fun to see what Balego can do now that he is out of a pitchers’ park. An infielder that even dabbled in some catching, Balego displayed an impressive combination of power and approach last year. If he continues to limit his strikeouts as more batted balls fly over the fence, we could see him rising up this list in an under the radar type of way.
#15 – Robel Garcia (26) – Chicago
468 PA – .271/.353/.571 – 135 wRC+ (minors)
33.1% K – 10.5% BB – 14.6% SwStr – 32 HR – 4 SB
Hey, we know this guy! Garcia’s fairy tale story and big-time power from both sides of the plate made him an immediate fan favorite in Chicago, and it that was also good enough to get him on any version of my list. The strikeouts are real and they are going to limit his potential, especially when his glove isn’t great. His positional versatility and ability to switch hit give him upside as a bench bat and scary pinch hitter. His downside is a guy who strikes himself out of the league.
#16 – Aramis Ademan (21) – Myrtle Beach
422 PA – .223/.313/.337 – 92 wRC+
21.8% K – 11.4% BB – 10.5% SwStr – 5 HR – 16 SB
This might be the lowest you will find Ademan on any list. I am really disappointed in the Cubs for rushing him up to Myrtle Beach in 2018 as a 19-year-old because I think it stunted his development at the plate. He is a good shortstop and could be a plus second baseman, just depends on where the Cubs choose to put him. Even though the power is probably never going to manifest in a meaningful way, Ademan did flash the ability to draw walks last year. If he can figure out how to make more solid contact in Tennessee while continuing to get on base, we won’t have to blame the front office for damaging such a great athlete.
#17 – Jonathan Sierra (21) – South Bend
408 PA – .245/.282/.327 – 76 wRC+
15.2% K – 5.1% BB – 11.3% SwStr – 3 HR – 2 SB
The results have been ugly for Sierra over the past couple of seasons at the plate, so he sticks out like a sore thumb on this list. His high groundball rates, low whiff rate, and minimal in-game power don’t make sense for someone of his size (6-foot-3, 190 lbs), but maybe some work in the hitting lab with Justin Stone will help him tap into that potential. It is probably going to take a completely re-worked swing to make it happen, but I am still holding out hope.
#18 – Trent Giambrone (26) – Iowa
478 PA – .245/.314/.471 – 83 wRC+
27.2% K – 8.8% BB – 14.3% SwStr – 23 HR – 17 SB
I don’t know who the heck Giambrone is as a prospect. Early in his career, he was a contact hitting middle infielder who lacked power and didn’t strike out. Now he sells out for power, whiffs a ton, and plays just about every position on the diamond. I was much more impressed with his approach at the plate a la 2016-18 than last season, but he still has a future as a 26th man if he can maintain the versatility while getting back to that old approach.
#19 – Alfonso Rivas (23) – Las Vegas (Triple-A)
543 PA – .292/.387/.423 – 125 wRC+
22.1% K – 12.5% BB – 8.4% SwStr – 9 HR – 2 SB
The newest member of the Cubs organization comes in at number 19 mostly because of uncertainty and unfamiliarity. He might already be the most professional hitter in the system, which is really saying something about a guy drafted in 2018. Making it to Triple-A a year after being drafted is impressive as well. A contact-first approach is not going to work as a first baseman, but Rivas becomes much more valuable if he can if he can learn to play a solid outfield. I expect him to split time between first base and left field with Jared Young in Tennessee.
#20 – Yovanny Cuevas (21) – Eugene
184 PA – .259/.401/.429 – 135 wRC+
28.3% K – 16.3% BB – 18.4% SwStr – 5 HR – 11 SB
Every person who follows prospects has one guy they believe in that just doesn’t hit anyone else’s radar. And what better place to put my version of that guy than the final spot of our first ever rankings? Nearly all of Cuevas’ success came while in Arizona and he really struggled with strikeouts (35.7%) once he got the call to Eugene. But it is hard to teach a player how to draw walks and Cuevas already has that skill figured out. His head and hands are really quiet at the plate and I think his build will be perfect for generating just enough power and speed to advance through the system.
If you have any qualms about my list (which, let’s be honest, I’m sure you do), be sure to let me hear them. I would love to chat with you about it on Twitter or if you have any questions I will answer them on the next episode of the Growing Cubs Podcast.
In the meantime, enjoy the 2020 minor league season and be on the lookout for 40 of the best prospects the system has to offer!