Around this time last year, I dropped the inaugural Cubs Insider top prospect lists. It was a huge project that tallied nearly 8,000 words to rank 40 players on two separate lists that were governed by strict rules. I’ll be honest with you, I debated long and hard about whether to post the second edition of the CI Top 20s this year considering we haven’t watched live minor league baseball in nearly 18 months.
But I can’t let an annual tradition fizzle out with just one iteration, so I’m back with a revamped pair of rankings There will again be two lists, one for pitchers and one for position players, though I had to eliminate the requirement that I had seen the player either live or via MiLB.tv streams. After all, it’s been 18 months since almost all of these prospects have played in a sanctioned contest.
Despite the lack of action, I’ve learned quite a bit about plenty of our favorite players by talking to the athletes, scouts, and other prospect writers. You won’t find me referring back to their 2019 statistics in these lists because, quite frankly, we have touched on those numbers at length for far too long. I also want to make clear that these rankings could shift rapidly once games start back up and we see which players were able to make the most of their shutdown time.
Let’s get started by taking a look at the 20 best bats in the Chicago farm system.
Age is as of July 1, 2021, affiliate is my projection as of March 7.
#20 DJ Artis (24), OF, Tennessee
What better way to start off this year’s edition of the top prospect lists? I’m a certified Artis guy and love the juxtaposition he brings to this system. He has a true leadoff hitter profile and will likely be tested with an assignment to Double-A Tennessee in 2021. His on-base skills are his carrying trait at the plate, as he has the ability to draw more walks than anyone I’ve seen in the system recently not named Mark Zagunis.
Artis can be a true centerfielder thanks to his plus speed and good instincts, but there are three issues with his game going into the season: his throwing arm, strikeout numbers, and power. He said his arm strength is something he has been working on over the last year and I think hunting fastballs early in the count could improve his pull-side power while also cutting down on the strikeouts. Whether that power develops into “better than Almora” numbers could be the difference between being a starting centerfielder in Chicago and being a 4th outfielder.
#19 Yohendrick Pinango (19), OF, Arizona
I’ll admit that I’m skeptical about Pinango, but his 80-grade name gives him some extra points in my book. There have been plenty of players to dominate the Dominican Summer League the way Pinango did, so he is someone I’d be hesitant to rank in past years. However, his hit tool is insane, he has some of the best speed in the organization, and he walks as much as he strikes out. His main point of emphasis this year will be getting the ball in the air.
I don’t care if you are a launch angle believer or not, hitting the ball on the ground as frequently as Pinango does won’t work as he moves up through the system. In the instructional league this fall, he had 15 plate appearances and grounded out in 11 of them. As his launch angle rises, so too will his ranking on this list.
#18 Yeison Santana (20), SS, South Bend
When scouts talk about “quick twitch,” they are referring to the way Santana moves. The first of four prospects from the Yu Darvish/Victor Caratini trade you’ll read about on this list, Santana is the only one of the bunch to have played in a professional baseball game. He takes some daddy hacks at the plate but has been heralded for his ability to put the bat on the ball.
His body doesn’t have quite as much projection as most guys his age, so that smaller frame paired with athleticism could allow him to be a good defender at short and elsewhere across the diamond. I keep going back to him as a utilityman without a defining high-upside trait.
#17 Alfonso Rivas (24), 1B/LF, Iowa
The lefty first baseman was acquired in the Tony Kemp trade that seems like it happened 20 years ago, but we are finally getting our first looks at him in Cubs gear this spring. Rivas has a super high floor thanks to his impressive hit tool, a plate approach that might actually be the best the system has to offer, and his strong defense (albeit at a low-impact position). With Caratini now gone, Rivas seems to be the backup first baseman if, God forbid, Anthony Rizzo goes down with an injury.
That said, I think Rivas will log quite a few innings in left field this season at Triple-A. His value skyrockets if he can be passable in the outfield because the bat profiles a little better out there. His developmental points of emphasis this summer will be that defensive versatility and his ability to showcase more power at the plate. Rivas is one of the few hitting prospects that will make an impact in Iowa this year.
#16 Ethan Hearn (20), C, Myrtle Beach
The three things you will constantly hear about Hearn is that he has a terrific arm, really good power, and struck out at absurd rates in his first taste of minor league ball. Rather than dwell on those facets of his game, I’m going to point to the fact that he has spent the last year-plus working with lefty Justin Steele.
A 20-year-old catcher with less than 100 career plate appearances pairing up with a player on the 40-man roster who has seven years of experience is incredibly valuable. Hearn has been able to pick up on the nuances of catching and receiving while maturing a great deal in a short period of time and I think the major growing pains are already behind him.
#15 Ismael Mena (18), OF, Arizona
Admittedly, there is a lot of guesswork when it comes to the players the Cubs received from the Padres this offseason because they are so young and raw, and we have gotten so few live looks at them. That said, Mena’s position on prospect lists might be the most dynamic of the bunch. I’m extremely against player comps when they are used to set expectations for future production in the majors, but when it comes to body type, movement, and profile, I am getting plenty of Gregory Polanco vibes from Mena.
I’m pretty sure his legs account for 75% of his body, so he is fast and covers a ton of ground in the outfield. Reports are that he makes plenty of contact, but his mechanics appear pretty choppy and segmented. There is still plenty of time to remake this 18-year-old’s swing in the lab.
#14 Luis Verdugo (20), SS, Myrtle Beach
We know Verdugo is pretty nifty over at shortstop and he has definitely put on more weight since he appeared in big league games in spring training. No, just like several other names on this list, we just need to see what he does in actual games when we can watch him for more than an inning or two at a time.
I expect him to get some innings in at third base this year because of the logjam of shortstops in the lower minors and a move to the hot corner might actually allow him to continue to fill out his frame. More strength might be the recipe for success when it comes to a swing path that can produce some good power numbers.
#13 Owen Caissie (18), OF, Arizona
I am certifiably Not A Scout™, but I disagree with the reports that Caissie has a long swing that will be prone to strikeouts. One of the four horsemen that came over in the Darvatini deal, Caissie’s stroke is actually pretty short and to the ball. He has a body built for slugging and he put up some of the best exit velocity numbers in the 2020 draft class among high school hitters.
Although he has decent speed right now, I think he will put on muscle to a point where he will be limited to the corner outfield positions with the possibility of even moving to first base.
#12 Ronnier Quintero (18), C, Arizona
If Cole Roederer has the most beautiful swing in the system, Quintero might already have locked up the award for second-prettiest without logging a single pro inning. His smooth stroke generates good loft and, when paired with a body built for power, he will rack up the bombs as soon as he starts playing games.
Young catchers take the longest time to develop and Quintero is still only 18 years old, so don’t worry about the Cubs taking a patient approach with him. He has a strong arm that works well behind the plate and will continue there until his bat becomes significantly more advanced than his glove and he moves to first base.
#11 Kevin Made (18), SS, Arizona
In just over a year, Made has gone from the Cubs’ second-ranked international free agent signing of the 2019 class to being somewhat of a forgotten man. And while I do have him ranked below three of his fellow teenage shortstops, I’m still expecting big things from Made. He stands 6-foot-1 and has already begun adding muscle to his slight frame, giving him the potential to hit for average and power while sticking at shortstop.
While he was one of the youngest guys at fall instructs, the reports coming out of Arizona were that he really impressed on both sides of the ball.
#10 Andy Weber (23), SS, Tennessee
It seems pretty clear to me that Weber’s future role in Chicago is as a David Bote-style bench bat. I can see him getting somewhat regular plate appearances while never locking down a typical starting role, though he will not use the same methods as Bote. Weber is a really solid defender at shortstop and he is more than capable of displaying those same abilities at third base and second base. With the stick, it is all about his ability to put the bat on the ball into the gap.
He has said he understands when he needs to deploy different types of swings in an at-bat and he won’t just sell out for power. If he can continue to improve his walk numbers, we are looking at a really solid bat, albeit one without light-tower power. Though it isn’t probable, it’s not completely out of the question that we see him in Chicago by year’s-end. A 2022 timeline is much more likely.
#9 Jordan Nwogu (22), OF, Myrtle Beach
When the former Michigan Wolverine was selected in the third round of the 2020 draft, experts immediately pointed to his funky swing as a reason why he won’t hit for enough average. His poor routes in the outfield had some saying he profiles as a DH-only player. I prefer to point out a few different things. Nwogu is in better shape than any player in the organization and I invite you to somehow spin that into a negative. He is also an incredibly smart person on the field and outside of baseball.
He showed the ability to apply coaching advice to hone his swing in college and we have already seen major adjustments to his load mechanics this offseason. My thinking is that if he was able to put up these stupid-good numbers with “poor” swing mechanics in college, there’s no telling what he can do with a corrected swing as a pro. I’m buying into Nwogu’s power/speed combo and think he can really take off in just his first pro season.
#8 Chris Morel (22), 3B, Tennessee
I’ll admit that Morel is one of the toughest players for me to evaluate, even though he wins the award for the most exciting prospect in the system thanks to his Javy Báez-like efforts on defense and at the plate. It was very telling of the front office’s view of him that he spent the 2020 season at the alternate site in South Bend after never suiting up above Low-A. His floor is pretty clear thanks to his plus defense at third, enough athleticism to play good defense elsewhere, and arguably the strongest throwing arm in the system.
Those traits alone are enough to make him an MLB-level defensive replacement. At the plate, however, his inability to draw walks is going to hurt his OBP and his elevated strikeout numbers mean he is going to have to thrive on abnormally high BABIP numbers. That isn’t necessarily out of the question thanks to his lightning-quick bat speed. You’ll see Morel begin the year in Double-A Tennessee.
#7 Chase Strumpf (23), 2B, Tennessee
What we know for sure about Strumpf is that he has a plus hit tool and will take more than his fair share of walks by working deep counts. He can also turn on a fastball with the best of them. What we think we know about Strumpf is that he has significant power to the opposite field, as he showed in fall instructs. He might also be better defensively at second base than first indicated and could have the ability to shift around the diamond to play some third base.
If the things we might know can shift over to the definite column, you are looking at a guy that is ranked far too low here. Otherwise, he teetering between an everyday player and a good bench bat and he is probably accurately ranked here. If what we currently see from Strumpf is what we are going to get, he probably has an uphill climb as a bat-first second baseman.
#6 Cole Roederer (21), OF, South Bend
The California Kid has four tools that are flirting with being considered above average but just aren’t quite there yet. The power is probably the most flashy due to the fact that he has the most beautiful swing in the system and there are times when the ball just explodes off his bat to the pull-side. His speed and defense are absolutely good enough to stick in center, especially with increased agility in spite of additional muscle. Roederer will need to improve his approach at the plate and show off the ability to use the whole field more often in order for his hit tool to really take off.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Don’t get too hung up on his 2019 stats in South Bend. He performed more than admirably for a kid playing his first baseball outside of sunny SoCal over a full season of games in the Midwest League.
#5 Reggie Preciado (18), SS/3B, Arizona
In my eyes, this is the big piece of the Darvish/Caratini deal. Preciado stands 6-foot-5, is a switch hitter, plays shortstop, and is super athletic. Oh, he’s also just 17 years old as of this post. The swing adjustments he has already made in a short amount of time as a professional should allow for him to tap into the power his frame promises.
You can probably expect him to move to third base as he fills out in the coming years, but that aforementioned athleticism makes me believe you are looking at a pretty solid defensive player in the future. This ranking might come as somewhat of a surprise to many of you, but I think there are big days ahead for Preciado.
#4 Cristian Hernandez (17), SS, Arizona
For all things that are good and holy, stop with the A-Rod and Machado comparisons. They aren’t fair to a 17-year-old. Instead, focus on how good Hernandez can become after just a little seasoning with the Cubs development team. The raw tools are clearly there, starting with a fluid stroke at the plate that will generate plenty of power and lends itself to very few swing-and-miss gaps. His build appears to be such that he can add plenty of muscle as he becomes, you know, not a teenager.
What’s more, the expectation is that he won’t have to move his smooth defensive skills off of the shortstop position even as he grows. Hernandez is the last example on this list of a guy that would not have appeared on my rankings in the past because of the lack of live looks, but I couldn’t be more excited that I am able to pop him in here this year. The sky’s the limit with this kid.
#3 Ed Howard (19), SS, Myrtle Beach
There is obviously a trend in the system when it comes to uber-athletic players with big upside. We all know the story about Howard coming from Jackie Robinson West Little League, but I feel like that has overshadowed the fact that he was a legit first-round talent and is one of the best prospects the Cubs have. Though defense can be one of the toughest skills to evaluate when it comes to minor leaguers, Howard’s nickname ain’t “Silk” for nothing.
It will be interesting to see how the bat develops and where it falls in the contact/power/approach spectrum. Reports are that he has put on plenty of muscle and will look completely different taking the field in 2021 compared to the high school junior we saw highlights of in 2019.
#2 Miguel Amaya (22), Catcher, Tennessee
Between his work at the alternate site, the show he put on in the Puerto Rican winter league, and the pictures of the 21-year-old looking like a grown man, no one picked up more steam in the form of prospect hype in 2020 than Amaya. The backstop’s skills have been evolving throughout his time in the organization and he’s drawn rave reviews from the front office and teammates alike. What began as a reputation for having a Willson Contreras-like arm behind the plate has morphed into that of a very well-rounded defensive catcher that pitchers love throwing to because of his framing and game management skills.
We will wait and see how his raw power translates to in-game homers at the upper levels of the minors. Amaya will likely begin the year in Double-A Tennessee and his timeline to Chicago will be dependent on the Contreras situation. To be completely frank, an ultra-young catching prospect can do a whole lot worse than gaining in-game experience from a bunch of MLB vets in Iowa.
#1 Brennen Davis (21), OF, Tennessee
Davis isn’t just the best hitting prospect this system has, he is the best overall player not yet in Chicago. In fact, I could make the argument that he is the best prospect the Cubs have seen since Gleyber Torres topped their lists in 2015. The once very raw outfielder is a project no more after seeing plenty of advanced pitchers at the alternate site in South bend in 2020.
His incredible athleticism has allowed him to develop quickly in his short time as a pro, which means taking advantage of natural power to all fields. Davis had an historic performance in 2019 at Low-A and is now picking up on the nuances of a selective plate approach. He was the youngest player in big league spring camp, where he picked up even more experience and knowledge, but don’t expect to see him at Wrigley this season. Rather, Davis will probably start the year at Double-A Tennessee and should make his way to Chicago sometime in 2022, at which point I think he profiles best as a corner outfielder.
Check back soon for 20 of your favorite Cubs pitching prospects