If you had fun reading about the top 20 position players in the Cubs farm system, you are in for a doozy today. While the best bats in the organization are guys in the lower-minors, the pitchers are a more eclectic mix. There is a good balance of players we have yet to throw above rookie ball, high-floor prospects that will be on-call for Chicago appearances, potential top-of-the-rotation stars, and fireballing relievers.
If you didn’t read CI’s second annual prospect list, be sure to go back and get the lowdown on the differences in this year’s version compared to last year’s inaugural lists. The quick and dirty? If a player is getting a paycheck from the Chicago Cubs, then they are eligible for my lists.
Enough yapping, let’s get right into the 20 best pitchers in the Cubs farm system.
A player’s baseball age indicates how old he is as of July 1, 2021. Affiliate is my projection as of March 7th.
#20 Benjamin Rodriguez (21), RHP, Myrtle Beach
Might as well start off today’s list with the pitcher I’m most excited to see play this year. When Rodriguez signed in 2017 he was 6-foot-1 and just 165 pounds. I’m not sure what he weighs now, but I do know that he said he’s hitting a cool 98 mph on the gun.
It is still all about projection with Rodriguez and there isn’t a whole lot of information out there on his secondary offerings. He could begin the season in the Low-A Myrtle Beach rotation and will be one of the most interesting pitchers to watch each time he takes the mound this year.
#19 Hunter Bigge (23), RHP, South Bend
This spot in the list was reserved for one flamethrower of the trio of Bigge, Manny Rodriguez, and Luke Little. I went with Bigge because I’m just so intrigued by his arm slot and his athleticism. The former two-way college star displayed an ability to run his heater up toward triple digits with Eugene in 2019, which is significant. Pair that with his 6-0 frame, arm slot, and an ability to work up in the zone, and you are looking at a guy someone who could take advantage of an extremely high vertical approach angle (VAA).
What does that mean? If you want to get into the weeds a bit, feel free, but it basically means “flatter” fastballs are harder to hit. I really like Bigge as a reliever and think he can be a fast mover through the system, probably beginning in High-A South Bend this season.
#18 Chris Clarke (23), RHP, South Bend
The big righty is somewhat of a forgotten man from a loaded 2019 draft class, but his fastball-curveball combo is too impressive to hide. I’m excited to see what new tricks he picked up over the past year and whether he has enough options in his repertoire to stick in the rotation long-term.
The hook is devastating, so be sure to mention that if you’re ever asked what makes Clarke so good. He will likely begin the 2021 campaign in High-A South Bend.
#17 Justin Steele (25), LHP, Iowa
Let’s start this off with the positives in Steele’s game: He has a fastball that has plenty of late life and could sit in the mid-90s in short stints out of the bullpen. He has always had a hammer curveball that freezes lefty hitters and generates plenty of swings and misses against righties. He has been working on a new slider that we didn’t get the privilege of witnessing during his short stint in Chicago last year that ended without an appearance.
The problem with Steele is that the Cubs front office has done him dirty a la Duane Underwood Jr. and Pierce Johnson. He is down to his last optionable season and the organization has taken far too long converting him to a reliever. He hasn’t been able to stay healthy enough to stick in the rotation, his stuff will play up extremely well in the pen, and the team has to decide what they want to do with him long-term in just 12 months. With all that being said, Steele might legitimately be the best lefty bullpen option this team has. So let’s find out what he can do, shall we?
#16 Cam Sanders (24), RHP, South Bend
South Bend teammate and fellow roommate Cole Roederer recently identified Sanders as the guy most prospect writers are sleeping on. And in response to Kohl Franklin and Andy Weber getting more love, I identified Sanders as my new under-the-radar prospect to keep an eye on. Sanders has been getting after it this winter and showed off triple-digits on some pull downs. We’ve seen him in game action hitting high-90s with his heater and we know he has two different curveballs – including one that is reminiscent of a Yu Darvish slow curve – that he can locate with ease. A new slider was in the works over the last year without baseball, so it will be good to see how he incorporates that pitch into a true starters repertoire in 2021 in a pretty stacked South Bend rotation.
#15 Tyson Miller (25), RHP, Iowa
Even after making his MLB debut in 2020 and becoming a fan-favorite in many circles, I still have Miller down further on my list here than most folks. I just think he has limited upside as a starting pitcher. Miller will have an impact in Chicago in some capacity for quite a while, whether that is as a back-end of the rotation starter, a swingman, or a middle innings reliever down the road. Where Miller really stands out is when it comes to his quirks in comparison to the rest of the league. During his cup of tea in Chicago, he featured a release point further toward third base than 99% of MLB pitchers which could help his slider play up. He also displayed better than average extension toward home plate, which could help the heater play up. Unless his command can catch up to his control, I think he is going to have to thrive off those quirks in his game.
#14 Koen Moreno (19), RHP, Arizona
Moreno was selected in the fifth round of the 2020 draft by the same Cubs scout that signed fellow North Carolinian DJ Herz. Moreno is still just 19 years old and he is a freak athlete who played multiple sports in high school. He already has a tumbling changeup — a pitch that I’m a sucker for with young prospects — and was sitting in the low 90s with his fastball at the time he was drafted.
After some time focusing solely on baseball, we might see that heater a few miles per hour faster when he comes out in Arizona for his first pro season. Moreno is still incredibly raw, but there are a lot of Kohl Franklin comparisons to be made here thanks to his build, athleticism, and plus changeup.
#13 DJ Herz (20), LHP, Myrtle Beach
There is no player in the system that has garnered more interest from me over the last several months than Herz. We have heard in interviews from assistant GM Craig Breslow, player development director Bobby Basham, and the man himself that the work he has put in is paying huge dividends on the mound. He has smoothed out his pitching mechanics, something that he credits to his athleticism (a trait that this front office has targeted in recent drafts).
Herz has also worked on developing a new spike curve grip, enhanced his already impressive changeup, and tacked on a few ticks to his heater. The young lefty came into spring training a year ago sitting 92-95 mph, but has since added 15 pounds of muscle to put him in the 200-pound range. Expect big things in his first full season in a very talented Myrtle Beach rotation.
#12 Keegan Thompson (26), RHP, Iowa
I’ve said for years now that Thompson has the best pitchability in the system. His mound presence, ability to throw literally any pitch in any count, and to command each of those pitches will allow him to get a few innings in Chicago this year as a new member of the 40-man roster.
Thompson is going to be 26 years old on Opening Day this year and he has only pitched 10 regular season innings since 2018, but he impressed at the alternate site last year in his return from injury. His curve is a true out-pitch and I think Thompson has back-end of the rotation written all over him in the next couple of years.
#11 Yovanny Cruz (21), RHP, Myrtle Beach
If there is a guy you might want to buy stock in right now, it is Cruz. When he signed in 2016 at just 16 years old, the righty stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 190 pounds, but his days at that weight are long gone. Cruz has filled out considerably over the last few years and it showed during the 2019 campaign, when he went from sitting in the low-90s with his sinker in 2018 all the way up to regularly working in the high-90s with plenty of arm-side run.
The slider can be truly devastating at times but needs more consistency. His body and pitch offerings have changed quite a bit during his time with the organization, all for the better. I think we are looking at a mainstay in the Myrtle Beach and South Bend rotations in 2021.
#10 Jack Patterson (25), LHP, Tennessee
I’ve purposely avoided referencing statistics on these prospect lists because we are 17 months removed from minor league baseball and have pored over every single number for every single guy in the system. I’m going to break my rule for Patterson, who had an absurd 62.1% ground ball rate and allowed a rather silly 2.3% of fly balls to leave the yard. The reason I bring up these numbers is because they are super impressive and also fairly unattainable in future years.
Patterson has a bowling ball of a sinker, a slider that can be used as a perfect put-away pitch, and has been working on a spike curve. He would get caught from time to time blending his slider and curveball into a slurvey mix of the two, but this new spike grip will create a nice distinction. The groundball rate might fall a bit and he will probably give up more homers on the fly balls he allows, but I think he will continue to put up good enough numbers to remain in the rotation long-term.
#9 Burl Carraway (22), LHP, Tennessee
I might take the most heat for this ranking because Carraway was the Cubs’ second-round pick last year and sports the best fastball and curveball metrics in his draft class. Combine that with his fairly mentality on the mound and you’re looking at future closer potential here. But like a power-only DH profile or a contact-only second baseman, there is very little room for error with a guy who will only log relief innings as a pro.
Trust me, I want to rank Carraway higher. Instead, I’ll root like hell for him to improve his command just enough to make an impact in Chicago by the end of this season.
#8 Richard Gallardo (19), RHP, Myrtle Beach
For a 19-year-old who has only thrown four innings above the Arizona League, it sure seems like Gallardo has been around for a long time. Part of the reason it feels that way is because when the righty signed as the top international free agent pitcher back in 2018, he was already super advanced for his age. He has rolled with a fastball/curveball/changeup combo since he signed and he flashes plus with all of them.
The big goal with Gallardo is whether or not he can sit mid-90s with his fastball instead of just touching them. I’ve heard very little about his development this offseason, but we could be in for a pleasant surprise once he takes the mound in Myrtle Beach on May 4.
#7 Michael McAvene (23), RHP, South Bend
I often compare McAvene to draft-mate Ryan Jensen, both of whom feature high-90s heat to go along with wipeout sliders. In fact, I would argue that McAvene has one of the best sliders in the system. He was a closer in college but the Cubs were quick to convert him to the rotation, reminiscent of fellow Louisville Cardinal Riley Thompson.
McAvene’s two-pitch mix would fit perfectly in a high-leverage bullpen role and he could find himself in Chicago by early 2022 if the front office moves him back to the pen. I’m high on the pure stuff, so the reason he isn’t higher on this list is the reliever “risk.” Even a reliever that is as dominant as I think he could be only carries so much weight.
#6 Riley Thompson (24), RHP, Tennessee
I’m tired of hearing about how Thompson was old for his level at Low-A South Bend in 2019. The stuff is there. He has been very candid in saying it is a major goal of his to consistently hit triple-digits on the gun with his fastball. His hook was heralded coming out of college, but that pitch was actually re-worked into a spike curve during the 2019 season.
While his fastball and curveball are both plus pitches, it is actually his changeup that I think is his best offering. There is a crazy amount of arm-side fade on that pitch and it generates plenty of swings and misses. Thompson should begin the year in Double-A Tennessee rotation.
#5 Cory Abbott (25), RHP, Iowa
I’ve done plenty of beating the drum for Abbott to be the No. 5 starter on Opening Day, so I won’t use this list as another opportunity for that. Instead, I’ll tell you that Abbott reminds me so much of Jon Lester in the way he completes on the mound. That isn’t me saying he is going to be a Hall of Famer, but that shouldn’t take away from the compliment. Abbott will go out with his bulldog mentality and even if he allows three runs in the 1st inning, he will still buckle down and get you five more innings on the bump.
His pitch tunneling is advanced, his pitchability is off the charts, and he has much better “stuff” than people give him credit for. His cutter/slider is one of the best in the system and a go-to out pitch. I think we can expect his heater to tick up from the low-90s to the mid-90s thanks to the work he put in during the minor league layoff.
#4 Ryan Jensen (23), RHP, South Bend
Are we sleeping on a former first round pick who can throw his fastball 100 mph deep into starts? Is that possible? I’m not reading into his incredibly small sample size in Eugene where he piled up the walks and I think he is athletic enough to dial in his control and even his command. Down in the zone, his fastball acts as a sinker with a nasty amount of tailing action. Up in the zone, rides out of his hand and gets up on batters faster than they perceive thanks to his long arm action.
The slider is already a go-to put-away pitch and he has been working on — you guessed it — a spike curve that he can work off the high heat as a second put-away pitch. We often talk about four-seam/curveball guys or sinker/slider guys, but Jensen could be both.
#3 Adbert Alzolay (26), RHP, Chicago
Alzolay is seemingly a completely different pitcher than he was just a couple years ago. He used to be a prospect with a good fastball, a great curveball, and the inability to put together a full season of starts. Between Chicago and South Bend in 2020, he featured a new sinker and a nasty slider that completely changes his repertoire.
With up to five pitches he can lean on, he has the makeup to remain in the rotation. It will all come down to an ability that no one can predict: durability. He gets the feature at No. 3 because for the first time in several years, I believe he can stick as a starter.
#2 Kohl Franklin (21), RHP, South Bend
What was once a very small Kohl Franklin Fan Club has now grown to encompass the national prospect writing scene. With Franklin, you are looking at a mid-90s fastball that might actually flash as high as 98 mph this year, the best changeup the system has to offer, and a year’s worth of familiarity with his “new” spike curve grip.
He has grown a couple inches over the last year, put on some good weight, and remained athletic enough to have a repeatable and fluid delivery. Add all of that together and you have a guy that has the potential to be a starter atop the rotation in just a few short years.
#1 Brailyn Márquez (22), LHP, Tennessee
If you are using Márquez’s MLB debut as a gauge for how his career will play out, you are doing things wrong. The big lefty regularly touches triple digits on his fastball and worked on developing a sinker to play off his slider during his time at the South Bend alternate site in 2020. We have seen the Cubs’ research and development team zig with the sinker/slider combo on several starters while other teams zag with the four-seam/curveball.
That could play into Márquez’s favor as he continues to develop as a starter. The changeup is looking better and better as his career moves on and I think he will need each of those pitches plus some improved mechanics to stick in the rotation. I actually lean more toward Márquez-the-reliever than most folks, but I also think he can be an elite-level bullpen arm.
Have any qualms about my lists? Feel free to find your way over to my Twitter (@OutOfTheVines) to give me all sorts of hell. I can take it, and I’ll defend my position as best I can!