Cubs Insider’s Annual Prospect List: Top 20 Bats

I can’t begin to explain how much more fun it is to make a prospect list when the system is oozing with so much more talent compared to five years ago. Even looking at the very first edition of my CI rankings back in 2020, there are pretty startling differences in the amount in both the depth and volume of high-level skills across the board.

That is especially true on the hitting side of things, where the top seven players on this list could be featured on league-wide top 100 lists as soon as midseason. That grouping is of course led by now three-time Cubs Insider top bat, Brennen Davis. Shocker, I know. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to begin this list at No. 20 and work our way up to the No. 1 hitter when everyone and their mother knows who will be at the top.

If you’re new to my ranking style, it’s different than other lists you’ll find out there. Prospect ranking is an incredibly difficult task that is made even more so by trying to compare the likes of a 26-year-old MLB-ready pitcher (Cory Abbott) to an 18-year-old shortstop who has yet to play a stateside game (Cristian Hernandez). So to make things a little simpler for me to break down and you to comprehend, I split my lists into Top 20 Bats and Top 20 Arms.

You’re reading the hitting version today, with the pitchers coming soon. Let’s get to it.

The affiliate associated with each player is my projected assignment for Opening Day of the minor league season, pending injury or delay keeping them in extended spring training. Their age is in parenthesis and represents their baseball age, or age as of July 1. Stats are from the 2021 season.

#1 Brennen Davis (22) — OF, Iowa

A+/AA/AAA | 416 PA, .260/.375/.494
141 wRC+, 28.4 K%, 12.0 BB%

Sometimes it makes sense to have the rankings in reverse order, building suspense until the reader finally gets to see who the No. 1 prospect is. But since there’s no doubt in this case, it would be anticlimactic to put Davis at the end. Although I don’t think it makes sense to have him on the Opening Day roster, he will be in Chicago soon enough.

He’s a legitimate middle-of-the-order bat and I think he probably plays right field long-term. Let’s put to rest two things: 1) He has elite power to all fields, not just the pull-side, and 2) The strikeouts he piled up last year were NOT a product of him swinging at everything “just like Javy Báez.” When he gets called up to Chicago, he will go through an adjustment period and then absolutely take off.

#2 Kevin Alcantara (19) — OF, Myrtle Beach

CPX | 138 PA, .345/.423/.588
26.1 K%, 12.3% BB

Let me preface this writeup of Alcantara by saying that I think it’s fair to have any of the next five guys on this list slotted here at No. 2 instead. Heck, I even had Reggie Preciado here as recently as a couple months ago. But what it comes down to right now is that I think Alcantara can be the next Davis. Brought to the Cubs as part of the return for Anthony Rizzo, the lanky 6-foot-6 outfielder is a freak athlete like Davis, with long levers that he didn’t quite know how to use before Cubs development staff got their hands on him, and combines power and speed skills that every prospect hound loves to see.

The big question with Alcantara will be how much he gets beat with fastballs on the inside half of the plate in the early going in Myrtle Beach. Just keep in mind that his body will be going through plenty of changes over the next few seasons because he’s so young.

#3 James Triantos (19) — IF, Myrtle Beach

CPX | 109 PA, .327/.376/.594
143 wRC+, 16.5 K%, 6.4 BB%

I feel like a broken record because I say this here, on Twitter, and on the podcast what seems like every day: Elite hitters make plenty of contact and they hit the ball with authority. Triantos does both of those things incredibly well and I’d argue that at 19 years old, he already has one of the best hit tools in the entire system.

But what sets him apart is the fact that he makes that contact with the most beautiful and violent swing I’ve seen. He is attacking the baseball, not hitting it. Though he might not be a shortstop as a pro, it won’t even slightly matter as long as he is playing decent defense at second base and/or third base with a bat like his.

#4 Cristian Hernandez (18) — SS, Arizona

DSL | 191 PA, .285/.398/.424
132 wRC+, 20.4 K%, 15.7 BB%

The mystery man became a little less mysterious this spring as we caught plenty of glimpses of him from the wonderful photographers down in Mesa. Although I’m pretty hesitant to rank guys with so little stateside action, Hernandez gets an exception because of his pedigree (ranked top five in his IFA class), his movements and actions in the field and at the plate (incredibly smooth and refined for a teenager), and his plate approach.

Okay, I’ll admit that we don’t know a ton about his plate approach, but to see that he put up a 15.7% walk rate during his time in the Dominican Summer League last year catches my eye. Typically, players with that kind of contact and power skills tend to do their best to “hit their way off the island” and in turn, post pretty low walk numbers. Hernandez obviously showed the patience to work plate appearances and that will set him up for a great debut this year.

#5 Reggie Preciado (19) — SS/3B, Myrtle Beach

CPX | 154 PA, .333/.383/.511
132 wRC+, 22.7 K%, 7.1 BB%

As I mentioned before, Preciado has been as high as No. 2 on drafts of this list. I’m content with sticking him here at No. 5 for now because, as I mentioned, it’s kind of a toss-up. My best description of Preciado is to compare him to Alcantara, an athletic baby deer who’s still trying to find his footing. I worry that Preciado’s athleticism doesn’t quite match up with Alcantara’s, and I know that his speed most definitely does not.

What Preciado has to his advantage is that he is still lining up at shortstop on occasion in addition to his work at both second base and third base. Being a switch-hitter is incredibly valuable in my eyes as well, but the former Padres farmhand will need to continue to tweak his swing to make sure he is driving the ball from gap to gap and not straight into the ground.

#6 Owen Caissie (19) — OF, Myrtle Beach

CPX/A- | 226 PA, .302/.434/.489
148 wRC+, 29.6 K%, 18.6 BB%

This is almost certainly too low and I’m afraid I’ll be kicking myself in June and flat-out embarrassed in 2024. Caissie has arguably the best power in a system that includes Davis, Nelson Velázquez, and Alexander Canario. He records the best exit velocities in the organization, works an at-bat with the best of ‘em, and really has some pretty good bat-to-ball skills despite that elevated strikeout rate. So why do I have him “all the way down” here at No. 6?

His upside is almost entirely reliant on the power numbers he puts up and I might actually be the highest on Caissie’s defense after you consider the fact that he spent much of his childhood practicing the outfield by taking flyballs inside (how is that even possible?). But to me, the actions out there still don’t feel athletic enough. Heck, I’ll throw a best-case scenario comp out there: Kyle Schwarber with a higher batting average. 

#7 Pete Crow-Armstrong (20) — OF, Myrtle Beach

A- | 32 PA, .417/.563/.500
203 wRC+, 18.8 K%, 21.9 BB%

PCA marks the end of the group of guys that would be acceptable to place at No. 2 on this list. Despite the fact that this kid has played only six professional baseball games, we actually have a pretty clear blueprint of who he is as a prospect. He is going to make a lot of contact and hit for a high average while striking out very little. Picture a prototypical, old-school leadoff hitter. He shows off his speed and advanced instincts to fly all over the yard and make Gold Glove-caliber plays in center.

Whether he really takes off as a top prospect or not depends on his ability to do one of two things: Post high walk rates to supplement his high batting average with a high on-base percentage OR take to the changes he has been making in the offseason to develop more power and be at least a threat to take middle-middle fastballs and hanging breakers out of the ballpark. If he does one of those things, he’s legit. If he can somehow do both, he’s the new top prospect in the system once Davis graduates.

#8 Yohendrick Pinango (20) — OF, South Bend

A-/A+ | 456 PA, .276/.327/.373
93 wRC+, 15.1 K%, 6.8 BB%

We’ve reached wave two, so feel free to take a moment to catch your breath before continuing your reading. Pinango went from being a superstar in the Dominican Summer League to making it all the way up to High-A as a 19-year-old in his stateside debut. If Hernandez does that, we’ll never shut up about him. But instead, Pinango slots in here at No. 8. I guess I’ll start with the negatives. His body is pretty much maxed out at this point and he is a left fielder long-term, albeit a pretty decent one. He doesn’t look like a power hitter and hasn’t been one to this point.

Instead, he makes a ton of contact and limits strikeouts to a great degree. His natural approach is to hit ground balls and line drives to the opposite field, to the point where it felt like all of his hits last year went the other way. We will need to see him turn on more mistake pitches, especially hanging breaking balls, something that started to happen as the season wore on. I’m bullish on the changes he made a year ago and I think he can transform as a hitter in the coming seasons. Oh, and a friendly reminder that Pinango had just six plate appearances against pitchers that were younger than him in 2021.

#9 Ed Howard (20) — SS/2B, Myrtle Beach

A- | 326 PA, .225/.277/.315
64 wRC+, 30.1 K%, 5.5 BB%

Stop sleeping on Howard for a bad statistical season in 2021. Get over it. He was a teenager playing in his first season since he was a junior in high school and doing so against pitchers that were just drafted out of the SEC. He didn’t hit high heat well and struggled to make contact against breaking balls out of the zone, which led to his walk numbers taking a nosedive as he began to press.

Every action Howard makes on the baseball field is smooth. He is still tremendous on defense, has lightning-quick hands at the plate, and continues to put on good weight. I think he will enter a season in Myrtle Beach with the right mindset and understanding of what he needs to do to get a quick bump up to South Bend. Then he will be right on track and we will forget about his first pro season entirely.

#10 Kevin Made (19) — IF, South Bend

A- | 243 PA, .272/.296/.366
80 wRC+, 23.5 K%, 2.5 BB%

We’ll start off with the defense here. Made was good enough at shortstop that he forced Howard, the Cubs’ best defensive prospect, over to second base for some games. He’s got a strong enough arm that he logged 13 games at third base and he makes some highlight-reel plays at short. He definitely has some good bat-to-ball skills at the plate and flashed more power as the season wore on, but his lack of any type of approach is what is limiting him right now.

I’m sure his coaches will preach patience as he is talented enough to hit in deep counts, he just has to let himself get there. The wildest stat of Made’s 2021 campaign? In 243 plate appearances, he only reached a 2-0, 2-1, or 3-1 count 22 times.

#11 Chase Strumpf (24) — 3B/2B, Tennessee

A+/AA | 321 PA, .231/.352/.381
109 wRC+, 25.5 K%, 14.0 BB%

I did it, I talked myself into sending Strumpf up a few spots in this ranking. Maybe it’s just because his 2021 season is terribly underrated or maybe it’s recency bias as I’m watching him do some good things in spring training games. All I know is that I’m still as confident as I’ve always been in his ability to simply hit the ball. You can’t teach the discipline he shows at the dish and his body looks far more capable of sending balls out to right field.

Most importantly, his conversion to third base has been huge. Surprisingly enough, I think he is an above-average defender at the hot corner where he can play using his instincts (good) instead of using his range (bad) at second. Today’s MLB asks third and second basemen to put up similar offensive production, so I’m not sure there is added pressure to his bat with the move to the other side of the diamond.

#12 Miguel Amaya (23) — Catcher, Injured List

AA | 106 PA, .215/.406/.304
117 wRC+, 20.8 K%, 19.8 BB%

The Tommy John surgery for Amaya is a big blow here. While I don’t expect it to ultimately hurt his progression behind the plate — where he should remain excellent — the lack of at-bats is really starting to impact his development. His plate approach has improved year after year, resulting in growing walk rates and shrinking strikeout rates despite rising up the organizational ladder, but this will be his third consecutive season with fewer than 150 ABs. One of Amaya’s biggest developmental goals is to showcase more in-game power and the last time I checked, you can’t display in-game power if you aren’t playing in games.

#13 Jordan Nwogu (23) — OF, South Bend

A- | 373 PA, .248/.344/.390
103 wRC+, 28.2 K%, 11.3 BB%

We knew Nwogu was still working on mechanical adjustments to his swing entering the 2021 campaign and that being patient with the former Michigan Wolverine was going to be important. But we didn’t know he was going to put together a tale of two halves of the season quite like that.

From Opening Day through July 6 (33 games), Nwogu slashed .160/.258/.255 with a 37.5% strikeout rate and 9.2% walk rate, good for a 45 wRC+. From July 7 through the end of the year (61 games), he slashed .290/.385/.456 with a 23.7% strikeout rate and a 12.3% walk rate, good for a 131 wRC+. He’ll take his new mechanics, incredible athleticism, defense suddenly good enough to dabble in centerfield, and a fresh mindset into a new and more hitter-friendly ballpark in South Bend this year.

#14 Christopher Morel (23) — UT, Iowa

AA/AAA | 456 PA, .223/.303/.427
100 wRC+, 29.4 K%, 9.9 BB%

Morel is the hardest person in the org to rank year after year. He has lightning-fast bat speed that lends itself to pop at the plate, he’s quick enough to snag 20 bases, and he can play good defense at five or more positions with a cannon of an arm. Still, I view him as being the most electric and exciting bench guy in the league. He’ll need to hit for a much higher average (something I think he could do if his line drive rate is any indication) while still drawing walks at the pace he put up last year (I don’t think that is sustainable) to even be in the discussion of an MLB starter long-term.

#15 Alexander Canario (22) — OF, Tennessee

A-/A+ | 456 PA, .230/.300/.431
27.4 K%, 9.4 BB%

The next two guys here on the list share plenty of things in common. Both Canario and Velázquez are really good athletes with the ability to play center, but are probably more suited for right because of their good-but-not-great speed and strong arms. Both have light-tower power, strike out more than you’d like, and walk less than you’d prefer. So why am I giving Canario the slightest edge? I’m more confident that his natural athleticism will translate into more seamless adjustment periods as he climbs the ladder and eventually makes it to the majors. Plus, ya know, look at his swing.

#16 Nelson Velázquez (23) — OF, Iowa

A+/AA | 425 PA, .270/.333/.496
122 wRC+, 31.1 K%, 7.1 BB%

Obviously, the first three sentences from Canario’s write-up also apply here. So what is different? Velázquez clicked last year, tearing up two different levels of the system on his way to arguably the best offensive performance in the organization and the most homers by a prospect. He then went to the Arizona Fall League and made it look like college ball.

Honestly, the lack of walks worries me far more than the strikeout numbers. Whiffs can always be a part of a power hitter’s game and can be acceptable to a certain degree, so an outfielder who hits 30 bombs with a 30% strikeout rate can still be a major league starter. An outfielder who hits 30 tanks but can’t carry an OBP much higher than .300 is a pinch hitter.

#17 Alfonso Rivas (25) — 1B, Iowa

AAA | 237 PA, .284/.405/.411
127 wRC+, 20.7 K%, 14.8 BB%

He’s got 70-grade defensive skills at first base to go with 70-grade plate approach and discipline to give him one of the best hit tools in the system. But a first base prospect needs to do more than have those skills and put up good numbers in Triple-A because a poor man’s Mark Grace won’t get a ton of playing time in the sport today. Rivas is one of my favorite guys in the organization, but he will need to develop at least one of two skills to be an everyday starter in the bigs.

He either needs to become a league-average left fielder or pull more baseballs for home runs without increasing his strikeout numbers above 23% or so. I have confidence he can do both of those things, but the margin of error with prospects like Rivas is razor-thin.

#18 Christian Franklin (22) — OF, Injured List

CPX/A- | 101 PA, .237/.426/.316
123 wRC+, 24.8 K%, 19.8 BB%

In a draft that produced two media darlings in Triantos and Jordan Wicks, we don’t hear Franklin’s name tossed around nearly enough as a terrific signing in the fourth round. He adds to a list of terrific defensive centerfielders the Cubs have brought into the system over the past several years (PCA, Zach Davis, Connor Myers, DJ Wilson), and that in itself raises his floor to the upper minors. Franklin actually has more pop than you would imagine from a defense-first centerfielder, but it will be the hit tool that will take him where he wants to go as a player.

A major adjustment was made once he turned pro to flatten out his swing path and, while I won’t go deep into the logic behind it, the quick and dirty is that it allows him to make better contact on fastballs. Even more specifically, he should be better able to handl high fastballs instead of swinging right through them. He suffered an injury in spring training that will keep him out a while, but expect to see him in South Bend once he’s cleared.

#19 Cole Roederer (22) — OF, South Bend

A+ | 84 PA, .229/.345/.300
88 wRC+, 23.8 K%, 14.3 BB%

The California Kid with the sweetest swing in the system is back. He missed most of last season due to elbow reconstruction, but he believes his arm is stronger now than it was before the surgery and he’s starting to get a little work in the outfield rather than just being a DH. While he may still need some time at extended spring training to start the year, we are going to see plenty of that bat in South Bend and Tennessee.

I’m excited to see the changes he has made to start using the whole field a little more. Between being a high floor/low ceiling bat and terrific defensive chops, Roederer might be one of the most interesting stories to watch play out this year. And who knows, maybe that TJ surgery was a blessing in disguise and we see him use some added arm strength as a weapon out there in center.

#20 Andy Weber (24) — SS/2B, Tennessee

CPX/AA | 160 PA, .223/.319/.324
82 wRC+. 33.1 K%, 9.4 BB%

I always love using this last slot of my rankings for a surprise pick and I think Weber qualifies. It really felt like he never truly got his feet under him in Tennessee last year after he missed time due to injury. He was pressing at the plate and the normally sure-handed defender took it out with him in the field a few times. I was glad he was able to reset in the Arizona Fall League and put up a slash of .273/.387/.466 in nearly as many at-bats as his regular season effort.

What you’re sure to get from Weber in the years to come is a capable defender at three infield positions, a hitter than can put the ball in the gap, and a contact bat that you feel comfortable bringing off the bench to pinch hit. He’s infield depth in the upper minors with the hope that he can log the playing time that David Bote has seen in Chicago the past few years. As my friend Michael Ernst puts it, Mike Freeman has put together a lengthy MLB career with the same tools Weber possesses.

Honorable Mention

Pablo Aliendo, Bryce Ball, Moises Ballesteros, Nelson Maldonado, Chrstian Olivo, Casey Opitz, Yonathan Perlaza, Luis Vazquez, Bryce Windham, Jared Young

Stick around because the Top 20 Arms is up next.

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