We’ve finally reached the official start of spring training, what some people call the most wonderful time of the year. For veteran players, it is a very low-stakes environment in which they do the work to get ready for another grind. That is very much not the case for prospects looking to grab the front office’s attention as they try to push their way onto the major league roster or earn a higher-level affiliate assignment.
Or maybe it’s just a matter of showcasing some of their offseason work in order to get off to a great start. With that in mind, I wanted to single out five of the most prominent players in Chicago’s system and focus on one particular area of improvement for each.
This list is in no particular order, though you rank them as you see fit.
Matt Mervis – Hitting lefties
The undrafted first baseman out of Duke had a monster 2022, starting at High-A and finally ending up in Triple-A. Across those three levels, Mervis hit a whopping 36 home runs while posting a .984 OPS and decreasing his strikeout rate at each stop. He enters 2023 knocking at the Wrigley Field player entrance, but Mash may yet have to prove something before he gets the call.
That would be his performance against left-handed pitchers, even though his .869 OPS against southpaws was far from horrible. However, it is much lower than his 1.058 mark against righties and things don’t exactly get easier at the MLB level.
If he wants to become an everyday player in the show, he will have to prove he can hit left-handers. In addition to his work in Mesa, Mervis made the roster for Team Israel and will get to face some of the best pitching in the game at the World Baseball Classic. If he can produce during the tournament, especially against lefties, it could go a long way in securing a roster spot.
Pete Crow-Armstrong – Patience
The 19th overall pick in 2020 by the New York Mets, Crow-Armstrong was traded to the Cubs for Javy Báez at the 2021 deadline. After recovering from shoulder surgery that cut his ’21 season short, PCA had a massive first year for in his new organization between Low-A and High-A. He had 16 home runs, 10 triples, and an .896 OPS to go along with 32 steals and 80-grade defense in center field.
The fact that he is just 20 years old probably means he is still a year-plus away from the bigs, but he will undoubtedly get some playing time in major league camp. So what improvements can he make from his breakout minor league season?
After drawing 22 walks in 183 plate appearances for Myrtle Beach (12%), Crow-Armstrong took just 14 free passes across 288 PA’s with South Bend (4.9%). His hit tool is good enough to keep his OBP in a very acceptable range, but he’ll need to exercise more patience if he wants to be a truly dynamic top-of-the-order hitter.
Owen Caissie – Power
Caissie was one of the “four teenagers” acquired from the Padres in the Yu Darvish trade before the 2021 season. He had a solid but not spectacular year at South Bend in 2022 with a 113 wRC+ and 11 homers. So how can he turn some heads this spring?
FanGraphs’ scouting report has his raw power at 55/65 (first number is current grade, second is potential), but his in-game power is just 25/65 at this point. The big Canadian has to find a way to tap into the home run potential that made him a second-round pick.
The good news is that he had an above-average walk rate last season (11.5%), so he has a pretty good idea of the strike zone. He also improved as the season went along, which is good to see from someone who just turned 20 last July. Being more aggressive and ambushing fastballs in favorable counts may be the answer. Caissie is a member of Team Canada in the WBC, so he also will get a chance to perform against MLB arms all spring.
Brennen Davis – Health
Davis rapidly rose through the minor leagues in 2021, finishing at Triple-A Iowa and putting up a total of 19 homers and 25 doubles with an .869 OPS. Those numbers, combined with excellent athleticism, catapulted him to top-20 prospect status before 2022 began.
Then a series of injuries completely derailed his 2022 season, limiting him to a paltry 53 games played. A nagging nerve issue in his back hampered his early performance and led to surgery that cost him most of the season. A late return was followed by a trip to the Arizona Fall League, but that too was cut short by a stress reaction in his back.
The talent is there for the former two-sport star who walked away from a basketball scholarship to Miami to sign with the Cubs. Now he needs to show his back is fully healed so he can build on his 2021 numbers and try to make his way to Chicago. The fact that the team says he is a “full go” for spring training is a good sign, but he has a lot of lost time to make up and really needs to stay on the field all spring and summer.
Caleb Kilian – Control
Kilian, an eighth-round pick out of Texas Tech in 2019, was a key part of the Kris Bryant trade with San Francisco in July 2021. Using a power sinker to get tons of outs on the ground while issuing walks with Greg Maddux-like scarcity, Kilian looked dominant in the AFL following the trade. The Cubs started him at Triple-A Iowa in 2022 hoping he would push his way onto the big club in short order.
Through May, Kilian had allowed only runs and 15 walks in 39.1 innings of work. Injuries in Chicago created an opportunity and he was called up to Chicago to make three starts in June. The results were disastrous, as he surrendered 13 runs with an uncharacteristic 12 walks in 11.1 big league frames.
Those struggles continued upon his return to Iowa, leading to 41 runs and 42 walks in 63.2 innings the rest of the season. Clearly, Kilian needs to get back to pounding the zone with sinkers in order to create outs on the ground. Avoiding bases on balls this spring will be a promising first step and should help him regain some confidence.
Each of these players will obviously be working on more than just the one item listed above, plus there are dozens of other Cubs with dozens of other performance targets to meet. That’s something to remember while watching spring games, particularly the early ones. There might be a start in which Kilian is throwing nothing but fastballs just to establish the zone, or maybe there are times when PCA is in take mode just to temper what might have been too aggressive an approach.
Mervis talked to Cliff Floyd about hunting outside pitches, so we could see him take a few strikes on the inner third. Anyway, you get the point. I’d love to hear some more thoughts on what you’re looking for from different players, so feel free to comment away below.