Cubs Insider’s Inaugural Prospect List, Pt 1: Top 20 Arms
Here at Cubs Insider, we have had the opportunity to reflect on all sorts of prospect lists over the years. From MLB Pipeline to Baseball America to Baseball Prospectus, it’s always fun to see where Cubs players land in the eyes of national publications. But that wasn’t enough. So after far too many hours of poring over stats and video and scouting reports later, CI has a list we can call our own.
This prospect list is a little different from most you will see plastered across the interwebs. There will be 40 names in total, which is pretty normal in the grand scheme of things, but the names will divided equally across two separate lists: arms and bats.
Ranking prospects isn’t easy. Comparing skill sets, floors and ceilings, makeup and stats, all while weighing level and age can be maddening. Doing all of those things for two prospects that play completely different positions is just a whole other struggle. In my opinion, stacking up 24-year-old starting pitcher Adbert Alzolay in Chicago against 19-year-old second baseman Pedro Martinez in Eugene isn’t fair to the players or anyone trying to make sense of the system.
Another quirk you will find with my lists is that there will be several notable names missing. No, I didn’t forget about guys like Ethan Hearn or Benjamin Rodriguez. That’s because I required that a player has to have at least made an appearance at least short-season Eugene. That’s the first level of the Cubs’ system where video is available for nearly every game using MiLB TV. Being able to tune in and watch players from Eugene up through Iowa is crucial for me and my ability to rank the players and talk about what they bring to the system.
Unfortunately, that means DJ Herz, Benjamin Rodriguez, Adam Laskey, and Tyler Schlaffer are absent from this list. Each of them would have at least been given consideration had they pitched above rookie ball, but there is still plenty of time for each of them to work their way up in the future.
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 – Brailyn Marquez (21) – Myrtle Beach
103.2 IP – 3.13 ERA – 1.30 WHIP – 29.0% K – 11.4% BB
.219 Opp. Avg – 5.3% HR/FB – 49.0% GB – 36.9% FB – 17.8% SwStr
Marquez has the highest upside of any player in the entire system. He consistently works in the upper-90s with his fastball, clocking triple digits every game, and his three-quarters arm slot makes things even more difficult on hitters. His slider is streaky, but flashes plus at times when he is able to bury it on the back foot of right-handed hitters. Marquez will need to develop his changeup as he works into the upper levels of the minors if he plans on sticking in the rotation.
Best case scenario, he figures out his slider and changeup to the point they become plus and average offerings and becomes a No. 1 in the Chicago rotation. Worst case, he probably still makes an impact in the back end of the ‘pen as a fireballing two-pitch closer. He should start the year in Tennessee and could find himself in Iowa by the end of his age-21 season.
#2 – Kohl Franklin (20) – South Bend
42.0 IP – 2.36 ERA – 1.19 WHIP – 28.9% K – 10.6% BB
.193 Opp. Avg – 5.6% HR/FB – 47.6% GB – 34.3% GB – 12.5% SwStr
Franklin features a three-pitch mix with each flashing as a plus offering. His heater has been clocked in the mid-90s, the changeup is incredibly advanced for a player his age, and he recently changed to a knuckle-curve. Pair those pitches with a 6-foot-4 frame and a baseball lineage (his uncle is former MLB reliever Ryan Franklin) and he has all the makings of a top-of-the-rotation starter. Plan on Franklin starting 2020 at South Bend, where he ended 2019, with the chance to end his year with Myrtle Beach in the pitcher-friendly Carolina League.
#3 – Cory Abbott (24) – Tennessee
146.2 IP – 3.01 ERA – 1.12 WHIP – 27.8% K – 8.7% BB
.207 Opp. Avg – 8.5% HR/FB – 37.7% GB – 47.4% FB – 12.8% SwStr
Abbott doesn’t have the flashy raw stuff of other top-ranked prospects, but he has been the most successful pitcher in the system since he was drafted in 2017. He profiles as a guy that could spend a long time in the back end of the rotation and it’s easy to compare him to Kyle Hendricks. It isn’t a perfect comparison, but where the two are a lot alike is their tunneling techniques.
Abbott’s fastball, cutter, and breaking ball could be a feature by Pitching Ninja as they look nearly identical up to about halfway to the batter’s box. That’s why you see him getting so many late swings with a fastball that sits only in the low 90s. Expect Abbott to spend most of the year in Iowa, with the chance of getting a few spot starts in Chicago if he performs at the level he did when he was the Cubs minor league pitcher of the year in 2019.
#4 – Ryan Jensen (22) – Eugene
12.0 IP – 2.25 ERA – 1.75 WHIP – 33.3% K – 24.6% BB
.163 Opp. Avg – 0.0% HR/FB – 68.2% GB – 13.6% FB – 14.2% SwStr
Jensen was the Cubs’ first round pick last season, which went completely against the organization’s past when it comes to pitchers. He features a fastball that can reach triple digits, a wipeout slider, and a frame that resembles that of former Cubs prospect Dylan Cease. He will be stretched out as a starter for the time being and will most likely be at Myrtle Beach to start the season, but could wind up in the bullpen eventually. Jensen wasn’t a “safe” pick like the Cubs have made near the top of the draft in the past, but he has some of the best upside the system has to offer.
#5 – Adbert Alzolay (24) – Chicago
69.1 IP – 4.80 ERA – 1.34 WHIP – 29.6% K – 11.6% BB
.228 Opp. Avg – 15.0% HR/FB – 31.7% GB – 48.1% FB – 13.1% SwStr
Where you put Alzolay in rankings depends entirely on whether you see his future in the starting rotation or the bullpen. While he has shown success as a starter so far in his career, his durability remains a question and may determine his future. He is slight of stature at an even 6 feet and 180 pounds and has only surpassed the 100 innings mark twice in his seven years in the organization.
If you think he is a starter long-term, he probably moves up a couple spots. If you are like me and you don’t think he has the ability to hold up for 180 innings annually, he could be a solid late-inning reliever thanks to his already impressive three pitch mix of a mid-90s heater, a curveball that has been advanced for several years, and a changeup that really came into its own once he got to Chicago in 2019.
#6 – Michael McAvene (22) – Eugene
12.2 IP – 1.42 ERA – 0.71 WHIP – 40.8% K – 8.2% BB
.111 Opp. Avg – 0.0% HR/FB – 31.8% GB – 36.4% FB – 17.6% SwStr
McAvene is probably best known for his performance in the College World Series with Louisville last season when he was clocked throwing triple digit gas past UIC batters or when he was pitching with emotion to shut down Evan Altman’s beloved Hoosiers. Now he is following in fellow prospect Riley Thompson’s footsteps by moving from the Louisville bullpen to the starting rotation in the Cubs system.
As a starting pitcher, McAvene features a mid-90s fastball that flashes into the high-90s with a wipeout slider. His stuff could play up in a move to the bullpen, but he has a workhorse build and the Cubs will give him every chance to succeed as a starter. If that doesn’t work out because he can’t develop his changeup, McAvene could advance quickly through the system as a reliever and even make an appearance in Chicago as early as 2021.
#7 – Tyson Miller (24) – Iowa
136.2 IP – 4.35 ERA – 1.28 WHIP – 21.3% K – 7.5% BB
.250 Opp. Avg – 10.0% HR/FB – 34.6% GB – 47.3% FB – 12.1% SwStr
Which version of Miller do you believe in? The one that put up a 2.56 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in Tennessee in the first half of the year or the one that featured a 7.58 ERA and 1.79 WHIP in the second half in Iowa? I fall somewhere in the middle. Although he got burned a bit by the juiced balls in the PCL, Miller has consistently allowed more fly balls than what you would like to see.
He will begin the year in Iowa and now finds himself on the 40-man roster, which means he will be available to make spot starts in Chicago throughout the summer. His 2020 campaign will be a season-long audition for a rotation spot when two openings are created in 2021 with the losses of Jon Lester and José Quintana.
#8 – Richard Gallardo (18) – Eugene
34.1 IP – 3.93 ERA – 1.40 WHIP – 16.7% K – 9.3% BB
.250 Opp. Avg – 2.3% HR/FB – 53.2% GB – 38.7% FB – 19.2% SwStr
Gallardo signed for $1,000,000 as the second-rated international pitching prospect of the 2018 class and barely broke onto this list after throwing four innings in Eugene to wrap up the 2019 campaign. He rides the heater up into the mid-90s as a teenager and already has two offspeed pitches — curveball and changeup — that could be plus offerings.
He already fills out his 6-foot-1 frame nicely and, while we shouldn’t expect a Marquez-like velocity jump, it isn’t crazy to expect a few extra ticks up in the coming years. It is still early for Gallardo and he hasn’t played enough to warrant a top-five ranking in the system quite yet, but don’t be surprised if breaks out in 2020 in South Bend and forces himself into the conversation for the best arm the system has to offer.
#9 – Riley Thompson (23) – South Bend
94.0 IP – 3.06 ERA – 1.23 WHIP – 22.3% K – 7.9% BB
.236 Opp. Avg – 8.1% HR/FB – 45.0% GB – 41.0% FB – 11.7% SwStr
The most impressive part of Thompson’s 2019 campaign was the lack of any ugly statistics. He put up solid numbers across the board and there is a lot to like about the way that he carries himself. Unfortunately, he put those numbers up as a 23-year-old in Class-A and will need to continue to impress and maybe even cover two levels in 2020 as he begins the season in Myrtle Beach.
The righty was a reliever during his time at Louisville after recovering from Tommy John surgery, but his conversion back to the rotation has paid off so far for the Cubs. A mid-90s fastball and curveball are his go-to pitches and I was really impressed with his changeup as the season wore on. If he can be a little more consistent with it, he will be a legit three-pitch pitcher and shouldn’t have any troubles in High-A.
#10 – Jack Patterson (24) – Tennessee
79.2 IP – 1.69 ERA – 1.00 WHIP – 25.6% K – 10.3% BB
.171 Opp. Avg – 2.3% HR/FB – 62.1% GB – 22.6% FB – 14.6% SwStr
Patterson’s probably got the best story in the organization and it only helps his case as a prospect. More than just overcoming personal adversity, the lefty put up the best numbers in the entire system last year and it honestly wasn’t very close. He missed out on winning the Pitcher of the Year award because of a low innings total, but a season that began in Arizona and ended in the Tennessee rotation is pretty ridiculous in itself.
The slider is his best out-pitch and he sits in the low-90s with a sinker that generates more ground balls than anyone else in the system. Expect Patterson to start back at Tennessee to begin 2020, but I wouldn’t completely rule out an appearance in the Chicago bullpen down the stretch run of the season. At the very least, he will be competing for the back-end of the rotation in Chicago in 2021.
#11 – Keegan Thompson (24) – Tennessee
10.0 IP – 3.60 ERA – 0.50 WHIP – 33.3% K – 2.6% BB
.111 Opp. Avg – 12.5% HR/FB – 47.6% GB – 38.1% FB – 22.4% SwStr
Thompson battled injuries in 2019 but got the chance to bounce back in the Arizona Fall League. He has a four-pitch mix that he can use in any count and relies on hitting his spots to find success. When you hear about a “pitchability” guy, Thompson fits the definition to a tee. He will be in the upper minors this season and looking to put together a healthy year as an audition for Chicago in 2021.
#12 – Yovanny Cruz (20) – Eugene
23.2 IP – 6.46 ERA – 1.65 WHIP – 24.1% K – 16.4% BB
.206 Opp. Avg – 16.7% HR/FB – 57.6% GB – 27.3% FB – 14.8% SwStr
Cruz debuted stateside in 2018 with an impressive sinker and advanced pitchability, then showed off a pretty slider in 2019 with a fastball in the mid-90s. I think he leads off the 2020 season in South Bend and it could be a couple of years before we see him in the upper minors, but Cruz is my pick to most easily jump into the top five or 10 by this time next year.
#13 – Justin Steele (24) – Tennessee
38.2 IP – 5.59 ERA – 1.68 WHIP – 24.7% K – 11.8% BB
.300 Opp. Avg – 7.5% HR/FB – 44.9% GB – 37.4% FB – 11.1% SwStr
Health is the biggest concern for Steele, who just has not been able to stay on the field over the course of his professional career. When he is healthy, he’s often pressing and can’t establish consistency or confidence. Even so, the fact that he’s still on the 40-man roster speaks volumes of his skill level. He has an easy mid-90s fastball with late life to go along with a pretty devastating curveball.
#14 – Chris Clarke (21) – Eugene
23.0 IP – 1.96 ERA – 1.04 WHIP – 28.3% K – 4.3% BB
.227 Opp. Avg – 11.8% HR/FB – 50.8% GB – 27.9% FB – 14.9% SwStr
A 4th round pick last year, Clarke is huge (6-foot-7) and has one of the best curveballs in the system. Much like the other pitchers drafted a year ago, he will begin in the rotation until performance necessitates a change to the bullpen. In relief, he could thrive off a mid-90s heat and hammer curveball two pitch mix.
#15 – Cam Sanders (23) – South Bend
101.0 IP – 2.94 ERA – 1.23 WHIP – 19.3% K – 12.4% BB
.189 Opp. Avg – 5.8% HR/FB – 37.9% GB – 49.3% FB – 9.4% SwStr
By the end of the summer, Sanders was running his fastball up in the high-90s with a curveball that gets as slow as 65 mph. His profile of low strikeout rates and high fly ball rates isn’t encouraging, but he passed his first test in South Bend and we will see him try to continue that success in Myrtle Beach this year.
#16 – Duane Underwood Jr. (25) – Chicago
81.2 IP – 5.07 ERA – 1.53 WHIP – 25.7% K – 10.5% BB
.258 Opp. Avg – 12.7% HR/FB – 48.5% GB – 29.9% FB – 12.5% SwStr
I decided to give myself one slot on this top 20 list for the category of “Chicago bullpen depth arms that seem like they have been around for 38 years but are still technically prospects.” It came down to Underwood, Dillon Maples, and James Norwood — basically all the woods. While both Maples and Norwood have filthier stuff, DUJ has the ability to locate his pitches and is significantly more consistent with his offerings.
He’s also got pretty decent pure stuff and would have been at the top of this list a few years ago. He was finally converted over to the bullpen in a move that was made about two years too late, but I think he can thrive in a role that fits him better. He will find himself in an intense battle for the last bullpen spot coming out of spring training, but I like his chances.
#17 – Erich Uelmen (23) – Tennessee
91.0 IP – 4.55 ERA – 1.39 WHIP – 19.5% K – 9.5% BB
.252 Opp. Avg – 11.5% HR/FB – 55.0% GB – 29.0% FB – 11.4% SwStr
Some view the sinkerballer as a potential back-end starter or a sure-fire middle reliever in Chicago by 2021. I see the righty gunning for one clear role: Brandon Kintzler 2.0. His sinker is terrific and he put up great numbers (0.75 ERA, 0.67 WHIP in 12 innings) during an Arizona Fall League campaign that served as a rehab stint for his regular season injury. Uelmen’s success is based on generating just enough strikeouts with a secondary offering and maintaining one of the best ground ball percentages in the organization.
#18 – Dakota Mekkes (25) – Iowa
49.1 IP – 5.29 ERA – 1.58 WHIP – 26.3% K – 14.7% BB
.222 Opp. Avg – 11.3% HR/FB – 35.7% GB – 41.1% FB – 10.9% SwStr
If you listen to the Growing Cubs Podcast, you know my feelings about Mekkes. He is big bodied (6-foot-7, 275 pounds), has a funky delivery, and was lights-out at every level up until Iowa. He got bitten by the juiced ball last year and needs a better put-away pitch, but still profiles as a guy that could make a home in the middle innings in Chicago.
#19 – Hunter Bigge (21) – Eugene
16.0 IP – 1.13 ERA – 1.06 WHIP – 34.4% K – 15.6% BB
.130 Opp. Avg – 7.7% HR/FB – 43.8% GB – 40.6% FB – 21.8% SwStr
Bigge was a two-way superstar at Harvard, pitching out of the rotation and putting up an .871 OPS out of the middle of the order. As a 12th rounder this past year, he immediately switched over to the bullpen and started throwing *checks notes* 99 mph. That in and of itself warrants placement on this list and, as long as the Cubs continue to utilize him as a reliever, I think he could advance through the system really well. It will be interesting once he gets up to levels where he can no longer rely on his age, experience, and athleticism to overpower young bats.
#20 – Ryan Lawlor (26) – Tennessee
55.1 IP – 1.95 ERA – 1.07 WHIP – 37.6% K – 11.5% BB
.168 Opp. Avg – 2.4% HR/FB – 50.0% GB – 38.0% FB – 14.8% SwStr
You’re not going to find Lawlor on many top prospect lists, but there is an awful lot to like from this lefty out of the bullpen. His mid-90s fastball and plus curveball helped him produce the highest strikeout rate in the system last year. His next step will be proving he can get hitters in the upper levels of the minors out after being old for his level in 2019.
With the first half down, keep an eye out for the top 20 bats.