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Down on the farm: What we've heard about Cubs' top prospects

Ryan Herrera Avatar
August 19, 2022

Earlier this week, MLB Pipeline released its updated top 100 prospects list along with each team’s new top 30.

The Cubs may not have the prospects with superstar potential like they had with the previous core (though a few of them are rising quickly), but there’s plenty of depth in the system.

That’s one thing they didn’t do well enough last time around. When players like Kris Bryant and Javier Báez graduated to the big leagues, there wasn’t enough talent in the system to supplement them. So, as those players neared free agency and the Cubs were going to have to spend to keep them around… well, you know what happened at the 2021 trade deadline.

But the deals that were made as well as this year’s draft have brought in plenty of talent that’s helped bolster a system that’s quickly grown back to a respectable level.

Only three of the Cubs’ top 30 prospects made the updated top 100: Pete Crow-Armstrong (No. 31), Brennen Davis (No. 51) and Kevin Alcantara (No. 91). Still, compare the new rankings to where they ended the 2021 season; four names (Cade Horton, No. 4; Ben Brown, No. 7; Jackson Ferris, No. 8; Alexander Canario, No. 9) entered the Cubs’ top 10, and none of those four were in the system before the deadline last year.

Prospect lists are not universal. That’s pretty obvious when you look at how other rankers see the prospects and the farm as a whole. But as MLB Pipeline’s list shows, there’s plenty of names to follow as the system continues to move up the rankings.

“I think the depth. That’s probably the thing we’re most proud of right now,” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said last week. “Right now, I don’t think we have anyone sort of in that top 25 grouping, but I think the depth really does stand out.”

Here are some of the notable changes and what we’ve heard about those prospects (rankings from MLB Pipeline’s updated list).

New face at the top

Crow-Armstrong’s rise up the rankings has been the story of the farm this season.

Acquired at the deadline last year for Báez and Trevor Williams, Crow-Armstrong didn’t play a game for the Cubs in 2021 due to a season-ending shoulder surgery in May. Still, the Cubs felt confident in trading two major league players for one player who in the best-case scenario wouldn’t debut until the second half of 2023 at the earliest.

All Crow-Armstrong has done in the year since has validated every reason given for making that trade. He didn’t even start this season in the top 100, and he ranked sixth in the Cubs’ system.

Now, he’s already considered the best defensive outfielder (if not the best defender overall) among Cubs prospects, and he’s raked to the tune of a .306 average, a .902 OPS, 15 homers and 49 RBI in 82 games across Single-A Myrtle Beach and High-A South Bend.

Crow-Armstrong is now the 31st-overall prospect, and he tops the Cubs’ rankings at just 20 years old. Whatever moves the Cubs make before he’s eventually called up, they’re confident they already have the center fielder of the future in-house.

Vice president of player development Jared Banner on PCA’s rise: “I wouldn’t say [we’re] surprised [by what he’s done this year]. If anything, we’re just even more excited. The power — we knew he had some power, but maybe not quite this much. He’s gotten a lot stronger, his swing has gotten even better over time. He does a lot of things really well and we knew that, and he’s just gotten a chance to go out on the field and show that this year. So we’re excited.”

Davis falls as he works back from injury

Pretty much universally considered the top Cubs prospect heading into this season, the only thing that’s slowed Davis down is early-June back surgery that put him on the shelf for over two months.

This is the first time Davis (No. 2 for the Cubs, No. 51 in baseball) doesn’t top the Cubs’ system and ranks outside the top 15 in baseball since early 2021. He didn’t play a game for Triple-A Iowa after May 3 and went on the injured list with lower-back discomfort on May 12, and those health issues certainly could’ve also contributed to his disappointing line (.195/.286/.299) through his first 22 games of the year.

As disappointing as his setback was, the good news is that he’s already back to playing games. Davis has reached base just once (on a walk) in 10 plate appearances with the Cubs’ Arizona Complex League affiliate, but he’s started as the designated hitter once and the center fielder twice this week. The most important thing is that Davis is healthy enough to play in games again. Until he returns to full health, the box scores really don’t matter all that much.

Hoyer on potential Arizona Fall League action for Davis: “You want to give a guy a real offseason. You don’t want to just have a guy play straight through. But also, he’s missed a lot of at-bats that are important at-bats. So we need to figure that balance out. I think once we get him to truly game ready, then I think we’ll have a lot of those discussions about what the fall and winter look like for him.”

Mervis enters the chat

With nobody locking down the major league first-base job, Matt Mervis is a prospect to watch.

The fact that he isn’t Rule 5 draft eligible this offseason hurts his chances for a call-up in 2022, but arguably nobody in the system is more worthy of one than Mervis. He started the season in South Bend and has already moved all the way up to Iowa. Across three levels this season, Mervis is hitting .303 with a .945 OPS. He has 24 homers on the year, and his 94 RBI are the sixth-most across all levels of baseball.

Despite not being drafted in two years ago thanks to the draft being trimmed to just five rounds, the Cubs locked him up quickly thereafter. That lost 2020 season and his underwhelming 2021 performance barely slowed him down, and now, he enters the Cubs’ top 30 at No. 21 and is by far the top first-base prospect in the system.

Banner on Mervis’ improvement: “He’s always had a really good swing and a ton of bat speed and power, but just getting him locked in in the right part of the zone. That’s a process that takes time. I think last year was a part of that process. Something has just clicked for him this year, and he started hitting and hasn’t stopped. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.”

Pitching on the rise

At the end of 2021, only nine of the top 30 prospects were pitchers. Two more made the preseason list, but only five of the 11 were in the top 15.

Things have improved on that front. As it stands, half of the top 30 are arms, and seven of those landed in the top 15. Four of the top-five pitching prospects all came into the system in the last month (Horton and Ferris through the draft, Brown and Hayden Wesneski — No 12 — through trades). Four others (Porter Hodge, No. 22; Nazier Mulé, No. 23; Luis Devers, No. 26; Luke Little, No. 27) are making their first appearances on the list.

Other arms dropped in the rankings, but that’s also indicative of the influx of talent as well as the improvement of arms already in the system. DJ Herz went from No. 9 to 13, Caleb Kilian went from No. 4 to 14, Ryan Jensen went from No. 17 to 28 and Kohl Franklin went from No. 12 to 29. Yet, all have big-league potential and at the very least provide solid depth in the system.

This is a testament to how much the Cubs have improved in pitching development over the last few years. The narrative that they can’t develop pitchers is dead. They may not have the arms who rank among the best in baseball, but they have enough quality ones to feel confident that some will be knocking on the big-league door in the near future.

Hoyer on minor league pitching depth: “I look back on when we built up the first time and we had position players lined up like that in a lot of ways, but we never get to the point of having pitchers lined up at every level. It’s been something in the draft we focused on. Obviously, we used the last two first rounders on starting pitchers. At the trade deadline, getting guys like Brown and Wesneski and Kilian has to be a focus to do it. I think we’re really happy with the volume we have right now.”

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