Today I’m counting down the bottom half of the Top 10 of my top prospects in the Cubs system. I really think here is where we start to get a lot of talent. It was clear to me that these five were not as strong as the five featured tomorrow, but in what order they should be was pretty tough. You honestly could rank these five players in any order here and I wouldn’t argue. It depends on what traits you’re looking for in a prospect.
A quick repeat of my daily disclaimer: This year’s prospect lists were really difficult to put together because there was no minor league baseball last year. There is always a lot of guesswork in these rankings, but this year I’m really having to rely on my gut instincts and what other people are saying more than usual. As always, all errors are my fault.
6. Kohl Franklin. RHP. DOB: 9/9/99. B:R, T:R. 6’4”, 190. Drafted 6th round (2018), Broken Arrow HS (OK).
In a recent podcast, Cubs VP Matt Dorey said that Kohl Franklin had “one of the highest upsides in our system.” I guess he had to say “one of” because the last time I checked, Brailyn Marquez was still in the Cubs system. But the Cubs are really high on Franklin’s future and it’s not hard to see why.
Franklin comes from a baseball background as his uncle is former All-Star Ryan Franklin and his father pitched several years in the minors as well, including two years in the Cubs system in the early 1990s. He’s often spoken about how his father (who is also his agent) and his uncle have prepared him mentally for a career in baseball. It was a big reason he felt he could sign out of high school rather than go to college.
Franklin has the kind of body that scouts dream about in a pitcher. He started adding muscle to his long, athletic body in 2019 and reportedly he’s spent much of 2020 working on nutrition and conditioning. While his fastball sat 88-91 miles per hour in high school, he was throwing 92-95 and touching 97 in 2019. The Cubs feel he still has room to add more velocity and maybe he has over the past year.
Franklin’s best pitch is his sinking, 82-84 mile per hour changeup. Baseball America actually ranks it as the best changeup in the Cubs minor league system. It’s rare for a pitcher so young to develop a good change. But his curve has also improved greatly since entering the system and now projects out to be a strong third pitch. He’s said he’s worked on the curve a lot over 2020 and it reportedly looked good at instructs last fall.
Franklin made 10 starts for Eugene in 2019 and recorded a 2.31 ERA over 39 innings. He struck out 49 batters in that time, which shows he can get a lot of swings and misses. He pitched one game for South Bend where he allowed no hits over three innings. Unfortunately he had control issues that day which led to five walks and two runs, one of which was earned. That can happen to Franklin when he gets his delivery out of sync. Fortunately his delivery isn’t that complicated and he shouldn’t have too many of those days going forward.
Franklin is a pitcher who goes after hitters, throws strikes and keeps the game moving quickly. Last year I was too low on him, projecting him out to be a back-of-the-rotation pitcher. Franklin certainly has the tools to be a mid-rotation starter and if he manages to add even more velocity onto his fastball, he could be even better than that.
As I’ve been saying throughout this series, it’s pretty hard to guess where players are going to play after a season like last year, but a return to now High-A South Bend is pretty good guess. Finishing the year in Tennessee is certainly possible.
Here’s a short video of Franklin pitching for the Emeralds in 2019.
7. Chase Strumpf. 2B. DOB: 3/8/98. B:R, T:R. 6’1”, 191. Drafted 2nd round (2019), UCLA.
I suppose I’m required to remind you that the Cubs drafted Strumpf in the second round in 2019 at the exact time he hit a home run for UCLA in a NCAA Regional. He’s only played 39 games in the minors for the Cubs since then, but what he has shown since then is pretty promising.
Strumpf has a quick, compact line-drive stroke at the plate that is geared towards hard contact to all fields. In fact, he impressed scouts in the instructional league this past fall as he started hitting opposite field home runs while not “selling out” for power in any way. If everything goes right for Strumpf, he should be a .270 to .290 hitter with a good number of walks and 15-20 line drive home runs a season. He shouldn’t strike out that much, although it must be said he has fanned a fair number of times in his short pro career. But that’s a small sample size. In many ways, Strumpf reminds me a bit of Nico Hoerner with more power.
It’s that tantalizing promise of hitting for power to all fields that caused Strumpf to rise up in my rankings this season. Defensively, Strumpf is fine at second base. Not great, but fine. His arm probably isn’t strong enough for third base, although there were reports that his arm strength improved in 2020 and he did get some reps at third base at instructs. If he can throw hard enough to play third, that would just increase his value, even if he sticks at second.
MLB Pipeline recently rated Strumpf as the seventh-best second base prospect in the game.
Like Hoerner before him, it’s possible that Strumpf rockets through the minor leagues, although the pandemic shutdown has made everyone’s Minor League Magic 8-Ball read nothing but “Reply hazy. Try again later.” Most likely he’ll start this season in High-A South Bend and try to force a mid-season promotion to Double-A.
Here’s Strumpf taking some swings both at UCLA and with the Cubs in 2019.
8. Ryan Jensen. RHP. DOB: 11/23/97. B:R, T:R. 6’0”, 180. Drafted 1st round (2019) Fresno State.
Taken one round before Strumpf in 2019, there were many observers who thought Strumpf was the better prospect. But the fact that I’ve ranked Strumpf ahead of Jensen shouldn’t make anyone think that I think any less of Jensen. The choice between the two was pretty much a coin flip for me and I generally give ties to the position player.
Jensen was mostly a reliever at Fresno State and didn’t move him to the rotation until his junior year. Most teams saw him as a reliever because he’s a “short” right-hander and because he lacked a strong third pitch. But the Cubs felt he’d be a starter and took him in the first round.
Jensen’s biggest weapon is a blistering fastball that sits in the 96-98 mile per hour range and has touched 100 several times. He’s got a two-seam fastball and a four-seam one that both break differently and give hitters a different look. His upper-80s hard-breaking slider is just nasty when he can control it. Unfortunately, he struggled badly with control when I watched him pitch for Eugene in 2019.
But there’s been good news coming out of Mesa as far as the progress that Jensen made during the shutdown. The Cubs say he’s added a mile per hour or two onto his fastball, which would put him in the 97 to 100 range. They also say he’s made progress on throwing his slider for strikes and developing the changeup he’ll need to be a starter.
There’s always the chance that Jensen ends up in the bullpen. He doesn’t really have the prototypical starter’s body. We haven’t yet seen that changeup in game situations.
After Marquez, Jensen is probably the most electrifying pitcher in the Cubs system with the best pure “stuff” in the system, other than Marquez. He’s certainly one I always make a point to watch when he’s pitching on milb.tv. But he’s only thrown 12 professional innings so I’m still somewhat judging him by his college performances.
Considering the progress he showed last fall, I would expect Jensen to pitch for High-A South Bend this summer. A mid-season promotion to Double-A isn’t out of the question, but I think the Cubs would prefer to have Jensen just stay in one place all year and just work on what he needs to in order to be a starting pitcher every fifth day.
Here’s some video of Jensen pitching at Fresno State. I think this video gives you a better impression of his stuff than the few videos available of him pitching for Eugene in 2019. Except this video is shot in Eugene, so there’s that.
9. Christopher Morel. 3B. DOB: 6/24/99 B:R. T:R. 6’0”, 140. International Free Agent (2015), Dominican Republic.
Some were a bit of a surprised that Christopher Morel got an invitation to participate in the alternate site in South Bend this past summer because he was nowhere near making his major league debut in 2020. But in retrospect, it made a lot of sense. For one, Morel has some of the best overall tools in the Cubs system. The other reason it made sense is that despite all his talent, he’s been with the Cubs since 2015 and he’s only played in 188 minor league games. He missed all of 2016 with a wrist injury and his 2019 season at South Bend, his first year in full-season ball, was cut short after 73 games with a knee injury. But before he went down in 2019, Morel hit an impressive .284/.320/.467 in 257 at-bats.
Morel impressed everyone at South Bend. He naturally struggled against upper-level pitching at first, but he was able to make the necessary adjustments as camp went on and was hitting the ball as hard as anyone there. Morel also showed some real leadership skills among the younger players in South Bend, according to the other players in camp.
Morel has plus power. He has terrific bat speed through the hitting zone and the ball just explodes off his bat when he connects. Making contact is a bit more of a problem as he’s a free swinger and will often chase breaking pitchers out of the zone. I hope he made some progress in that area in South Bend, but he’s always going to strike out a lot.
Morel also has a rocket arm at third base — I used to watch South Bend games in 2019 just to see a slow grounder to third base. He also has plus speed, although sometimes he’s a little too aggressive on the bases. That aggressiveness should moderate with experience. His glove at third is good, not great. He can play second or shortstop in a pinch and there has been some talk of getting him some reps in center field to increase his versatility.
Ultimately, Morel has a pretty high ceiling but he’s going to have to learn some plate discipline and pitch recognition to survive at the upper levels. It sounds like he made some progress on that front in 2020. His development will be one of the most interesting things to watch for this minor league season.
Christopher’s younger brother Rafael Morel is also a prospect in the Cubs system. If I took this list out to about 35, Rafael would likely be on it. He’s been termed a “boom-or-bust” shortstop prospect.
The Cubs had to add Christopher Morel to the 40-man roster this past winter. He’ll likely start the season at Double-A Tennessee.
Here’s some video of Morel at South Bend along with some commentary by Jim Callis of MLB Pipeline. He hits a home run and a triple in this one and makes a couple of rocket throws to first base.
10. Reginald Preciado. SS. DOB: 5/16/2003. B:S, T:R. 6’5”, 185. Trade with Padres, (2020)
Preciado is the highest-ranked prospect of the four minor leaguers the Cubs received from the Padres in the Yu Darvish deal. Preciado is a tall, thin, switch-hitting shortstop who is also very young.
The Padres signed Preciado for $1.3 million in 2019, which is a record signing bonus for any player from Panama. Because of COVID, he had yet to make his pro debut when he was traded to the Cubs, although he did get invited to the Padres fall instructional camp. There he wasn’t overmatched despite, at 17 years old, being a lot younger than almost everyone else there.
If you watch the video below, you can see that Preciado has a different approach from each side. He extends him arms more when swinging left-handed and he has a quicker, more compact swing from the right. But from what I’ve read, it sounds like he can hit the ball hard from both sides. He doesn’t have much home run power yet, but he’s still young and has a lot of room on his tall frame to add strength. Preciado’s top speed is just average, but he does have a quick first step.
Defensively, Preciado has quick feet, soft hands and a throw to first base that is more about accuracy than velocity at the moment. At the moment he projects out to be a solid defensive shortstop, but that may change. For one thing, Preciado is still growing—he’s grown another inch just since the Padres signed him. He might have already outgrown the position and if he adds more muscle onto that skinny body, he definitely will. Luckily he should be able to make the transition to third base if necessary.
At this point, Preciado is a very young and very promising young ballplayer. I really don’t have a clue as to how he will turn out. He could stay a lithe, slick-fielding shortstop who hits near the bottom of the order. Or he could bulk up and become a slugging third baseman or left fielder. Because he’s no sure thing, he could also just struggle to get past Low-A, but let’s hope that option doesn’t come to pass.
Since Preciado is so young, I’d expect him to spend most or all of 2021 in rookie ball in Arizona.
Here’s some video of Preciado at Padres fall instructs. The early part in the blue uniform is from 2019. The rest in the brown uniform is from 2020.
Tomorrow: The top five.