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Chicago Cubs Top 20 Prospects Countdown: Introduction

It’s tough to evaluate prospects this year, but here’s an introduction to five players who didn’t make my top 20 but whom you should keep an eye on nonetheless.

Jordan Nwogu
Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

In a year like no other, this is going to be a prospect list like no other.

Maybe the most popular thing I do on this site is to publish my annual rankings of the Top 20 Cubs prospects. It’s something that I really work on all season long and generally get started on just before Christmastime. My rankings were usually based on what I’ve seen during Minor League games, mostly on video but a few in person. I would then adjust my personal observations by those of the national prospect writers and by the scuttlebutt that I pick up from people around the minor league affiliates.

Of course, this year was like no other. First of all, I was laid off from this site in March, meaning that it wasn’t my job anymore to pay attention to these things. So rather than spend all of 2020 thinking about the Cubs minor leagues, I was planning to spend the 2020 season doing other things. As it turned out, the pandemic meant that there weren’t any minor league games at all for me to not pay attention to. Some players were invited to the alternate site camp in South Bend, but those sites were closed not just to the press and public but even to scouts from other teams. So the only information we got out of South Bend was information the Cubs chose to share.

Most of the players, however, were on their own. They had to find their own ways to keep in playing shape and they had to work with their coaches over video calls. Every minor league prospect who wasn’t invited to the alternate site is now a year older and has missed one year of development. A few got into instructional league games in the fall or winter league games in the Caribbean. How this will affect them is unclear. I assume that some will be badly hurt by this lost year of development. I’m guessing some will pick up the game as if they never left. But it beats me to try and guess which players will fall into which category.

These prospect lists are always a lot of guesswork. But this year, there is a whole lot more guesswork than usual. That bothers me and it has made this year’s list a whole lot more difficult to write than normal.

My personal rankings have biases and I generally give “extra credit” to players closer to the majors. I value upside a lot because you win titles with stars, not competent role players. But I’ve seen too many players with “tremendous upside” flame out in High-A to think that toolsy outfielder in rookie ball who hasn’t hit yet is a solid bet to fix the hole in his swing and become a major league All-Star. Also, while you don’t win a title with competent role players, a lot of teams have lost titles for the lack of them.

I don’t pretend that my list is ever perfect, but it’s a good introduction and a forum for the readers to debate the players. I think it has value.

Each day I’m going to list five players who I think are among the top 20 Cubs minor league prospects. Today I’m going to start with five players whom I didn’t rank but whom I think are top prospects anyway. They aren’t necessarily the 21st through 25th-best prospects, but they are ones that I considered for the top 20 and thought you should hear about anyway.

Eligible players are those have not exceeded their rookie eligibility of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched. The only player from last year’s list that lost prospect eligibility is Nico Hoerner.

I could have also included RHP Michael McAvene here, but since I don’t have anything to say that I didn’t say last year, you can just read that entry instead. I would correct the typo on his name if I could do it all over again. You can also read my writeup from last season on catcher Ethan Hearn, who would go in this area but whom I have little new to say about other than what I wrote last year. He got knocked out of the Top 20 primarily by the players acquired in the Yu Darvish trade, but I’m also a little more worried about the number of times he struck out in rookie ball in 2019 than I was last year. That’s just an evolution of my thinking and a feeling that he needed those reps in 2020 more than other players did. I still really like his defensive potential.

Cristian Hernandez. SS. DOB: 12/13/2003. 6’2”, 175. B:R T:R. International Free Agent (2021), Dominican Republic.

Hernandez is more like one of the Cubs’ top 10 prospects than one of the top 30. I’m including him here because even though we’ve known he was going to be a Cub for almost a year, he’s only officially been a Cub for about three weeks. That he just turned 17, that I’ve never seen him play outside of edited video and that no one else seems to be including him in their Cubs prospects lists caused me to chicken out of ranking him seventh or something rather just writing about him right here.

Al wrote up a story on Hernandez when he signed last month for a Cubs-record $3 million bonus. He’s got long arms that he’s able to move through the hitting zone quickly, at least according to the videos I’ve seen. His swing is also fairly level and he’s been praised for his ability to make contact, which should lead to an ability to hit for a high average. It’s clear that he’s skinny right now but that frame should be able to add a lot of muscle and thus, a lot more power. How his body develops will probably dictate whether or not he stays at shortstop.

Right now, Hernandez is pretty quick with sure hands a strong arm which should make him a solid to plus defender at shortstop or third base.

MLB Pipeline listed Hernandez as the sixth-best international prospect this past signing season. Baseball America ranked him as the fifth-best with a note that they could make a case that he was number one in terms of overall potential.

MLB Pipeline compared Hernandez to Alex Rodriguez and Manny Machado, which seems overblown to me since Machado was in the majors at 19 and Rodriguez at 18. I’d be shocked if Hernandez blew through the minors that quickly. Hernandez says he models his game after his favorite player, Javier Baez, and El Mago certainly seems like an achievable goal for Hernandez if everything breaks right for him.

Here’s some video of Hernandez.

Keegan Thompson. RHP. DOB: 3/13/95. 6’1”, 210. B:R, T:R. Drafted 3rd round (2017), Auburn.

Thompson is the type of pitcher the Cubs have been banking on a lot in recent years: the pitcher with middling stuff but tremendous control. They’re hoping they have another Kyle Hendricks/Alec Mills/Zach Davies on their hands. (Admittedly, Hendricks somehow managed to develop what is perhaps the best changeup in the game, so his “stuff” no longer qualifies as “middling,” even if his velocity is.)

Baseball America ranked Thompson as having the best control in the Cubs minor league system and even better than that, his command is quite good as well. That means not only can he throw strikes, he can locate his pitch where he wants it in the strike zone. He’s also aggressive in the zone and he doesn’t give in when he falls behind in the count. Thompson has a low-90s fastball, a slider in the mid-80s that’s maybe average-plus, a curve that’s just good enough to keep people from sitting on the slider and a low-80s changeup that makes his fastball look better.

The biggest issue with Thompson is heath. He had Tommy John surgery in college and he was shut down with elbow soreness after just 10 innings in 2019. (His final appearance was five no-hit innings in Double-A, however.) He avoided any surgery after platelet-rich therapy and returned to pitch 25⅓ innings in the Arizona Fall League in 2019. He pitched at the alternate site in 2020 and was added to the 40-man roster over the winter.

Thompson’s most likely major league role is as a swingman that alternates between the rotation and long relief. But like Mills, he has a chance to be more than that. Thompson could make his major league debut this season.

I don’t have any Thompson video from more recently than 2018, but here he is pitching in Myrtle Beach that season.

Manuel Rodríguez. RHP. DOB: 8/6/1996. 5’11”, 205. B:R, T:R. IFA (2016) Mexico.

The 2020 season was looking to be a big one for Rodriguez, who was added to the 40-man roster before the season started and looked good in Spring Training before an elbow strain shut him down. He recovered well enough to report to South Bend in July and he pitched there in 2020. How well did he pitch at the alternate site? I don’t know! All I know is that he was healthy enough to pitch and the Cubs didn’t feel a need for him to make his major-league debut, although there could be a ton of non-baseball reasons for that.

When healthy, Rodriguez is a pitcher with gas. He throws a 95-97 mph four-seam fastball and a sinking 94-96 mph two-seamer. He compliments that with a mid-80s 12-6 curve. He has a slider, but he’d probably be better off not throwing it very often. He’s mostly just a fastball-curve pitcher who is destined for the bullpen, but he could be pretty good there.

Since he’s on the 40-man, Rodriguez is going to go into Spring Training trying to win a spot on the Opening Day roster. Even if he doesn’t make it, he’s likely to report to Iowa and make his major league debut as soon as there is an open spot in the pen.

Here’s what I wrote about Rodríguez last season.

Here’s Rodriguez pitching in Spring Training last year. You can see his impressive fastball in this video.

Jordan Nwogu. OF. 3/10/1999. 6’3”, 235. B:R; T:R. Drafted 3rd round (2020), Michigan.

Nwogu is a huge man and he had a few scholarship offers out of high school to play defensive end in Division I football. Instead, he took an academic scholarship to study computer engineering at the University of Michigan and walked on to the baseball team. He became a three-year starter for the Wolverines and was a key player on the 2019 College World Series team that went all the way to the finals before losing to Vanderbilt.

As you can tell from the above description, Nwogu is a terrific athlete and a very bright young man. He has terrific power and good bat speed. He’s also been praised for his ability to recognize the strike zone. Swinging a bat doesn’t seem to come naturally to him, however, and the biggest knock on his game coming into the 2020 draft was an odd swing where he seems to try to hit off his back foot. The Cubs have been re-tooling that swing since the draft and they think they’ve got it to a good place, or at least a better place.

Nwogu has terrific speed on the basepaths although he didn’t get the best jumps in the outfield at Michigan, which limited the defensive usefulness of that speed. His throwing arm is also improved, but he’s still probably limited to left field except in emergencies.

Nwogu returned to Michigan this past fall and finished up his computer engineering degree. Academic intelligence doesn’t always translate to baseball intelligence (and vice-versa), but Nwogu seems to have both. His ability to learn will be a big factor in turning those prodigious tools into production. If everything clicks, he’s a middle-of-the-order slugging left fielder.

Here’s some video of Nwogu hitting at Michigan where you can see his funky swing. But stay around for the double he hits and his speed on the bases.

For comparison, here’s some video of him hitting in instructs. The changes in the swing are clear.

Yohendrick Pinango. OF. DOB: 5/7/2002. 5’11”, 170. B:L; T:L. IFA (2018), Venezuela.

Pinango is the type of prospect that in years previous, I would have just said “I don’t know enough about him and I haven’t seen him play,” and not ranked him. I would have just thought that he’s not making the majors for four years minimum and I’d have plenty of time to catch him in future seasons. But this year I haven’t really seen anyone and I’m pretty much only relying on what I’ve read on-line and what other people have told me, so let’s just put Pinango here as a reminder of someone to follow this year. He’ll probably play rookie ball in Arizona, but there’s a chance he makes it to Myrtle Beach before the season is up, especially if the minor league season goes on into late-September.

The Cubs signed Pinango for $400,000 in 2018 out of Venezuela. In his one year in the Dominican Summer League, Pinango hit .358/.427/.442 with 27 steals in 62 games as a 17-year-old. What really impressed me is that he walked 27 times and only struck out 20 times in 240 at-bats. Baseball America ranked him as the tenth-best prospect in the DSL after the 2019 season.

As you can see from those stat totals, Pinango has great speed and little power. He’s a center fielder who can cover a lot of ground. On offense, he’s an old-style leadoff hitter who puts the ball in play and steals bases.

Pinango is here not just because he’s a good prospect but because he’s one of the players I’m most curious to see in 2021. High-contact, low-strikeout outfielders with speed were common when I was growing up, but they’ve become more and more rare as the game focuses more on home runs.

I don’t have any video on Pinango to share with you. Sorry. It’s one of the reasons I’m so curious about him.