The Cubs gutted their major league team this year and got back a lot of prospects for the future. I’m not going to tell you how to feel about that as a fan. I like to refer to this big group of us as the “Cubs Family.” The Red Sox may be a nation, but we are a family. That means it’s going to hurt when some of our most beloved family members leave. If it didn’t hurt, we wouldn’t be Cubs fans.
But President of Baseball Operations Jed Hoyer can’t afford to be a fan. He’s paid to make tough decisions and once it became clear that the Cubs weren’t going to make the playoffs this season and that the impending free agents weren’t going to sign extensions (at least not extensions that the Cubs were willing to offer), then he really had no choice. As he said, it didn’t make sense to just trade one or two players. He had to trade all of them or none of them. And “none of them” was a recipe for disaster.
The days of teams getting big-name prospects for a rental player are over. Teams value their young, cost-controlled minor leaguers more than ever and it was unrealistic for the Cubs to reverse the Aroldis Chapman for Gleyber Torres deal with a similar deal of their own. They were never getting a Top 50 prospect for any of these players.
Instead, the Cubs got a wide variety of talent with widely-varying potential and expected arrival time in the majors. By getting a couple of major leaguers for Craig Kimbrel, Hoyer was indicating that he isn’t looking to completely tear the team down to the ground and start over. But he also got some high-risk, high-reward talent in the lowest levels of the minors that could either reach the majors in 2025, or they could be traded again if the Cubs are competitive before then.
If you throw in the Yu Darvish deal in the off-season, the Cubs have gone from a bottom-five farm system at the end of last year to a top-ten one right now. Yes, the goal of baseball is not to have the best farm system. But the last time the Cubs had a farm system better than the one they have now was 2014, and we know how that turned out. (The 2014 farm system was quite a bit better than the current one. But the major league team was a lot worse than the current one.)
If if makes you feel any better, the Cubs got good value in every deal they made. I might not agree with the direction they went for all of them, but they acquired players that can help them win next year and beyond. There were no deals where, at the moment, you think the Cubs completely fleeced the other team. But there were several deals where we could be looking back in five years and saying that the Cubs really got a steal.
Kris Bryant to the San Francisco Giants for right-handed pitcher Caleb Kilian and outfielder Alexander Canario.
Canario and Kilian may seem like an underwhelming return for an All-Star like Kris Bryant, but remember, it was for just two months of Bryant. Bryant made it clear he was going to test the free-agent market, barring some ridiculous offer that he couldn’t turn down. There’s no reason to believe the Giants will make Bryant an offer he can’t refuse, so if they decide to keep him, they’ll have to produce the best offer on the open market, just like every other team.
Kilian is a very intriguing arm who is having a terrific season in Double-A. I watched one game of his from early last month and I was impressed with what I saw. Kilian relies on his 93-95 mile per hour fastball, which he likes to throw up in the zone where it probably looks even faster to the hitter. He’s also got a solid slider that from my admittedly poor point of view, looks like it is very difficult to differentiate from his fastball until it’s too late. His curve has a slow 12-6 break to it. He needs to be sure that he doesn’t locate that down the heart of the plate, but I never saw him do it. He’s only given up two home runs as a professional (in 100⅔ innings). His change looks to be good enough to keep left-handed hitters on their toes.
But the most incredible thing about Kilian is his control and command. Control (the ability to throw strikes) is obvious from the 11 career walks he’s issued. But his command (the ability to locate pitches within the zone) is also very good, at least from what I’ve seen. He could work the corners and up and down in the zone like Kyle Hendricks, except that he throws a lot harder.
Kilian is a guy whose pure stuff is not going to blow anyone away. His four pitches are all at least average and the fastball is the only one I’d probably put a 55 (on a scale of 20-80) on. The slider has the potential to be plus, but it’s not there yet. But because of Kilian’s ability to locate his pitches, Kilian’s stuff should play a lot better than it looks in isolation.
Kilian’s upside is that of a mid-rotation starter. It’s not unreasonable for him to make his major league debut in 2022. He will report to the Smokies this week.
Here are some Kilian highlights:
Canario has a bit of Javy Báez in him. He has a violent swing with terrific bat speed through the zone. The Giants apparently worked on getting that swing somewhat under control in 2020. I watched Canario play a game against the Emeralds in 2019 and Fresno in 2021 and I can see a difference. He still swings hard and for the fences, but he doesn’t look as much like he’s going to fall down every time he swings the bat this year.
Canario also has good speed, making him an intriguing power/speed threat. He’s a center fielder now and it’s possible he sticks there, but he still has a ton of upside even if he moves to right field.
Of course, anyone with that approach has the downside of striking out a lot. He’s striking out a little less and walking a little more in 2021, but he was also hitting .235 for San Jose when the Cubs traded for him whereas he hit .301 for Salem-Keizer in 2019. Small sample size and all.
Obviously Canario has some serious upside, but there’s also plenty of risk. If everything goes right, he’s an All-Star center fielder. It’s also possible he doesn’t make it out of Double-A. Something in-between is quite possible as well where he becomes a fourth outfielder or second-division starter.
The other problem with Canario is that even though he’s only 21, he’s been in the Giants system long enough that he needs to be protected on the 40-man roster. That’s one of the reasons the Giants were willing to part with him. Canario has already played Sunday for South Bend, going 2 for 5.
Here is Canario hitting two home runs in one game:
Javier Báez and Trevor Williams to the New York Mets for outfielder Pete Crow-Armstrong
Crow-Armstrong was the Mets’ first-round draft pick in 2020 out of Southern California baseball powerhouse Harvard-Westlake High School, where Max Fried, Lucas Giolito and Jack Flaherty all went. Crow-Armstrong played just six games for Low-A St. Lucie before he tore the labrum in his right (non-throwing) shoulder, which knocked him out for the season. He was 10 for 24 with seven walks and six strikeouts before going down. That’s encouraging, but I don’t even think that’s enough ABs to qualify with a “small sample size” caveat.
The scouting reports on Crow-Armstrong are that he’s a potential plus-plus outfielder in center with plus speed and an above-average arm. Opinions differ on his offensive potential. Everyone has him pegged as a leadoff hitter and no one doubts he has a solid hit tool and a good approach at the plate that should allow him to post good on-base percentages. The question is whether or not he’ll develop any power. If he doesn’t, then he projects to be a solid left-handed center field along the lines of Scott Podsednik. (He probably won’t steal 70 bases in today’s game, but 30 to 40 quite possible.) If he can add 15 home runs a year, then he could be something like Dexter Fowler as a superior defender—and that’s a 4 or 5 win player.
The biggest concern at the moment on Crow-Armstrong is that shoulder injury, although the fact that it’s his right shoulder should make Cubs fans breathe a little easier. I also assume that the Cubs took a good look at his medical records before making the deal, although there is only so much you can learn from the records.
The second biggest concern is that between the pandemic and his injury, he’s played six games in two years. Assuming he’s healthy next spring (and we have no reason to think he won’t be), I’d guess that Crow-Armstrong starts 2022 in South Bend.
Also, both of Crow-Armstrong’s parents are actors. His mother, Ashley Crow, had a long-running role on the TV show Heroes. Her baseball connection is that she played the mom in the movie Little Big League. Pete’s dad, John Matthew Armstrong, was also on Heroes and the TV show American Dreams. Both parents also have soap opera roles on their resumés.
Here are some Pete Crow-Armstrong highlights. I’m kind of shocked that there are any of his highlights as a professional, since he’s only played six games and St. Lucie Mets games aren’t on MiLB.tv.
Anthony Rizzo to the New York Yankees for right-handed pitcher Alexander Vizcaíno and outfielder Kevin Alcantara.
Vizcaíno is a late-blooming arm. He didn’t sign out of the Dominican Republic until he was 19, three years later than when most international players sign. Then he spent three years in the lower levels of the Yankees minor league system and did little to distinguish himself. But in 2019, after years of work, his fastball went from the low-90s to 95 to 98 miles per hour. On top of that, Vizcaino has a changeup that many think was the best in the Yankees’ system. Vizcaino’s 2019 improvements got him a coveted invite to the Yankees’ alternative site last year where they worked on improving his slider. It’s better, but it’s still reportedly a little “slurvy.”
Vizcaino missed the first two months of 2021 with a sore arm and he’s struggled to throw strikes since returning. That makes me wonder if he’s all the way healthy yet. Or maybe he’s just rusty and he’s having trouble incorporating the changes the Yankees had him make last season.
Vizcaino is a lanky pitcher and his uniform looks a few sizes too big for him in the video I saw. Maybe there’s a chance to add some muscle on to that 6’2” frame and add even more velocity.
Control is going to be a problem going forward for Vizcaíno as will that slider. If he solves those two problems, then he’s a starter. When I watched his games, I saw things to like (that change, fastball velocity) and things I didn’t like (control all over the place).
Vizcaino has a real reliever vibe for me, but the Cubs clearly think he’s got a chance to start and they’ll give him every chance to prove me wrong. He’s reporting to South Bend.
Here’s some video of Vizcaino pitching in 2019 and in Spring Training last year. The first minute is still photos and someone talking in Spanish, after which there are about 40 seconds of highlights.
If you want a lottery ticket for a superstar, Alcantara is the guy you want to follow. He’s 6’6” and he reportedly put on 20 pounds of muscle during the lost 2020 season. He’s a five-tool player with plus speed and power. He should be good enough with the glove to stick in center field, but he’s got the arm for right if he needs it. He was one of the top international signings in 2018, and by 2019 he was already stateside in the Gulf Coast League. He only hit .260/.289/.358 in 32 games there, but he was still only 16 years old! The fact that he wasn’t overmatched at 16, competing against players three to four years older, is a great sign. So far as an 18-year-old in the complex leagues in 2021, Alcantara is 10 for 28 with a double and a home run. He’s walked five times and struck out eight.
Obviously, Alcantara is a long way away from the big leagues and there are some questions about his swing and his approach at the plate. But he’s a certainly a guy to dream on.
Here’s Alcantara taking an at-bat about a month ago in the Gulf Coast Complex League. He ends up walking, so I don’t know if that’s helpful to watch or not. But it’s well-shot video.
Craig Kimbrel to the Chicago White Sox for second baseman Nick Madrigal and right-handed pitcher Codi Heuer.
This is the trade that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Don’t get me wrong, Madrigal and Heuer are certainly a good return for a year and two months of a closer, even one as good as Kimbrel has been this year. But I’m just not sure where Madrigal fits in a future Cubs lineup.
I’m assuming I don’t need to tell you much about Nick Madrigal, but he’s a 24-year-old second baseman with a strong hit tool. He also doesn’t have much, or any, power. The problem is that the Cubs already have one of those in Nico Hoerner. They even went in the first round of the same draft and they were both shortstops for Pac-12 schools.
There are some differences between Hoerner and Madrigal. While Hoerner has a good hit tool, Madrigal’s is plus-plus. Madrigal could win batting titles. But Hoerner will draw a walk and strike out and Madrigal rarely does either. He swings early and makes contact often. But the fact that Hoerner walks means that he’ll put up a pretty similar on-base percentage to Madrigal. Hoerner’s career OBP is lower after his miserable 2020 season, but Hoerner’s OBP this season is .388 while Madrigal’s was .349 before he was injured.
Neither Madrigal nor Hoerner has much power, but there’s the hope in both of them that they’ll develop a little. But Hoerner is a much, much better defender at second base. Hoerner is a better baserunner as well.
Don’t get me wrong — Madrigal is a solid major league ballplayer. He can hit, and that’s the hardest thing to do in the game. I just don’t see how you fit Hoerner and Madrigal into the lineup together. Yes, you could move Hoerner to shortstop, but he’s a superior defensive second baseman and a slightly-below average defensive shortstop. Madrigal can’t really move anywhere but first base, where he really doesn’t have the power for that position.
If you think Madrigal could develop some power, then he could be something pretty special. But I don’t know why you would think that.
I think that Jed Hoyer probably just took Madrigal as a good return for Kimbrel and figured that he could worry about how to get both him and Hoerner into the lineup later. Maybe Hoerner gets traded in the off-season. I don’t know. But it’s going to be a problem.
Heuer is a solid bullpen arm who throws hard and is having a crappy 2021. He’s a good “change of scenery” bet who could end up getting crucial innings at the end of the game. I see him as more of a set-up man than a closer, but he’s a good guy to take a gamble on.
Andrew Chafin to the Oakland Athletics for outfielder Greg Deichmann and right-handed pitcher Daniel Palencia.
Deichmann is an interesting player, but he appears to have the upside of a fourth outfielder. But his left-handed power potential means he has at least a small chance to be more than that. He doesn’t hit lefties well at all, so he will probably need to be platooned. His glove and arm are more than adequate for right field. He’s already 26, so he’s not likely to be a long-term solution. But I can see him having a couple of productive seasons in the majors, as long as his exposure to left-handed pitching is limited.
The A’s signed Daniel Palencia out of Venezuela last year, when he was already 20 years old. You don’t see many 20-year-old prospects signed out of Latin America. But he’s gradually added velocity to his fastball and now throws 97-98 miles per hour. His curve is supposedly solid as well. Because he didn’t sign until last year, he’s only made six career starts and has just 14 1⁄3 professional innings. There just isn’t much of a track record on him. I don’t really know what the Cubs have in Palencia and I’m not sure they know either. He’s made six starts for low-A and will report to Myrtle Beach.
Ryan Tepera to the White Sox for left-handed pitcher Bailey Horn
Horn was the White Sox fifth-round draft pick last season out of Auburn. He made his professional debut this year for Low-A Kannapolis. He pitched 27⅓ innings, struck out 32 and walked seven and posted a 2.63 ERA. That got him promoted to High-A where he’s had a a few good appearances but has otherwise struggled.
Horn has a 90-94 mile per hour fastball. His changeup and his slider are both inconsistent. He’ll need to improve both of them if he wants to remain a starter. He had Tommy John surgery in college and his health is going to be a concern going forward.
Jake Marisnick to the Padres for right-handed pitcher Anderson Espinoza
Did I say the Cubs weren’t going to get a Top 50 prospect for anyone they traded? Shows how much I know as they got a Top 20 prospect in Espinoza for Jake Marisnick. Of course, Espinoza was last a Top 20 minor league prospect in 2016. That was five years and two Tommy John surgeries ago. Espinoza missed all of 2017, 2018 and 2019 recovering from surgeries. Everyone in the minors missed 2020. So now he’s back on the mound after missing four years.
When he was younger and healthy, Espinoza threw 96 to 99 miles per hour with terrific movement on it. So far this season, he’s been in the 94 to 95 range and his once-promising slider and changeup are still promising. (Of course, “promising” also means “still needs work.”)
With Espinoza’s injury history, he’s got to be considered “relief-only” at this point. But if he even comes close to what his stuff was back in 2015 and 2016, then he’s a great pickup for Jake Marisnick.
Note: this article has been updated to include Daniel Palencia, who was left out of the writeup of the Andrew Chafin trade.