This week is finally the week you’ve been waiting for as it’s time to count down the Bleed Cubbie Blue Cubs Top 20 prospects. Today will be an overview of the system and an examination of some players just outside of the Top 20.
The Cubs system is radically different today than it was at this time last year. Trading away nine major leaguers before the trade deadline for prospects will do that to a system.
When Cubs team president Jed Hoyer decided to pull the plug on the 2021 team and the remnants of the 2016 World Series team, he had to deal with a much different landscape that his predecessor, Theo Epstein, faced when he traded away most of the Cubs veterans between 2012 and 2014. Teams value their prospects a lot more these days. Some would say that they overvalue them, but the financial savings that teams get from players in their first three years of service means that teams are valuing their young players more than ever.
So Hoyer had to take a different approach than what he and Epstein did when they started running the team. Top 20 prospects (such as Addison Russell was when the Cubs acquired him) simply were not being offered by contending teams. Hoyer, for the most part, decided to ask very young and very risky players with high ceilings in return for the All-Stars he was trading away. There are some exceptions to this, of course, such as Nick Madrigal and Caleb Kilian, but that was the general approach Hoyer chose.
This process left the Cubs with a system that is extremely deep at the moment, but unfortunately for Cubs fans, a long way away from the majors. The Cubs farm system is not nearly as good as it was in 2014 and 2015 when it was one of the best in baseball. In those years, that system had several high ceiling prospects that were nearly major-league ready — Kris Bryant, Javier Báez, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler, Kyle Schwarber — along with some solid mid-prospects like Kyle Hendricks and Albert Almora Jr. There were other really talented high-ceiling players that were farther away such as Eloy Jimenez, Gleyber Torres and Dylan Cease.
This year’s system is not that, but it’s the best system I’ve seen out of the Cubs other than in those two years. This system has almost as much upside as that one, but it’s a lot riskier. The players in the system are generally much younger and have more to work on than those current major leaguers did. And because they have more to work on, there’s a lot more that could go wrong between now and the time they’re supposed to arrive at Wrigley Field. If everything goes right, the players in the system right now could, next year, be as well-regarded as those players were in 2015. If everything goes wrong, then the Cubs could be looking at a bottom five farm system again.
The current system would be even better if some prominent players on last year’s list didn’t take a step backwards. Fixing those players and preventing injuries and other setbacks will be a key goal for the Cubs farm system directors this year.
So this week I’ll present my list of the Top 20 Cubs prospects for 2022, along with a few that just missed. I base my rankings on what I’ve seen watching the games as well as what I’ve read on-line and what other people have told me. I try to balance upside and risk when I make my rankings, but in the end, you don’t win pennants with a dozen league-average players. (Although you can lose a pennant when you don’t have those guys.) You need stars to win, and most of the stars were projected to have high ceilings when they were in the minor leagues. (Stop bringing up Kyle Hendricks. The dude is a wonderful, magical unicorn and 99 percent of minor leaguers like Kyle Hendricks don’t turn out to be as good as he is.)
As always, this list is my own and all the mistakes in it are my fault. At least this year I’ve got an entire season of minor league baseball to evaluate these players on. In most cases, at least. A few of these players missed all of 2021 and that means I don’t have any real impression of their talents since 2019. The new minor league system also messed some players up as there are a few players on my list who were really too good to be in rookie ball in Arizona but really not advanced enough for Low-A Myrtle Beach. These players were really hurt by losing the Eugene short-season affiliate. We’ll have to see if they can adjust this year.
There are some players that missed my Top 20 but whom I wanted to mention anyway. I’ve written them up in alphabetical order and they aren’t necessarily players 21 to 25 in my rankings, although they are all players I considered for the Top 20.
Beyond that, I want to give you some players who I think could be on this list next year, but I don’t really have enough to say about them at the moment, nor did I really consider them for the Top 20. Think of them as “sleeper prospects.”
LHP Drew Gray
OF Ismael Mena
RHP Tyler Schlaffer
OF Jordan Nwogu
RHP Riley Thompson
Here are the “Also considered” players:
Cory Abbott. RHP. DOB: 9/20/95. B:R, T:R. 6’2”, 220. Drafted 2nd round (2017), Loyola Marymount.
Abbott dropped out of the Top 20 this year despite making his major league debut, but that was mostly because of better players with more upside coming in above him.
After winning the Cubs’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year Award for 2019, Abbott lost all of the 2020 season, just like every other minor leaguer. He did get an invite to the “alternate site” team at South Bend, so it wasn’t a completely lost season. But Abbott got off to a poor start in Triple-A Iowa in 2021. His strikeout totals were good, but he was also walking too many batters and giving up too much hard contact.
However, Abbott was a pitcher at Triple-A and on the 40-man roster, so he got his first shot at the majors in June. He threw two shutout innings of relief in San Francisco, which is obviously a good start.
After that, Abbott was on the Des Moines shuttle for much of the rest of the season, getting called up to the majors five times. It’s hard to develop any sort of rhythm when you’re constantly bouncing back and forth between the majors and the minors and starting and relieving.
But as the season went on, Abbott started to make the adjustments that he needed to make to succeed at the higher levels. He had a terrific September for the I-Cubs, going 4-0 with a 1.90 ERA over four starts in September. Abbott threw 23⅔ innings that month and struck out 28 batters and walked 10. He allowed just one home run in September. That performance earned him a start against the Cardinals during the final series of the year. He gave up two solo home runs to Tyler O’Neil, but other than that, Abbott pitched quite well. He allowed two runs on four hits over five innings. Abbott struck out four and walked two.
Abbott made 19 starts for Iowa in 2021 and went 5-6 with a 5.91 ERA. He struck out an impressive 130 in 96 innings while walking 53. He gave up 20 home runs. For the Chicago Cubs, he pitched 17⅓ innings over six relief appearances and one start. He had a 6.75 ERA. Abbott struck out 12 and walked 11.
As I’ve mentioned every time I’ve written up Abbott in a prospect list, his best pitch is his 86-88 mile per hour slider that he learned from watching video of Noah Syndergaard. Obviously it’s not as hard as Thor’s slider, but it has the same kind of movement and can be a plus pitch when Abbott can control it properly.
Abbott also has a 92-93 mile per hour fastball and a hard-breaking curve. Perhaps the best news from Abbott over the past year is that he developed a new changeup that is a big improvement over what he threw before. It’s still his fourth-best pitch, but it’s now something that he trusts against good hitters, especially left-handers.
Abbott is not going to blow anyone away, so he has to rely on his control and mixing up his pitches. One thing he learned in Chicago is that major league hitters are much less likely to chase a pitch just outside of the zone and that if he threw anything that caught too much of the plate, it was going to get hammered. Abbott is going to have to work all sides of the strike zone to succeed.
Improving his command and continuing to make progress on that change will be the key to Abbott’s future. Should he succeed at those, he could have a solid career as a back-end starter.
2022 Team: Abbott is locked out like everyone on the 40-man, so it may depend on how long the lockout lasts. He may start the season in Iowa, but he’ll definitely get a chance to prove himself in the majors this year. Assuming there is a “this year.”
Max Bain. RHP. DOB: 9/27/97. B:R, T:R. 6’5”, 240. Undrafted free agent (2020), Northwood U. (MI)
Bain has a pretty good story of how he got here. Undrafted out of Northwood University in 2019, Bain wasn’t ready to give up on playing baseball, so he headed to independent ball. An offer to teach pitching came along if he could learn the techniques of Driveline Baseball. Not only did that improve his own pitching technique, but he also started weight training and dieting, resulting in him dropping almost 70 pounds. The effect on his pitching was just as dramatic as his fastball went from around 84 to 86 miles per hour to 96 to 98. Several teams were interested in him after that and he signed with the Cubs just before the aborted 2020 season.
In his first year in affiliated baseball in 2021, Bain’s fastball was more in the 94 to 96 range as a starter, although he can still hit the higher velocities if he needs it. He has a promising low-80s curve and a slider that comes in a little harder. Last season for High-A South Bend, Bain threw 93 innings over 22 appearances, 21 of which were starts. He went 5-9 with a 5.52 ERA while striking out 113 batters and walking 56. Bain had his ups and downs in 2021, but he showed what he was capable of in August when he posted a 2.96 ERA over five starts and 24⅓ innings. That earned him Cubs minor league pitcher of the month honors.
Bain has the size and repertoire to be a major league starter, but he needs to throw more strikes. When his control abandons him, he can get into trouble quickly. He’s still adjusting to his new body, so there’s reason to hope that he can get the walks under control. But those control issues are a reason to think that his future may be in the bullpen.
2022 Team: Bain will certainly be tested in 2022 if he heads to Double-A Tennessee as expected. If he can throw more strikes, he could be a Top 20 prospect next season.
Here’s a collection of Bain’s highlights this past season.
Christian Franklin. OF. DOB: 9/30/99. B:R, T:R. 5’11”, 195. Drafted 4th Round (2021), Arkansas.
A three-year starter for the Razorbacks, Franklin presents an intriguing combination of defense, power and speed. If he doesn’t make the majors, it’s going to be because his hit tool holds him back.
Any discussion of Franklin needs to start with his defense in center field, which could end up being a real plus for him if he doesn’t lose much speed. He has a real feel for the position and reads the ball off the bat well. He’s not afraid to dive for balls or crash against walls. His arm is strong and accurate. Franklin isn’t a burner, but his speed is above-average. That sounds a lot like Albert Amora Jr.’s defensive evaluation in 2012, but Franklin is much more experienced than Almora was, with three years of college ball. (Well, 2½ years thanks to 2020.)
Offensively, Franklin is a much different hitter than Almora. Franklin is a patient hitter with good power to all fields and an ability to take a walk. When he makes contact, he gets those high exit velocities that the statisticians love so much. He could steal 10 to 20 bases a year as well. A 20/20 season at the plate, given enough at-bats, is not out of the question for Franklin.
The biggest issue for Franklin is his hit tool. There’s a fair amount of swing-and-miss in his game and his patience at the plate can sometimes drift into passivity, which can put him into bad counts. Right now, pitchers can get him out with breaking stuff down and away. In his defense, there are a lot of first year pros who have that weakness and Franklin can punish those pitches if they catch too much of the plate.
Franklin played 20 games for Low-A Myrtle Beach after he signed and he hit .200/.402/.292 with three doubles and a home run. He struck out 25 times and walked 20 times. He stole four bases in eight attempts.
That’s a small sample size, but it’s also an extreme example the challenges facing Franklin going forward. He needs to make more contact while not sacrificing those walks. The power numbers aren’t bad for 20 games at Myrtle Beach, where long flies go to die, but the Cubs will want to see him take a step forward there as well.
His defense and power potential means that Franklin probably projects out to be a valuable fourth-outfielder, with his hit tool holding him back. But there’s enough talent there that you can see how he might improve that enough to be a major league starter.
2022 Team: Franklin should return to Myrtle Beach to start 2022. Don’t worry if the power totals are poor—almost nobody can hit for power at TicketReturn.com Field. But we’ll be looking to see if Franklin can continue to hit the ball hard and draw walks while making more contact.
Here’s an interview with Franklin before the draft that includes several great highlights, both at the plate and in the field, while he was playing for the Razorbacks.
Kohl Franklin. RHP. DOB: 9/9/99. B:R, T:R. 6’4”, 190. Drafted 6th round (2018), Broken Arrow HS (OK).
Here’s some of what I wrote about Kohl Franklin (no relation to Christian) last year when I ranked him as the sixth-best prospect in the system.
Franklin has the kind of body that scouts dream about in a starting 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.
I’m sorry to re-use what I wrote last year, but a shoulder injury meant that Franklin didn’t pitch in 2021. So I’ve got nothing new to add about his game from what I wrote last season. On top of that, like all minor leaguers, Franklin didn’t pitch in 2020 either so I’m still relying on what Franklin did in 2019.
The good news here is that Franklin is back pitching in Arizona at the moment as a part of the Cubs new off-season training program for top prospects in Mesa. So the expectation at the moment is that he’s going to be ready for Spring Training.
The nephew of former major leaguer Ryan Franklin, Kohl Franklin has everything needed to be a mid-rotation starter in the majors. But missing two seasons is scary for a prospect and shoulder injuries are always scary for pitchers, even if they don’t require surgery. It’s going to be tough for Franklin to pick up where he left off in 2019, but if he does, he’ll rocket back up the prospect rankings. He’s still only 22, so he’s got time.
2022 Team: Franklin pitched for Eugene in 2019 with only one game at South Bend (which was Low-A back then), so he will probably start 2022 in Myrtle Beach. Except it’s hard to know what the Cubs will do with a player who has missed two seasons. They may try to accelerate his development by moving him to South Bend.
Daniel Palencia. DOB: 2/5/00. RHP. B:R, T:R. 5’11”, 160. Trade with Oakland (2021).
Palencia was half of the return that the Cubs got from Oakland in the Andrew Chafin deal and he’s the one with more upside. A short, powerful right-hander who throws in the upper-90s, Palencia was virtually unknown after signing out of Venezuela just before the pandemic shut down baseball. He was already almost 20, which is very old for an international signing. Palencia only threw 14⅓ innings in pro ball in the A’s system before the Cubs traded for him, but he wowed everyone with that fastball that could touch 101 at times. His fastball is also “easy gas,” in that most of the time it doesn’t look like he’s overexerting himself for velocity.
Palencia’s secondary pitches need a lot of work, but his curveball does show some promise and he’s got a changeup that sits in the low-80s and could be a vicious contrast to his fastball if he can control it. Those pitches, along with a cutter that he throws sometimes, have a lot of people thinking that he can be a starter. The Cubs certainly are going to give him every opportunity to start. But many observers think his size, underdeveloped secondary pitches and his problems with control have him fated to be in the bullpen. That fastball could be a real weapon out of the pen.
That lack of control is going to be an issue. When Palencia first came over to the Cubs system, he had a terrible time throwing strikes. On August 29, he walked six batters and threw four wild pitches in 1⅔ innings before he was mercifully pulled from the game. But after that disastrous game, Palencia seemed to get his act together. He allowed just one run in his next two starts of 4 and 4⅔ innings, walking just two batters in each game. And in his final appearance of the year, he got his first professional win by allowing no runs and just one hit over five innings against Augusta. He struck out seven batters and more importantly, walked just one. He got 18 swings and misses in that game.
In his time in Myrtle Beach, Palencia made seven starts totaling 27 innings. He was 1-0 with a 3.67 ERA. He walked 18 batters, but he struck out a whopping 38.
Obviously, Palencia’s future is going to be determined by how well he can develop those secondary pitches and how many strikes he can throw.
2022 Team: Palencia will likely see the majority of his 2022 season in High-A South Bend. If he doesn’t start the season there, he should be looking at a promotion fairly soon. Unless things go wrong, like they can.
Daniel Palencia last night: 5 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 7 K on 75 pitches.— Greg Huss (@OutOfTheVines) September 19, 2021
He generated 18 (!) swinging strikes. Here’s every single one of them. pic.twitter.com/StPnrlvkpw
Tomorrow: Prospects 16 through 20.