It’s time for the Top 5 of our list of the Top 20 Chicago Cubs prospects. There is a whole lot of upside with these players, but at least three of them are a long way away from the majors. A lot could go wrong between now and then. There are no guarantees.
Baseball America had an article yesterday which listed the Cubs as one of the farm systems (sub. req.) that could make a huge jump in their rankings next year. They currently have the Cubs ranked as the 15th-best farm system this year. They noted that the Cubs have a lot of very talented prospects, but most of them are in the lower levels of the system. If you’ve been reading all week, this won’t come as a surprise to you. But as BA notes, if a majority of these prospects succeed at a higher level next year, then the Cubs could have a very strong system.
The number one prospect in the system was obvious, but it was a hard choice to pick the one at number two. I think you could make a case for all four of these players to be the number-two prospect, but in the end I went with the one that excites me the most.
The other good news about these five players is that none of them are on the 40-man roster, so none of them are locked out.
As a reminder, this list is purely my own and any mistakes or screwups are my fault. I base this list on what I’ve seen watching games and video, as well as what I’ve read online and from discussions with other people.
The top five!
- Brennen Davis. OF. DOB: 11/2/99. B:R, T:R. 6’4”, 175. Drafted 2nd-round (2018), Basha HS (AZ).
Let’s see if we can think of anything negative about Brennen Davis. He’s got a fair amount of swing-and-miss in his swing, especially on breaking pitches. He’ll probably always strike out a fair amount and that will keep his batting average closer to league-average than plus. His tools are generally more plus or average-plus than elite. He’s been injured a lot, although most of that is because he keeps getting hit with pitches rather than something that would be chronic. It doesn’t bother me that he’s a big Phoenix Suns fan, but I can see how that might upset some of you. That’s about all I’ve got.
Go ahead and dream on Brennen Davis. The young man has about everything you can ask for in a prospect. He’s the definition of a five-tool player. He makes good contact at the plate, although as mentioned above, that’s probably his weakest tool. Davis might only hit .260 in the majors, but he’s a patient enough hitter that his on-base percentage could be in the .320 to .350 range.
Power might be Davis’s best tool, especially as he has added muscle over the past few years. (That 175 weight is at least 25 pounds out of date.) As he showed when he was named MVP of the 2021 Futures Game, Davis has some easy power to all fields that should translate to 30 to 35 home runs a season.
Davis has good speed, although he’ll likely slow down as he ages or if he adds even more weight. But at the beginning of his career, at least, he could steal 20 bases a season. That quickness translates out into the field as well. Most scouts, and I agree with them, think that Davis will eventually end up playing right field, but he can handle center field with at least average range for now. The good news about right field is that his arm is easily strong enough to handle that position.
Those are the tools that make Brennen Davis special, but he’s also got the personal characteristics necessary to succeed. People have praised Davis’s work ethic since he was drafted — they loved to mention how he raised a pair of llamas growing up, as well as goats and chickens and other animals. But that work ethic goes beyond the farm . . . err, the farm with animals on it. Davis was considered a raw talent when he was drafted because he didn’t concentrate solely on baseball until his senior season of high school. But with work and dedication, he went from “raw” to “polished” in record time.
On top of all that, Davis has some great baseball intelligence which has allowed him to make adjustments quickly as he moves up the system. He’d also find all this talk to be embarrassing because he’s an incredibly humble young man as well. Whenever confronted with this kind of praise, his reaction is usually to thank the person saying it and then go on to all the other things he still needs to work on. He’s also generous with his time and money.
Some people make a big deal out of the fact that Davis’s father is former Chicago Bulls great Reggie Theus. But Davis has always said that he has never had a relationship with his dad and that he’s “not a part of my life.” Instead, we need to credit Davis’s mother, Jakki Davis-Dollak, for how well her son has turned out. It should be noted that Davis-Dollak was a track and field star at the University of Washington.
Davis does have some problems with recognizing breaking pitches at times, but he’s made adjustments to his swing that have fixed some of the issues he’s had with those pitches. At almost every level of the minors, Davis struggled when he first got promoted. But after about two or three weeks, he’s made the necessary adjustments and thrived.
The 2021 season got off to a late start for Davis after he was hit in the face with a pitch at the end of Spring Training, breaking his nose. After dominating High-A in eight games at South Bend, Davis was promoted to Double-A Tennessee. Davis struggled for about a month after the promotion, hitting just .232/.351/.354 with two home runs in 24 games. But he took off in July, tormenting the league with a .301/.414/.675 line with seven home runs in 23 games. And that doesn’t even count the two home runs he hit in the Futures Game that month.
The promotion to Triple-A Iowa came in mid-September and for the first time in his career, Davis didn’t struggle after a promotion. He hit .268/.397/.536 with two home runs in just eight games at Iowa.
Over the three levels that Davis played in 2021, he put up a triple-slash line of .260/.375/.494 with 19 home runs and eight steals in 99 games. He struck out 118 times and walked 50 times in 416 trips to the plate.
Davis has everything necessary to become the “face” of the Cubs in the next few years. He’s likely to be your new favorite player. I never want to say that nothing could go wrong. Maybe his problems with off-speed stuff becomes a bigger problem than we think it is. But even Davis’s floor, barring a major injury, is probably an average major league outfielder. But go ahead and have bigger dreams for him. He’s never disappointed anyone yet.
2022 Team: Davis will certainly report to Triple-A Iowa to start the season, and we can all be happy that he’s not on the 40-man roster yet. When he makes his major league debut is going to be too dependent on how the collective bargaining talks go to make a good guess. Under normal circumstances, I think we’d see Davis at Wrigley sometime in the second half of the season but the new rules may or may not incentivize the Cubs to keep him in the minors until next season.
Here’s Davis homering twice at the Futures Game.
And here’s Davis homering in his first two at-bats in Triple-A.
2. Kevin Alcantara. OF. DOB: 7/12/02. B:R, T:R. 6’6”, 205. Trade with Yankees (2021).
Kevin Alcantara was the primary return that the Cubs got when they sent Anthony Rizzo to the Yankees at the trade deadline. Alcantara was exactly the type of player the Cubs should have targeted in that situation: a young, athletic player with big tools and a high upside but also with a huge amount of risk. (If he didn’t have a lot of risk, the Cubs never would have gotten him in the first place.) Alcantara is still a pretty risky prospect who might never make it out of High-A, but he’s also shown enough that you can see a future major league all-star in there. In some ways, you could see Alcantara as a younger and bigger version of Brennen Davis with maybe an even higher ceiling.
Alcantara has an impressive physical appearance. It’s extremely rare to see someone so tall be so quick and so athletic on the baseball diamond. Alcantara is slowly growing into his body and has added about 25 pounds since he signed with the Yankees out of the Dominican Republic for a $1 million bonus in 2018. He’s still a bit lean and lanky, but it’s not hard to see him with a body like Aaron Judge’s one day. But for now, he’s still fast and nimble enough to play center field and look good out there.
The Yankees believed in Alcantara so much that they sent him to the Gulf Coast League in 2019. He kept his head above water there, hitting .260/.289/.358 with one home run in 32 games, but he was also the only 16-year-old playing in affiliated baseball in the United States that year. Like everybody else, 2020 was a lost year of development for Alcantara and his 2021 season got off to a late start because of a hamstring pull. He’d only played nine games for the Yankees’ Florida Complex League team last season before the trade that sent him to the Cubs.
Alcantara got to work right away with the Cubs. Instead of sulking after the trade, Alcantara hurried to the first flight to Phoenix and was in the starting lineup in Mesa after missing just one game. He went 1 for 3 with a walk in his first game and never looked back. Alcantara played 25 games for the Cubs Arizona Complex League team and put up a line of .337/.415/.609 as an 18-year-old. He hit four home runs in 25 games and stole three bases.
Alcantara is potentially a five-tool player, although there are going to be some questions about his hit tool for a while. Alcantara has a long swing that provides power to all fields, but there’s also a bit of recklessness in it. He was able to pound the lesser pitching of the ACL, but there are questions about his ability to handle better stuff. He reportedly didn’t look quite as good in the fall Instructional League. Alcantara has already made a few adjustments and he’s hard-working and coachable. That helps, but making adjustments as you go up the ladder isn’t as easy as it sounds. What separates someone like Brennen Davis from Alcantara is that Davis has already proven he can handle those changes. Alcantara is still an unknown quality.
The upside of Alcantara is huge — a good defensive center fielder with a strong arm and 40 home runs and 25 steals a year. Even if he slows down, he could be a superior right fielder. But the downside is also big as well. Alcantara is young and untested by better stuff. So much can still go wrong. That huge, athletic body could betray him as well — you never know how his knees will hold up, for example.
But if you’re looking for someone to really dream on other than Brennen Davis, you can dream on Kevin Alcantara as well. But Alcantara is at least three years away from Wrigley and even that timeline is quite optimistic. There is so much that could still go wrong, but I think there’s also a good chance that the Yankees are going to regret trading him.
2022 Team: Alcantara should head to Low-A Myrtle Beach and that’s going to be a challenge for him. It’s a terrible ballpark for power hitters there, so he’s going to have to show that he can handle the disappointment of hitting what looks like a sure home run and watching it be caught on the warning track. It’s also going to be the first time he’s out on his own away from the complexes, although we can hope that MLB’s new housing rules will make it easier for players like Alcantara to adapt to minor league life. If Alcantara succeeds in Myrtle Beach, I think he’ll be on every list of the Top 100 prospects in the game by this time next year.
Here are some at-bats from Alcantara in the Arizona Complex League.
3. Cristian Hernandez. SS. DOB: 12/13/03. B:R, T:R. 6’0”, 175. International Free Agent (2021), Dominican Republic.
Hernandez is obviously the most difficult prospect for me to evaluate because I’m going purely off the written reports of others. I haven’t seen him play and I don’t have any contacts down in the Dominican Republic. Almost all the video I’ve seen of him is over a year old and before he signed with the Cubs. But everyone who has seen Hernandez play seems to think he’s got the chance to be a star. He might even have a higher ceiling than either Davis or Alcantara.
Another five-tool Cubs prospect, Hernandez has a potential middle-of-the-order bat that can hit for average and power. He has a quick, level swing through the zone and has show a good feel for hitting already. He can drive the ball to all fields. The power is coming along. He’s still tall and thin, even after adding about 10 pounds since signing. He’ll probably add some more in the next couple of years. That would increase his power potential, but he needs to be careful not to overdo it and cost himself the chance to stay at shortstop.
That’s perhaps the best news coming out of Hernandez’s first season of pro ball in the Dominican. We expected that Hernandez would hit, but reports say he looked good at shortstop as well. It’s natural to assume that a tall 16-year-old shortstop is going to outgrow the position and move to second or third base. But he’s more athletic and smooth in the field than advertised. His hands and footwork at shortstop are good and his arm is strong. He’s pretty quick on his feet right now. He probably won’t be a Gold Glove defensive shortstop and there’s always that chance he’ll outgrow the position, but there are a lot more scouts who think he’ll stick at shortstop now than there were before last season.
As a 17-year-old in the Dominican Summer League, Hernandez hit .285/.398/.424 with five home runs and 21 steals over 47 games. Over 191 plate appearances, he walked 30 times and struck out 39 times. Those are pretty darn solid numbers for someone in his professional debut. Hernandez clearly has the eyesight and the discipline to control the strike zone at the moment. He gets that “high baseball IQ” note in his scouting reports, which is always nice to see.
The Cubs also recently signed Cristian’s younger brother Alexis. Alexis isn’t quite as highly-regarded as his older brother, but he’s definitely a strong prospect who could easily end up on a future Top 20 prospects list.
Baseball America has been especially high on Hernandez. They ranked him as their 81st-ranked prospect in all of baseball off of just that DSL season and the scouting reports. They see him as a middle-of-the-order shortstop with above-average defense and speed in the majors.
2022 Team: The Cubs brought Hernandez to Arizona for the fall Instructional League, although they didn’t have him play any games in front of scouts. Since he just turned 18, he’s most likely going to stay in Mesa and play for the complex league team in 2022. But who knows? Maybe he’ll look so good in Extended Spring Training or the ACL that Hernandez will force a promotion to Low-A Myrtle Beach, although that’s a bigger jump than it used to be without a short-season A league anymore.
It’s not much, but there’s a Tweet of Hernandez taking a swing in batting practice.
#cubs Cristian Hernandez taking BP. Well balanced with smooth mechanics. pic.twitter.com/tsbnY16YDy— John Antonoff (@baseballinfocus) January 21, 2022
4. Owen Caissie. OF. DOB: 7/8/02. B:L, T:R. 6’4”, 190. Trade with Padres (2020).
Owen Caissie is a big man who could end up getting a lot bigger. He probably has the most power potential of anyone in the Cubs’ system (or tied with Alcantara). Caissie also has as good an understanding of the strike zone as anyone down on the farm. He’s a patient hitter who knows how to look for his pitch and he doesn’t often swing at pitches out of the zone. Caissie is more than willing to take a walk if that’s all the pitcher will give him. That patience can occasionally fall into passivity, but I don’t think that will be a real problem going forward.
Caissie stands upright in the batter’s box and can get the bat through the hitting zone quickly. The ball jumps off his bat when he makes contact and Caissie usually gets a good launch angle with a lot of fly balls. Caissie doesn’t try to pull everything and he’s confident in his ability to hit the ball the other way with authority. He actually hit more balls to left field last season than right.
The hit tool is behind the power tool for Caissie. His size and stance gives the pitcher a big strike zone to work with and Caissie can’t always cover all of it. There’s a real danger here that Caissie turns into a three-true-outcome player — meaning walks, strikeouts and home runs would become a large part of his game. I don’t want to throw that label on him yet, however. Caissie is a Canadian high school product which means he really didn’t have the same number of reps at the plate as warm-weather American ballplayers get. The fact that he doesn’t pull everything gives me hope that he can put up at least league-average batting averages. But if he did become a three-true-outcome player, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
I’m more concerned about Caissie’s defense than his bat. He’s makes a lot of mistakes in the field that can be chalked up to “Canadian who just needs more experience,” but they don’t always improve with more reps. He is a hard worker, so if the defense doesn’t improve, it won’t be through a lack of effort.
Cassie has a good chance to be a decent corner outfielder with fringe-average speed and a plus arm, at least to start his major league career. There’s always the chance that he ends up having to move to first base, but luckily the power should play there.
Because of the pandemic, Caissie never officially played for the Padres, so he made his professional debut in the Arizona Complex League this year. That didn’t prove to be much of a challenge as Caissie clobbered the league to the tune of .349/.478/.596 with six home runs in 32 games. That got him promoted to Low-A Myrtle Beach, where he found the waters a little more choppy. Over 22 games there, Caissie hit just .233/.367/.329 with just one home run. You can see he still showed good plate discipline for the Pelicans, but the park and better pitching did frustrate him at times. I remember watching what I think was his first game at TicketReturn.com Field. Caissie thought he got all of a pitch and went into his home run trot as the ball flew out to right field. He looked pretty shocked when the ball died at the warning track for an out. Fortunately, it didn’t look like Caissie carried that experience over to his next at-bat. At least I didn’t see any difference at the plate. But I would be surprised if that was the only home run the Pelicans’ ballpark cost him.
Between the two leagues, Caissie put up a line of .302/.434/.489 and seven home runs over 54 games. He walked 42 times and struck out 67 times. For a pro debut from a cold-weather high schooler, those are some promising numbers.
2022 Team: Maybe the Cubs will spare Caissie a return to Myrtle Beach, but I think he still has unfinished business there. Not all of his struggles there were because of the ballpark. (Caissie actually hit worse on the road, but it was a very small sample size of just five games against just one team.) But as soon as Caissie starts to show some success against Low-A pitching, he’ll be in South Bend.
We get some looks at Caissie in the ACL in this video.
5. Caleb Kilian. RHP. DOB: 6/2/97. B:R, T:R. 6’4”, 180. Trade with Giants (2021).
Kilian finished his 2021 season with the game of his life — six perfect innings in the Arizona Fall League Championship Game, which was televised across the nation on MLB Network. In that game, Kilian’s fastball was sitting at 94-to-96 miles per hour with movement. The pitch even hit 98 on the radar gun a time or two. The cutter was just as good, coming in at 87-to-90 and was either on the edge of the plate or just off it. Kilian’s sharp curve was better than it had ever been. Fooled hitters were flailing away at curves in the dirt. He struck out eight batters in those six innings and was obviously named MVP of the Championship Game.
It was quite a contrast from Kilian’s first game of the AFL where he gave up seven runs without retiring a batter. But that, in a nutshell, is the story of Kilian’s season. In 2021, Kilian went from an eighth-round pick (although he got an above-slot fourth-round bonus) in the Giants organization who hoped that his control might earn him a spot as a fifth starter in San Francisco to the top pitching prospect in the Cubs system and one who could easily be a strong mid-rotation starter for many years to come.
Caleb Kilian always had command and control. Both at Texas Tech and in his first year as a pro, Kilian got outs by painting the corners and trying to induce weak contact. It helped a lot that he hardly ever walked anyone. But his fastball, at 90 to 92 miles per hour, wasn’t going to blow anyone away and his secondary stuff was just OK.
The Giants started working on improving Kilian’s secondary pitches and the velocity on his fastball at their alternate site during the cancelled 2020 season. The Cubs apparently just continued to work on what the Giants had started before the trade. By the end of the season, Kilian’s fastball now sat in the mid-90s and could touch the upper-90s. His curve had much more bite and Kilian trusted it a lot more. He had more confidence in his 83-to-86 mile per hour changeup, although he didn’t really bother with it in the AFL title game. He did all this with a minimal decrease in control.
Kilian started the year in High-A Eugene but was promoted to Double-A Richmond after just four starts. He pitched for Double-A Tennessee after the trade. Between the two organizations, Kilian went 7-4 with a 2.42 ERA over 19 starts and 100⅓ innings. He posted eye-popping strikeout-to-walk numbers with 112 strikeouts and just 13 walks. Opposing hitters only managed a .206 batting average off Kilian in 2021.
Kilian also has the stamina to go deep into games. He pitched seven innings four times in 2021 and had more than 95 pitches in a game twice. He only needed 68 pitches in that AFL Championship Game, however.
Kilian now has a high probability of being a mainstay of a major league rotation for years to come. Unless his AFL showcase is now the new normal for him, he’s more of a No. 3 starter than a No. 2. During the regular season, his fastball and curve were more average-plus pitches than plus pitches. But a dependable starting pitcher who keeps his team in every game and occasionally rips off a masterpiece is a valuable asset. Kilian has a good chance to be that kind of pitcher.
2022 Team: Kilian is pretty much a lock to start the season in Triple-A Iowa. How he pitches in Iowa (and what happens with the labor talks) will determine when he makes his major league debut.
Relieve Kilian’s six perfect innings here.
Thanks for reading!