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BCB 2023 Cubs Top 25 Prospects List: Introduction and 21 to 25

Our annual list of the best prospects in the Cubs system begins today.

Porter Hodge
Chloe Trofatter / USA TODAY NETWORK

This week is finally here! We’re going to count down the BCB Top 25 Cubs prospects and I hope that you come along for the ride. Today is a brief introduction and a look at prospects 21 through 25. Every day we’ll have five more prospects until we announce the top 5 on Friday.

Most of this is the same as I’ve done every year for the past several seasons, but I did decide to make one major change this year. Instead of doing a Top 20 and then throwing in five “others considered” or “honorable mentions” as I’ve done in the past, I’m just going to have a Top 25. My reasons for doing it that way in the past is that once you get past a certain point in the rankings, there just isn’t a lot of difference in the prospects. Whether you rank someone 21st or 27th is usually just a matter of personal preference rather than any objective difference. But I’ve decided that most of you are mature enough to realize that leaving Daniel Palencia or Jake Slaughter off this list isn’t a slight and that I easily could have put both of them on had I wanted to. The ones who don’t get that won’t be happy with anything I write anyway, so there’s no reason to worry about what they might think.

The Cubs system continues to improve after bottoming out around 2019 or 2020. I don’t think the Cubs have ever had so many good prospects as they have now, even if the 2014-to-2016 group probably had more players with a higher ceiling. How many of those players are still on the Cubs right now? (Just two — Ian Happ and Justin Steele.)

The other thing that is different about the Cubs system these days is all the pitching. The front office has pivoted from a position-player-first approach during that earlier period to a more pitching-focused system. The Cubs have also more faith in their new Pitch Lab and coaching staff. The system is not just drafting and signing pitchers but identifying ones that they think they can develop in the valuable major leaguers.

When making up these rankings, I try to balance upside and the likelihood that they’ll reach their potential. I base my rankings on what I’ve seen, what I’ve read and what other people have told me. But the rankings are all mine and all the mistakes are my fault.

Since we’re already at the “tl;dr” stage for some of you, here are prospects 21 to 25 in the BCB Top 25 Prospects for 2023.

21. Moises Ballesteros. C. DOB: 11/08/03. B:L; T:R. 5’10”, 195. International free agent, (2021) Venezuela.

Moises Ballesteros announced his arrival in Low-A Myrtle Beach with a bang this past August when he took the second pitch he saw and smashed it off the batter’s eye in dead center field of Pelicans Park. It was a good introduction to Ballesteros, who has an impact bat that can change games.

Ballesteros has a sweet left-handed stroke that gets the bat quickly through the zone. His strength and bat speed give him above-average power to all fields, although he did get a bit pull-happy at times this year. Ballesteros has a good eye at the plate and picks up spin pretty well for someone in Low-A. He’ll draw a walk. Ballesteros’ strikeouts went up a bit when he was promoted to Myrtle Beach, but he will put the ball into play with hard contact at a good clip. It’s not hard to see Ballesteros hitting .280 with a .350 OBP and 20 home runs in the majors.

At just 18, Ballesteros was one of the best hitters in the Arizona Complex League last year, hitting .268 with a .355 on-base percentage and seven home runs in only 110 plate appearances. He struck out 19 times and walked 13 times. That got him promoted to Myrtle Beach, where he hit .248/.349/.395 with three home runs in 129 trips to the plate. Pelicans Park, one of the best pitching parks in all of the minor leagues, probably cut into those numbers a bit, although he did hit better at home than on the road. But Ballesteros only played ten road games in the Carolina League, so that’s probably just a small-sample-size fluke.

The main problem with Ballesteros is that he’s not a catcher. Oh, he wears catching gear and crouches behind the plate, but he’s not a catcher. In fact, it’s hard to see him playing any position other than designated hitter. I almost wrote “allegedly” after his weight in his biographical stats because there is no way that he only weighs 195 pounds. Ballesteros is a big guy and it’s not all good weight. He doesn’t move well behind the plate or on the bases. He doesn’t get down to block pitches, even by Low-A standards. The only thing positive about his defense is his arm, and even that is hindered by how long it takes him to get out of the crouch and throw. Opposing baserunners were successful stealing with Ballesteros behind the plate 88 percent of the time with Myrtle Beach.

Even were Ballesteros to work on his conditioning and lose some weight, I’m skeptical that he’ll be able to stay behind the plate. And if he lost weight, there would be a chance that changing his body would change his swing and mess up his hitting ability. The Cubs don’t want that, but with the way the Cubs have put an emphasis on defense behind the plate recently, there seems to be no chance that Ballesteros will ever catch for the Cubs except in an emergency.

Ten years ago, Daniel Vogelbach became a folk hero in the Cubs minor league system for his bat, his body and how he was born to be a designated hitter. Back then, the Cubs had no use for a pure DH, but that’s not the case anymore. Vogelbach has had a decent career as a journeyman bat for hire. Ballesteros’ body and bat-first approach are also reminiscent of a couple of his countrymen, Pablo Sandoval and Willians Astudillo, although I wouldn’t put Ballesteros’ ability to hit for average in the same league as Sandoval.

Still just 19, Ballesteros still has a lot of room to develop at the plate. He will probably start the 2023 season back in Myrtle Beach and the Cubs will probably still try to let him catch. But it seems very unlikely he’ll stick there. Maybe first base is a possibility. Maybe it isn’t. Luckily, Ballesteros has the potential to be a positive enough force at the plate that it won’t matter. If he hits, he’ll play.

Here’s Ballesteros hitting a home run.

22. Porter Hodge. RHP. DOB: 2/21/01. 6’4”, 230. Drafted 13th round (2019), Cottonwood HS (UT)

Hodge is another player whose vital stats don’t match up with reality, but in this case, it’s in the opposite direction. Hodge dedicated himself to better nutrition and conditioning last offseason and it paid off big. Not only did he lose 25 pounds, but it also allowed him to improve his delivery. Add in the new slider grip that the Cubs taught him and Hodge has gone from organizational depth to a real major league prospect in just one year.

The benefits of his offseason work paid off immediately. Hodge made four starts for the Pelicans last April and went 2-0 with a 1.56 ERA. In 17⅓ innings, Hodge struck out 21 batters and walked six. That got him named Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Month for April.

The rest of the season went almost as well for Hodge. He made 17 starts for Myrtle Beach and posted a record of 4-2 with an even ERA of 3.00. He struck out a whopping 90 batters in 69 innings and allowed just one home run. He did walk 39 batters, which is less than ideal, but opposing hitters only managed to hit .210 off of him in Low-A.

Such a performance got Hodge promoted to High-A South Bend in late July and he was even better after the promotion. Hodge made seven starts for South Bend (and one relief appearance after a Wade Miley rehab appearance) and he was 3-3 with a 2.01 ERA. Hodge struck out 51 batters in 40⅓ innings. He still walked too many people, but improved with 16 walks in that time.

Hodge’s new slider is his best pitch. It’s a mid-80s pitch with a sharp horizontal break away from right-handed hitters. It’s even tough on left-handers and can tie them up inside. His fastball is also much improved with the better conditioning. He now throws in the 93-to-96 mile per hour range and can even touch 98 sometimes. It’s also has good tailing movement that makes it a potential plus pitch.

Hodge’s size and stamina mark him out as a starter. But to make it there, Hodge is going to have to find a third pitch. He has a changeup and a curve, but neither one of them is at the level he needs it to be right now. He will also need to improve his control, but he made big strides in that direction after his promotion to South Bend. If Hodge can get either his curve or his changeup up to a major-league average offering, he has all the makings of a third or fourth starter. Even if he doesn’t, his fastball/slider combination should make him an effective major league reliever.

Hodge may start the season back in South Bend, but he’s not likely to stay there long if he continues to pitch like he did last season. Double-A will be the real test. But another season like this one and Hodge could be a Top Ten prospect at this time next season.

23. Pedro Ramirez. 2B/SS. DOB: 4/01/04. B:S, T:R. International free agent (2021), Venezuela.

Ramirez worked with the same trainer down in Venezuela as Ballesteros, but the two players could not be more different. Ramirez is a pesky little hitter with a solid glove who opened eyes this past summer with a strong performance in the Arizona Complex League and by holding his own in a short stint in Myrtle Beach at just 18 years old.

Ramirez is a small middle infielder who does a pretty good job of making contact and spraying the ball to all fields. He doesn’t have much power and between his size and his swing, he isn’t likely to. There may be some doubles in his future as he likes to hit to the gaps and down the line, but home runs will be rare. He does have good speed and can certainly leg out a double or steal a base. Over 53 games, Ramirez went 15 for 19 in base stealing between Mesa and Myrtle Beach.

Defensively, Ramirez gets good marks at second base and he certainly passes the eye test there. He also played shortstop in the Dominican Summer League in 2021 and some third base in the ACL. He’s probably destined for a utility role if he makes the majors, so the ability to play shortstop will be important. It looks like he has the arm for it.

Ramirez ripped up the ACL last year at just 18 years old. Over 43 games, he hit .329/.399/.541 with nine doubles, five triples and four home runs. For that, he was named to Baseball America’s end-of-the-season complex league All-Star team.

That power seems to be a bit of a fluke from the hitting-friendly ACL, because he went 11 for 41 — all singles — in 10 games after his promotion to Low-A Myrtle Beach. That may not sound impressive, but the ability to hold your own at 18 in the Carolina League shouldn’t be discounted, even it it was only 10 games. Ramirez was not overmatched and wasn’t fooled by the better breaking pitches at a higher level. He struck out an acceptable 32 times (versus 19 walks) over 209 plate appearances in 2022.

Pedro Ramirez may not be the sexiest prospect on the list and he certainly doesn’t have the highest ceiling. But what he has done in the minor leagues so far has been impressive for someone so young. It’s not hard to envision him being a productive major leaguer, even if its as a glove-first infielder who hits near the bottom of the order.

Ramirez will likely return to Myrtle Beach to start 2023. Generally the Cubs are pretty conservative with younger players like Ramirez, but he could certainly force his way to South Bend before the end of the season.

24. Chase Strumpf. 2B/3B. DOB: 3/08/98. B:R, T:R. 6’1”, 170. Drafted 2nd round (2019), UCLA.

Strumpf entered the Cubs system with a lot of fanfare as he homered in a regional final for UCLA just seconds after the Cubs announced that they had taken him in the second round. For a while, that looked like it might be the highlight of Strumpf’s Cubs career. After a short debut in 2019 where he did well in hitter-friendly Eugene, Strumpf’s career came to a halt, like all of the minors, with the 2020 COVID epidemic. When he returned to the field in 2021, Strumpf struggled after the time off.

After a very brief 55 at-bat start to the season in High-A South Bend, the Cubs tried to push Strumpf to Double-A in 2021 and get him back on track after the lost season. He struggled badly there for two months, hitting just .162 for Tennessee (albeit with a .299 OBP) before August rolled around. But he started to figure things out in August, hitting .339 for the month, but then his season was cut short on August 24 with COVID.

Strumpf’s poor 2021 caused him to drop down all the prospect lists. I didn’t even include him in my top 20 prospects last year after ranking him seventh in 2021. But now out of the spotlight, Strumpf quietly put together a quality season while repeating Double-A last year. Strumpf hit just .234, but 73 walks gave him a .379 on-base percentage. Strumpf also showed a lot more power than what most expected out of him. He slugged .461 thanks to 22 doubles, two triples and 21 home runs.

At the plate, Strumpf has evolved into a three-true outcomes type of hitter. He put up 162 strikeouts last year to go with those 21 home runs and 73 walks. Strumpf is an extremely patient hitter and while that leads to lots of home runs and walks, it can also put him into bad counts a lot. He’s not a wild free swinger, but often he has to protect the plate with two strikes on him and that leads to an ugly strikeout or two.

Strumpf is a bat-first second baseman, although he’s not bad defensively. Baseball America polled the managers in the Southern League and they named him the best defensive second baseman in the league. Strumpf doesn’t strike me as being that good at second and to be honest, I can’t speak to the defensive ability of all the second basemen on the other seven teams in the league. He might have won by default. But I think it is fair to think could be solid defensively at second base and an acceptable option at third.

Chase Strumpf has a pretty huge bust risk. He strikes out way too much to ever hit for a high average and it’s possible that pitchers with better control in Triple-A whittle those walks down to a point where he’s not getting on-base often enough to be a top prospect. But if things work out right for him, Strumpf could be a guy who hits 20 to 25 home runs in the majors while drawing enough walks to keep him in the lineup. If you squint hard enough, you can see a Dan Uggla-like career for Strumpf—with maybe a bit less power but better defense. And that will play anywhere.

Strumpf should start the 2023 season in Triple-A Iowa. It’s going to be hard for Strumpf to force his way into the Cubs major league middle infield with Dansby Swanson and Nico Hoerner standing in his way, so they may try to give him more reps at third base. A major league debut this season is not out of the question if he succeeds in Iowa.

Here’s the home run that Strumpf hit in the playoffs that wasn’t included in those “21 home runs” I mentioned earlier.

25. Ed Howard. SS. DOB: 1/28/02. B:R, T:R. 6’2”, 185. Drafted 1st round (2020), Mt. Carmel HS (IL)

To say that Ed Howard’s professional career hasn’t gone according to plan is an understatement. Drafted in the first round in the middle of the COVID season, he missed an entire season of development. When baseball started back up again in 2021, MLB had eliminated the Short-season A level of the minor leagues, so the Cubs gave Howard an aggressive assignment to Low-A Myrtle Beach to start his career, skipping the Complex League.

Things did not go well in Myrtle Beach at all. Howard struggled badly at the plate in 2021. He especially had difficulty picking up the spin of breaking pitches, which made him look even worse than his bad hitting line. There were also some injuries in 2021 which limited Howard to just 80 games. His batting line of .225/.277/.315 reflected this. So did his 30 percent strikeout rate and just 5.5 percent walk rate.

Normally, the Cubs would have had Howard repeat Myrtle Beach for 2022, but instead the Cubs pushed him up to High-A South Bend. Rather than being an aggressive promotion for one who was struggling in Low-A, it was more a hope that a change of scenery might do him some good. It helped that South Bend got the still-young Howard closer to home. Also, while Four Winds Field in South Bend is also a pitcher-friendly park, it’s not nearly as extreme as the Pelicans’ home is.

It would be a stretch to say that Howard was good in South Bend last year. But it is absolutely true that he was better. There was some real improvement at the plate by Howard in 2022. Yes, he still struggled with off-speed breaking pitches, but he didn’t look nearly as bad as he did in 2021. He cut his strikeout rate down to 20 percent and raised his walk rate to almost ten percent. His triple-slash line was .244/.323/.317 with one home run in 23 games when he went down for the season in May with a serious hip injury.

Howard is still on the prospect radar because of his defense. He’s got Gold Glove potential at shortstop with quick reflexes, sure hands (for someone in A-ball, at least), smooth movement and a plus arm. He’s also a terrific athlete with plus speed.

Howard is also still pretty young. Had he gone to college, he might just be entering the draft this July. So it’s hard to say he’s behind in his development, even with all the problems he’s had.

There’s certainly a lot more doubt about Howard now than when he was drafted in 2020. He might never learn to hit enough to justify putting his bat in the lineup. A career as a second-division starter or utility infielder may be his ceiling. We just don’t know enough yet. But the glove is special, which is why the Cubs won’t give up on him anytime soon.

Howard’s rehab has reportedly gone according to schedule and he’s expected to be ready for Spring Training. With only 23 games in South Bend last year, Howard seems destined to start there again this year. Barring some really good or really bad results, he’ll likely stay there all season.

Here’s Howard talking about the Cubs, his injury and his desire to get back on the field.

Tomorrow: Prospects 16 through 20.