It’s day 2 of the BCB Top 25 Cubs Prospects countdown! Today we’ve got two infielders, two pitchers and a catcher. Keep the ball out of the outfield and ready to play.
I mentioned yesterday that the Cubs farm system is about as deep as it has ever been. Today’s rankings are a good example of that. Shortstop Kevin Made had a pretty strong season in the minors in last year. He made strides at the plate. He cut down on his strikeouts and added some walks and power. He’s clearly a better prospect going into 2023 than he was going into 2022. Last year, I ranked him as the 15th-best prospect in the Cubs system and this year he’s only 18th. Nothing he did caused him to drop three spots — it’s just that other people came in and are ranked above him.
With that said, here are prospects 16 to 20.
16. Ryan Jensen. RHP. DOB: 11/23/97. 6’0”, 190. Drafted 1st round (2019), Fresno State.
The path to the majors is not always linear, and no one exemplifies that better than Ryan Jensen. After a 2021 season that saw Jensen finish the year in Double-A, he went down to the Arizona Fall League and struggled. Some of that could be attributed to the new balls that AFL used that year (many claimed they were much slicker than what they were used to), the truth is that by the end of the season, many pitchers, such as Jensen’s teammate Caleb Kilian, had adjusted to the new balls. Jensen did not and it might have been a sign that there was something more wrong.
Jensen’s struggles continued into the 2022 season. Returning to Double-A Tennessee, Jensen couldn’t find the plate. Over his five starts, he walked 14 batters in 16⅓ innings. Jensen never made it into the fifth inning in any of those appearances.
At that point, the Cubs stepped in and convinced Jensen that his delivery was completely out-of-whack and that he needed to step away and go back down to the Pitch Lab in Mesa to straighten things out. The Cubs completely re-worked his delivery. First, they slowed him down. The Cubs also had him work on his posture to help his lower body and also shortened his arm stroke. They also taught Jensen a cut fastball to add to his arsenal.
After almost six weeks, Jensen returned to Tennessee. While it’s not accurate to say that the time in Mesa fixed all of Jensen’s control issues, things certainly had improved. The rest of the way Jensen walked 25 batters over 43 innings. Yeah, that’s not where the Cubs would like his control, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Jensen finished the season making 17 starts covering 59⅓ innings. He went 2-4 with a 4.25 ERA. He struck out 60 batters and held opposing hitters to a .204 batting average. Were it not for the 39 walks, he’d be an elite prospect by now.
Ever since the Cubs drafted Jensen, there’s been a question as to whether his major league future is in the rotation or the bullpen. We’re really no closer to answering that question now than we were in 2019. The Cubs will keep him in the rotation as long as they can because clearly, that would be where he’s most valuable. But even in the pen, Jensen has the tools to be an excellent closer. This gives him a much higher floor than most pitching prospects have.
Jensen’s best pitch is his heavy four-seam fastball, which comes in at 95-to-97 miles per hour and can touch 99 or even 100 at times. It has some quality movement to it when he’s throwing it well. When he isn’t, it rides out of the strike zone, which leads to walks.
His two-seamer is in the 93-to-96 mph range and has some good sink to it. Jensen also throws a sharp-breaking slider in the upper-80s. His low-80s vertical curve and his low-80s change-up gives him two more options.
Clearly, it’s not a lack of pitches that is going to hinder Jensen’s quest to be a starter, although only the four-seamer can really be described as “plus” at the moment. But several of the others, especially the slider, have that potential. But none of that is really going to matter if Jensen can’t throw enough strikes with them. Even when Jensen has a good game and keeps his walks to a minimum, he gets into a lot of deep counts before notching the strikeout. That means he racks up a high-pitch count by the fourth or fifth inning and that means he can’t go deep in games.
It’s more likely that Jensen ends up in the bullpen than the rotation because it’s always more likely that any pitching prospect ends up in the pen. But there’s still a solid chance that Jensen ends up as a mid-rotation starter and there is still that floor of a late-inning reliever.
Jensen may start the season back in Tennessee or move up to Iowa, depending on what Iowa’s starting rotation looks like in April. If the Cubs move him to the bullpen, he could make his major league debut this year. If they leave him as a starter, then a 2024 debut seems more likely. It is possible that the Cubs ease him into the majors as a reliever. much as they did with Justin Steele. That would mean Jensen makes his major league debut this season and moves into the rotation the next.
These “Catch Up” hype videos that the Cubs put out this year are definitely not objective, but they do have some good highlights in them and it’s not a bad way to get to know the person behind the player on the field. Here’s Ryan Jensen’s:
17. James Triantos. 3B. DOB: 1/29/03. B:R, T:R. 6’1”, 195. Drafted 2nd round (2021), Madison HS (VA)
There were things to like and things to worry about in James Triantos’ first full season of minor league ball. After tearing up the Arizona Complex League as an 18-year-old in 2021, he made the jump to Low-A and the tough hitting environment of Myrtle Beach. There he more than held his own, hitting .272/.335/.386 with seven home runs. He struck out in just 16 percent of his plate appearances and walked in almost eight percent of them. Those numbers are really solid for someone who was younger than more than ninety percent of the pitchers he faced in the league.
The numbers look even better when he get away from the Pelicans’ extreme pitchers’ park. Triantos hit .293 with a .359 OBP on the road, although he did hit five of his seven home runs at home.
Triantos has a a short, quick and level right-handed stroke through the hitting zone. Triantos isn’t easily fooled by breaking pitches at this level and he doesn’t swing and miss that often. This combination leads to a lot of hard contact and line-drive power into the gaps. The downside of this is that Triantos rarely gets the elevation needed to drive the ball for a home run. He’ll run into few line drives that carry far enough to clear the fences, but unless there are some changes to his swing, he projects out to be a 10-to-20 home run hitter, although with more than his share of doubles.
The other issue with Triantos is that his defense at third base did not look good last season. Most scouts thought he’d have to move off shortstop, where he played in high school, but the consensus was that he could play second or third base. But Triantos showed poor range and shaky hands in Low-A. Without big power potential, Triantos’ bat doesn’t look special if he has to move to first base. Triantos is still young and perhaps he can improve enough to stick at the hot corner. It’s not out of the question that he does. But his drop in the rankings this season is in large part because of a fear that he’ll end up at first base.
Triantos is certainly ticketed for South Bend this summer, where he’ll be in a somewhat-better hitting environment. At 20, he’ll also still be young for the level. There’s always concern that as he moves up that he’ll struggle against better pitching, but the real concern is with the glove. He’s got the arm to play third base, he just needs to work on every other aspect of the position to regain his top ten prospect status next year.
Here’s James Triantos’ “Catch Up” video from the Cubs.
18. Kevin Made. DOB: 9/10/02. SS. B:R, T:R. 5’10”, 160. International free agent (2019), Dominican Republic.
Kevin Made is one of the more interesting prospects in the Cubs system. He’s a plus defensive shortstop with a plus arm for the position. Ed Howard is a tad better than Made with his range and hands at the position, but Made has the stronger arm. He’s a no-doubt shortstop who could also play a strong third or second base if he ends up as a utility infielder.
At the plate, Made has strong bat-to-ball skills and can drive the ball to all fields. He’s not a big shortstop (although that 160 listed weight is out-of-date—he weighs more than that), but Made can muscle the ball a long ways with a very quick and powerful batting stroke. Sometimes it’s so quick that it looks violent or even out-of-control, but Made has always done a decent job of making contact. His biggest problem is that he’s almost never seen a fastball he doesn’t like. In his eyes, around his ankles, in the zone, it’s all the same to Made. But he makes a lot more contact on those pitches than he has any right to.
Made moderated those swing-happy tendencies this past season. While he walked just six times in 243 plate appearances in 2021, last year he walked 46 times in 408 trips to the plate, That’s quadrupling his walk percentage from one year to the next! Along with that added patience (if that’s what you want to call it), Made added power with ten home runs after hitting just one in 2021.
Made was having a breakout season repeating Myrtle Beach last year. In 57 games, he hit .266/.354/.451 with nine home runs. That got him promoted to High-A South Bend where the results weren’t nearly as good. Made hit just .162 with a .267 OBP and one home run in High-A. That’s a distressing number, but there is some evidence that he was hitting into bad luck with a .202 average on balls in play. Even if Made was making less good contact in High-A, his BABIP should not have dropped 97 points. His strikeout percentage just went up one point in South Bend (from 19 to 20 percent) and his walk totals increased slightly as well.
Made is still quite young at 20 years old. That he added some power and walks to his strong defensive profile at shortstop makes him very interesting going forward. He needs to build on that in 2023. He will probably start the season back in South Bend and he needs to demonstrate that those poor numbers there at the end of last season were just a fluke. I’d bet they are.
Here’s some of that new power out of Made.
19. Pablo Aliendo. C. DOB 5/29/01. B:R, T:R. 6’0”, 170. International free agent (2018), Venezuela.
The Cubs have made it clear recently that they prioritize defense behind the plate, and Aliendo is clearly the best defensive catcher in the system. He moves well behind the plate, blocks pitches nicely and has an above-average arm. From all accounts, he works extremely well with his pitchers, is a good communicator in two languages and is a good pitch framer. He could be everything the Cubs are looking for behind the plate.
The issue with Aliendo is that before 2022, he never really hit much. But as a 21-year-old in South Bend last season, he seemed to take a step forward with the bat. Aliendo hit a career-best .267 with seven home runs, another career high. He has a good eye at the plate and that resulted in a solid .336 on-base percentage last year. Aliendo also struck out in a career-low of just under 22 percent of his trips to the plate. He also runs well for a catcher. Those are not super impressive numbers, but for a catcher with his defensive skills, it’s not bad at all.
There is some reason to believe that Aliendo could improve on those numbers this season. For a catcher, he’s kind of small and wiry. While Aliendo is unlikely to grow any taller, there certainly is room on his frame to add some muscle. It already looks like he’s added some from time in the Dominican Summer League. It’s possible that small power surge in 2022 was a sign of better things to come.
I’ve always maintained that other than going to the majors, the jump from High-A to Double-A is the toughest in baseball. Aliendo should start the year in Tennessee this spring and it’s going to be a real test. I have few concerns that he’ll handle the defensive side of the game, but he needs to build on the progress he made in 2022. He won’t have to hit much to have a career as a defensive-specialist backup catcher in the majors. But if he wants to be more than that, Aliendo will have to show he can keep up the progress in Double-A.
Here’s Aliendo doubling home BJ Murray Jr. last year.
Back to back doubles to the same spot by BJ Murray, Jr. and Pablo Aliendo give the Cubs the lead. pic.twitter.com/JZVrw78vxA— Brad (@ballskwok) September 18, 2022
20. Jeremiah Estrada. RHP. DOB: 11/01/98. 6’1”, 185/ Drafted 6th round (2017), Palm Desert HS (CA).
Jeremiah Estrada was probably the best story in the minor leagues in 2022. It seems almost miraculous that he made his major league debut in August.
Estrada was one of those lottery-ticket draft picks out of high school back in 2017. Taken in the sixth round, he signed for an overslot $1 million bonus. After that, there were nothing but setbacks. Estrada missed the entire 2018 season with an elbow strain that they tried to heal through rest and rehabilitation. He then pitched 10⅔ innings in 2019 before his elbow gave out and he underwent Tommy John surgery.
The entire 2020 season was shut down with COVID, although Estrada probably would have missed most of it recovering from surgery anyway. After starting the 2021 season in Extended Spring Training, Estrada moved on to Myrtle Beach in June. He got off to a promising start there, pitching 23 innings and striking out 38 batters (while walking just six) and posting an ERA of 1.57 over two starts and nine relief appearances.
Just when everything looked like it was moving in the right direction, Estrada came down with COVID in late July. It wasn’t a mild case either. It was one of those go-to-the-hospital cases. He was put on oxygen and lost 25 pounds. He could have died. In any case, that meant the end of the 2021 season for Estrada.
So after five seasons in the Cubs system, Estrada had managed to pitch a total of 40 innings. The idea that he’d make his major league debut in 2022 seemed out of the question. And if he didn’t show something last year, there was a good chance Estrada would have been released.
Estrada started the season with South Bend and the Midwest League didn’t prove to be much of a challenge. He threw 23 innings and struck out 38 batters (while walking six) on his way to a 1.86 ERA for South Bend.
Those kinds of numbers got him promoted to Double-A Tennessee, which proved to be no more of a challenge. In 19⅓ innings, Estrada struck out 27 and walked nine. He had a 1.86 ERA, at which point Estrada was promoted to Triple-A Iowa.
In August, Estrada made his major league debut in Toronto. Ironically after his serious bout with COVID, he got called up to replace Cubs pitchers who couldn’t enter Canada because of their vaccination status. (Estrada was not vaccinated when he caught COVID but got the shot as soon as he could after recovering.) He threw a scoreless inning in his MLB debut, allowing no hits and issuing one walk. He struck out Teoscar Hernandez and Danny Jansen.
In case you’ve forgotten about Estrada’s arsenal, he throws a nasty four-seam fastball with good spin that sits in the 95-to-99 mile per hour range. He likes to throw it up in the zone and it’s definitely a plus pitch. It’s plus-plus if he can locate it properly. His second pitch is an 82-to-84 mph slider with good horizontal movement. He doesn’t have the same command of it as he does the fastball, but it provides an excellent contrast to his fastball. As a former starter, he has a curve and a change as well. I like Estrada’s mid-80s change that has a sharp break down in the zone, but I don’t think he has the same confidence in it. But as a short reliever, he really doesn’t really need more than two pitches.
Not counting his stint in the majors, Estrada finished the year with a record of 3-2 with a 1.30 ERA and nine saves over the three levels. He threw 48⅓ innings and struck out a whopping 78 batters. The 18 unintentional walks are a little higher than you’d like to see, but it’s not bad for a pitcher who allowed a .183 batting average against.
Estrada is purely a reliever at this point in his career, but one with the potential to close one day. He’ll fight for a spot in the bullpen at Wrigley in Spring Training, but even if he starts the season in Iowa, he’ll see Wrigley soon enough. The only thing standing between Estrada and a career as a major league reliever is health and control.
Here’s Estrada striking out four Marlins in his final game of 2023. There are two fastballs and two sliders to watch.
Tomorrow: 11 through 15.