It’s day three of five in our countdown of the Cubs top prospects for 2023 and once again I am struck at how deep the system is.
Also, I’ve noticed that I’ve been referring to the 2021 minor leagues by their current name and not the official generic name they had that year. For example, I’ve said that someone on South Bend in 2021 was in the Midwest League and not “HIgh-A Central” like they wanted us to call it that year. It’s just clearer if I call it the Midwest League. If this bothers you, you really need to re-think your life’s priorities.
So here are prospects 11 through 16! Once again, these are my rankings based on everything I saw, read or heard about the Cubs minor leaguers. If there are errors, they are all my fault.
11. Owen Caissie. OF. DOB: 7/08/02. B:L, T:R. 6’4”, 190. Trade with Padres (2020).
Owen Caissie has as much raw power as anyone in the system. Alexander Canario and Matt Mervis may hit more home runs at the moment, but Caissie hits them just as far and to all fields.
Caissie, a second-round pick by the Padres in 2020, was younger and rawer than most top draft picks. He was still 17 when he was drafted and Canadian youth baseball provides neither the top competition nor the length of a season that amateur prospects in the States get. For example, Caissie never played in a night game before the Arizona Complex League in 2021. He never got a chance to play for the Padres before they packaged him in a deal to the Cubs for Yu Darvish just before New Year’s in 2020.
After ripping up the Arizona Complex League and a late-season promotion to Myrtle Beach in 2021, the Cubs sent the still 19-year-old to South Bend last season. For the month of April, it looked like too aggressive a move. Caissie was terrible to start the season, hitting just .122 with a .173 OBP and no home runs over his first 49 at-bats. He was striking out in 43.6 percent of his plate appearances. Yeah, that’s bad.
Caissie’s swing had gotten all out of whack. He wasn’t letting his long arms generate power and he was getting on top of pitches, leading to lots of easy ground outs. He also admitted that the slump was getting to him mentally. Caissie said he was trying to hit every pitch 400 feet rather than just letting his natural stroke generate the power for him.
The Cubs sat him down at the end of the month (The Athletic sub. req.) to get his swing and his mind right. Certainly there was a lot of work on getting his swing back to where it should have been, but a lot of his time off was just sitting there and watching how other hitters (in particular Canario and Mervis) went about their at-bats.
The plan worked. When Caissie returned to the lineup, he hit .313/.380/.530 in May with four home runs and was named Cubs’ Minor League Player of the Month. He continued to hit throughout the summer months, although he did slow down a bit near the end of the year. From April 29, when he returned to the South Bend lineup after his break, Caissie hit .273/.367/.444 with 23 doubles, one triple and 12 home runs in 99 games. That counts the playoffs, where Caissie hit a huge three-run home run in the decisive game 3 of the Midwest League Championship Series. (South Bend won, in case you’ve forgotten.)
For the regular season as a whole, Caissie hit .254/.349/.402 with 11 home runs. He struggled again in the Arizona Fall League, but that was a challenging assignment for someone so young who had never played above High-A. That he hit .220 with a .270 OBP and one home run in 16 games is really not that bad, under the circumstances.
Cassie’s biggest asset is his light-tower power to all fields, but he’s also got a good sense of the strike zone and will wait out of a walk if that’s what the pitcher gives him. Caissie is a big man with a very upright stance, and that means he’s got a really big strike zone. Caissie is always going to strike out a lot because of that, but his pitch recognition skills should be good enough that he won’t just walk and hit home runs. He can flick an outside pitch to left field for a hit if need be.
(Also, I don’t know why I report the listed weights on players. Caissie probably weighed 190 when he was drafted, but he’s a lot bigger now.)
Other than just how he’ll adjust to better pitching with that huge strike zone as he moves up the system, the biggest question on Caissie remains his defense in right field. He did not look good out there in 2022, struggling to judge fly balls and showing overall poor defensive range. That might be something that he can just fix with experience. There doesn’t seem to be any physical reason Caissie can’t be a decent defensive right fielder. His arm is very good. But until Caissie proves he can play right field adequately, there’s a significant risk he ends up as a first baseman. He certainly has the potential to hit enough to handle first base, but obviously it’s a higher bar to clear and his bat might not be as special there.
Double-A Tennessee will be a big test for Caissie. The stuff he’ll face is going to be a lot better and he’s going to have to prove he can handle it. It also looks like he may get a chance to play for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic, and that should be a good learning experience as well. Heck, it would be worth it if he just got to pick Freddie Freeman’s brain.
Here is one of the highlights of Caissie’s 2022 season. It’s the walk-off grand slam that he hit just two hours before he turned 20.
12. Caleb Kilian. RHP. DOB: 6/02/97. 6’4”, 180. Trade with Giants (2021).
Last season was supposed to be the year that Caleb Kilian announced his presence as a major league pitcher. And to be fair, Kilian did pitch very well to start the season and he did make his major league debut on June 4. It was a solid performance against the Cardinals, going five innings and allowing three runs. He struck out six and walked two.
Things kind of fell apart for Kilian after that. His next two starts in the majors went poorly and things didn’t get better back in Iowa. Whether it was something physical or something mental, Kilian failed to throw strikes after his stint in the majors. This was especially troubling because control had always been Kilian’s strongest asset up until that point.
If you want to know how bad things got, over Kilian’s first nine starts in Iowa, he went 2-0 with a 2.06 ERA. He threw 39⅓ innings and struck out 41, walked 15 and held opposing hitters to a .237 batting average. In his 17 starts after his major league debut, Kilian went 3-4 with an ERA of 5.48. Over 67⅓ innings, he struck out 84. That’s good! But he also walked 44 batters and that’s pretty darn bad. You can’t be a major league starter with that kind of control.
Kilian’s arsenal is the same as it was last year. He’s got a 94-to-97 mile per hour fastball with good movement. His high-70s curveball has a sharp downward break and it another quality pitch. The Cubs taught him a cutter and that gives him another option, alongside his mid-80s changeup.
None of this will matter if Kilian can’t throw strikes. But the good news here is that we know he can throw strikes. He did it in 2021 and unless there’s an injury that we don’t know about, there’s no reason he can’t do it again. He just needs to get back to where he was at the beginning of 2022. He did have a very good two first months last year and the poor end of the season shouldn’t let us lose sight of that. Kilian still has the potential to be a number 3/4 starter in the major league and he could be that as soon as this year. No one seems to think Kilian needs to do anything more than break some bad habits he took the mound in the second-half of last season.
Obviously Kilian is going to return to Iowa this year. He hasn’t been mentioned much as a possibility for the Cubs’ starting rotation this year, but if he can return to his early 2022 form, he’s in line for another shot if there’s an opening.
Here is every strikeout of Kilian’s major-league debut. This is what he looked like before the wheels fell off in the second half and why he’s still a prospect to watch.
13. Alexander Canario. OF. B:R, T:R. DOB: 5/07/00. 6’1”, 165. Trade with Giants (2021).
Let’s get something out of the way. Alexander Canario would probably rank about five places higher were it not for the devastating ankle and shoulder injuries that he suffered in the Dominican winter league. It’s not that I expect that Canario will have any lasting effects from the injuries, but I’m not discounting the possibility that he will. A lot of Canario’s value is tied up in his ability to play a solid center field (or above-average in right) while at the same time still hitting 35 home runs. If either his speed, his throwing arm or his hitting stroke is altered by the injury, Canario becomes a much less interesting prospect. Canario is not expected to take the field until mid-season at the earliest.
(And yes, here’s another player whose listed weight is ridiculous. Canario’s powerful legs weigh 165 pounds. OK, not really, but you get the point.)
Canario had a breakout season in 2022 when he led the Cubs system with 37 home runs. He repeated South Bend to start the season and Canario smashed seven home runs in just 24 games before the Cubs sent him to Double-A Tennessee. In 81 games there, Canario clobbered 24 more home runs. That earned him a spot with Triple-A Iowa where Canario smacked six more homers over 20 games. That includes a three home run game in Omaha when Canario hit the first home run to right field, the second one to center field and the third one down the line in left.
Canario’s power is impressive and, as that three HR game shows, he can leave the park to any field. Few of his home runs are line drives that barely go out. Canario hits them high and he hits them deep.
The downside on Canario, besides the injury, is that there is a whole ton of swing and miss in his game. While his 147 strikeouts in 534 plate appearances last year isn’t terrible, it’s not good either. His batting average went down every level he went up. It was .281 in South Bend, .248 in Tennessee and .231 in Iowa. While he did draw a good number of walks as pitchers came to fear him and pitch around him, Canario doesn’t go up to the plate looking to draw a walk. He’s an aggressive hitter who is prone to chase breaking balls in the dirt and getting himself out. He’s very unlikely to ever hit for a high average, but he should draw enough walks to keep his OBP acceptable.
For the record, Canario finished the 2022 campaign hitting .252/.343/.556 with 26 doubles, two triples and 37 home runs.
Before his injury at least, Canario played a solid center field. In the majors he’s probably better suited to right field where he could show off his plus arm and he wouldn’t have to cover quite so much ground. But a decent defensive center fielder with a strong arm often makes a very good defensive right fielder.
We’re all just holding our breath and crossing our fingers that Canario will return to what he was before the injury sometime late this season. He was on track for a major league debut this year, but that’s unlikely now.
Here’s Canario’s 37th and final home run of the year. It’s a monster opposite-field blast that shows off his impressive raw power.
ALEXANDER CANARIO TIES IT! Home run number 37 on the year for the outfielder. pic.twitter.com/QASp0Inrd3— Iowa Cubs (@IowaCubs) September 28, 2022
And here’s that three home run day in Omaha where he hit one to each field.
14. Jackson Ferris. LHP. DOB: 1/15/04. 6’4”, 195. Drafted 2nd round (2022), IMG Academy (FL)
Quite honestly, I’m just guessing where to stick the Cubs’ second-round pick as he hasn’t thrown an official professional pitch yet. But based on what I’ve seen and read about his stuff and the general consensus that Ferris has a better chance to stick as a starter than some of the pitchers I have ranked below him, I’m quite comfortable with him here.
While the Cubs took Ferris in the second round, he really should be considered as a second first-round pick. When the Cubs picked Oklahoma right-hander Cade Horton with the seventh pick, they knew that he would agree to a $4.45 million bonus that was $1.2 million under slot. That allowed the Cubs to reallocate bonus pool money to Ferris, who then got a $3 million bonus to forgo attending Ole Miss. That’s the highest bonus of any second-round pick and is in line with what a late first-round pick gets.
The Cubs weren’t expected to put Ferris into a minor league game last year and they didn’t. Instead, he worked with the team in Mesa, preparing for 2023.
What the Cubs saw out of Ferris was a left-hander with a 93-to-95 mile per hour fastball, which was the same velocity he threw in high school. In high school his fastball would occasionally touch 97, and the Cubs likely believe that with some increased strength training and cleaning up his delivery a bit, Ferris can sit closer to 97 than 94. His secondary pitches are also pretty advanced for a high school pitcher. He throws a sharp breaking 12-6 curve with mid-70s velocity and a mid-80s slider with more horizontal break. I’ve read there’s a changeup as well. His slider shows the most promise of the secondary pitches, but all of them could use a lot more consistency. That’s neither unexpected nor concerning from a high school kid.
Ferris’ pitching motion sticks out as complicated with some violent action at the end. There’s a long, sweeping arm action and a big leg kick. The good part of this is that Ferris hides the ball from the batter well, which makes his stuff even harder to hit. The bad part of this is that it’s not an easy motion to repeat consistently. Ferris did had some periods of loss of control in high school.
The Cubs don’t plan to make major changes to the delivery at the moment on the theory of don’t mess with what’s working. They have made a few tweaks in Mesa, but they’re concentrating on strength training and conditioning with Ferris at the moment. They will address his pitching motion later in his career if he starts to struggle. And if he doesn’t, they’ll just leave it alone. Many pitchers have found success with unorthodox deliveries.
Ferris will likely start 2023 in Extended Spring Training. How he does there all determine whether he hangs around until the start of the Complex League or he forces his way to Myrtle Beach.
Here are the highlights of a game Ferris pitched last year when he struck out 13 batters. Most of the video is about Ferris, but IMG Academy does come to bat and you can see some Elijah Green highlights if you want.
15. DJ Herz. LHP. DOB: 1/04/01. 6’2”, 175. Drafted 8th-round (2019), Sanford HS (NC).
Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, this game has a way of humbling you.
After a cameo appearance in the ACL in 2019 and sitting out 2020 like every other minor leaguer, DJ Herz came out with a bang in 2021. Incorporating all the stuff the Cubs had him work on during the shutdown, he dominated the Carolina League and got a late-season promotion to South Bend, where he was just as good. Herz was the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2021.
Herz was even better this year in South Bend. He made 17 starts and went 2-2 with a 2.26 ERA. Over 63⅔ innings in High-A, Herz struck out an eye-popping 99 batters. Yes, he walked 37 and that’s way too many, but a pitcher can get away with that if he strikes out so many that opposing hitters can only manage a .150 batting average. The days that Herz started were renamed “Herzday” by fans and the SB Cubs, continuing a tradition that started in Myrtle Beach.
When you dominate a level like that, you get promoted. And Herz was promoted to Double-A Tennessee in mid-July. You can play this record scratch sound effect now.
Herz admitted that Double-A was “like a slap in the face.” Herz made nine starts for the Smokies and went 1-4 with an un-prospect-like 8.24 ERA. Double-A hitters laid off those high fastballs out of the zone and the changeups in the dirt that fooled hitters in A ball so many times. Herz would fall behind in counts and then he’d try to get a strike over the plate and Double-A hitters would punish him. He allowed five home runs over 31⅔ innings after having given up just three in South Bend in twice as many innings. Herz struck out 42 batters in Tennessee which is down, but it’s still good. It’s still more than a batter an inning. But unfortunately he also walked 33 batters, which is also more than one an inning.
When Herz is on, he has one of the nastiest fastball/changeup combos in the minor leagues. His fastball sits in the 92-to-95 mile per hour range, but his unique “crossfire” delivery releases the ball later and gives hitters less time to react. His changeup in is the 82-to-84 range and it has an ridiculous vertical drop. Herz also has a high-70s curve that also has a 12-6 break on it.
All of Herz’s pitches play better because of that cross-body delivery that is both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, it hides the pitch from the batter longer and gives him an arm angle that the hitter simply isn’t used to seeing. The negative is that it’s a hard motion to repeat with any consistency and that’s what leads to the high walk rates.
The other issue with the crossfire delivery is that it appears to put a whole lot of stress on Herz’s left arm. I’ve always been skeptical that Herz can maintain a starter’s workload throwing like that without blowing his arm out. I’m no kinesiologist, so maybe I’m wrong. Herz did throw about 100 innings this past season. But between the delivery and the control issues, I still feel that Herz has a much higher chance of ending up in the bullpen than most young prospects who have experienced the kind of success he has.
There are good reasons not to get too worried about Tennessee. For one, the fact that Herz recognizes what what happened there. He knows he needs to change his approach and that is a great sign. Herz has always proven to be extremely coachable and willing to put the work in. I doubt anything has changed in that area.
The other good news here is that at 21 and six months, Herz was the sixth-youngest player in the Southern League all season. He was playing against older and more-experienced competition. He still has lots of time to figure things out at the Double-A level.
Herz will always walk a lot of batters and that’s going to limit his upside. The question is whether he can get that number down low enough that he can still start a game without racking up insane pitch counts by the fourth inning.
Herz will certainly start this season back in Tennessee. Where he goes from there is up to him. While a major league debut in 2024 is more likely, you can’t rule out Herz forcing the issue sometime this season, especially if the Cubs are willing to temporarily move him to the bullpen.
Here is Herz striking out 12 batters in a game with South Bend last June.
Tomorrow: Prospects 6 through 10.