If you want any evidence that the Cubs’ front office has been having some success targeting pitching, there are three potential starters among these five prospects. One of them has even already had some success in the majors.
6. Ben Brown. RHP. DOB: 9/09/99. 6’6”, 210. Trade with Philadelphia (2022).
Brown seems to be part of a trend of the current front office to target players whose value may be down because of injuries. The Phillies picked Brown in the 33rd round in 2017 out of high school in Long Island. At the time, he was just a raw arm with a good fastball.
While he pitched well in the Gulf Coast League in 2017 and 2018, Brown’s 2019 season got cut short when he was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament and he underwent Tommy John surgery. He returned to the mound after the COVID shutdown, but he only got 16 innings in 2021 because of another arm injury and then a bout of COVID.
Finally healthy in 2022, Brown started the season at High-A Jersey Shore and dominated. He went 3-5 with a 3.08 ERA. Over 73 innings, Brown struck out 105 and walked only 23.
That performance got Brown promoted to Double-A Reading, but before he could report, the Phillies dealt him to the Cubs for David Robertson. Brown reported to Tennessee instead. Brown’s results were uneven in Double-A, but when he was on, Brown showed some very impressive stuff. Brown made seven starts and tossed 31 innings for the Smokies and went 3-0 with a 4.06 ERA. He continued to show an impressive control of the strike zone with 44 strikeouts and just 13 walks. That line would look a lot better were it not for one poor start when Brown gave up six runs and walked five in just three innings on August 12 against the Mississippi Braves.
When Brown is on, he has two plus pitches at his disposal. Brown’s fastball comes in at 95-to-97 miles per hour and he locates it well. In his good starts, Brown can paint the corners with his fastball at will and he gets a lot of swings and misses with fastballs up in the zone. There are games his control abandons him, but that’s why he’s in Double-A and not the majors.
Brown’s other plus pitch is a nasty hammer curve that comes in at the mid-80s. When it’s on, Brown can either drop the pitch into the zone for a strike or into the dirt in an attempt at getting the hitter to chase.
The 88-to-90 mph slider from Brown isn’t bad at all and some days it looks better than the curve. It doesn’t break nearly as much as the curve and it has more of a horizontal (or maybe a “2-8” break). Brown has more trouble throwing the slider consistently than he does the fastball or the curve, but it grades out to at least an average major league pitch. It could be better than that. He also has a changeup and that needs some work. Brown will likely need it as a starter to give left-handed hitters a different look.
Brown’s height also gives a nice downward action to all of his pitches.
I don’t want to give the impression that Brown struggles with control. As you can see from his walk totals, he doesn’t. There’s just a consistency issue from game to game or even inning to inning. Sometimes he’s painting corners and looks unhittable. Other times he’s just missing off the plate with the fastball or he can’t locate his breaking pitches where he wants them. This shouldn’t be a big deal. I think he will master this with more experience.
Ben Brown is a very impressive looking pitcher. The only thing that stands between him and being a number 3 pitcher in the majors is health and consistency. (And maybe that changeup.) If he falls short of that, there’s always the possibility he becomes a late-inning reliever, but that would be a disappointment at this point. Wherever Brown starts the season, he should see significant time with Triple-A Iowa this year. From there, it will just be waiting for the opportunity to make his major league debut. Because he’s on the 40-man roster, that could come some time this summer.
Here’s Brown striking out nine Trash Pandas in his Cubs organizational debut.
7. Hayden Wesneski. RHP. DOB: 12/09/97. 6’3”, 210. Trade with Yankees, 2022.
It certainly was a bit of a head-scratcher when the Cubs traded promising rookie reliever Scott Efforts to the Yankees at the trade deadline, especially with Effross having five years of control left. While the Yankees were certainly happy to get Effross, it didn’t take long for Cubs fans to fall in love with Hayden Wesneski as well.
Wesneski was a sixth-round pick by the Yankees out of Sam Houston State in 2019. He moved quickly through the Yankees system after the COVID shutdown, making Triple-A in his first full professional season in 2021. He went 6-7 with a 3.51 ERA for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre over 19 starts in 2022 before he was traded to the Cubs on August 1. Wesneski made his major-league debut on September 6. He was impressive in the majors, going 3-2 with a 2.18 ERA. He struck out 33 in 33 innings and walked just seven.
I probably don’t need to say much about Wesneski because most of you are already familiar with him from his performance in September. Wesneski has a kitchen sink full of pitches. The low-80s slider with a sharp break is his best pitch and it’s the one he throws the most. He also has a four-seam fastball in the 93-to-95 mile per hour range, although it touches higher than that. Add in a 92-94 two-seamer that breaks in to right-handers and a 88-to-90 mph cutter. There’s also a change up that grades out at least average.
Wesneski’s stuff grades out to be more of a number 4 starter, but his command is good enough that it could play a little above that.
Wesneski is a finished product who doesn’t need anymore time in the minors. He’ll be in competition for the fifth starter job out of Spring Training if Kyle Hendricks isn’t ready to go, as looks likely. If he’s not in the rotation, Wesneski should be a multi-inning reliever in the pen and a spot starter. A trip back to the minors will only happen if there’s a serious roster crunch.
Here’s Wesneski’s “immaculate inning” against the Pirates last September.
8. Cristian Hernandez. SS. DOB: 12/13/03. B:R, T:R. 6’2”, 175. International free agent (2021), Dominican Republic.
Few international prospects in the Cubs system have been hyped as much as Cristian Hernandez. So there was a lot of excitement when he made his stateside debut with the Cubs in the Arizona Complex League last season.
Hernandez was fine. He hit .261/.320/.357 with three home runs in 44 games as an 18-year-old. That’s fine. The problem is that for someone hyped as a potential star, fans don’t want to see “fine.” The expectation was that Hernandez would dominate the Complex League, force his way to Myrtle Beach and set himself up as one of the top 20 prospects in the game. Not in three years, but now.
It’s time to temper expectations a little here. Hernandez was a raw, athletic kid last year who was adjusting both to higher quality pitching, but to a new country as well. He shows good skills, but he struggled to adjust to better breaking pitches. Hernandez’s strikeout rate was a bit concerning at 30 percent, but it’s not a red flag yet. He couldn’t drive the ball in the ACL as well as some projected he would. His speed was more “above average” than “plus.”
Again, none of this is concerning unless you expected Hernandez to make his major league debut in 2024 and immediately play at a star level. He’s a kid that is going to need a lot more work than that.
Hernandez still has a smooth and very quick through he zone hitting stroke that’s geared to hit for power once he fills out and adds a little more strength. Also, learning to lay off breaking pitches in the dirt would help. Defensively, he’s a smooth but not elite shortstop. He could stay at the position, or he could grow out of it and move to third base, where he has all the tools to be above-average there. His arm is plus and fits in at either shortstop or third.
We could be talking about Cristian Hernandez in this space for a long time. He may not make his major league debut until 2027. He’d still only be 23 years old. Hernandez will likely play in Myrtle Beach as a 19-year-old next season. He’ll be young for the league and his numbers will be depressed by Pelican Park. He may just be “fine” again next year. And that’s just fine.
Hernandez has one of the “Catch Up” videos from the Cubs, which is probably the best introduction to him. In here, you can see he’s still thin and lanky, but there’s room on his frame to grow. He talks about putting on weight. Also, you can see why people are excited about that hitting stroke.
9. Jordan Wicks. LHP. DOB: 9/01/99. 6’3”, 220. Drafted 1st round (2021), Kansas State.
I love to watch Jordan Wicks pitch. He’s got that same je ne sais quoi (that’s totally a scouting term) that Kyle Hendricks uses to attack hitters. Wicks has five pitches and other than his nasty changeup, none of them rate better than average. But he knows how to mix his pitches up, attack the corners of the zone and induce weak contact. He’s not The Professor yet or anything close to it, but maybe he’s the Grad Assistant/TA right now.
The Cubs took Wicks in the first round of the 2021 MLB Draft out of Kansas State, the first KSU player ever taken in the first round. He was considered to be a polished left-hander who could move through the system quickly. While Wicks got a brief, seven-inning tryout with South Bend in 2021, he really made his minor league debut last season.
Wicks made 16 starts for South Bend last year and went 4-3 with a 3.64 ERA. In 66⅔ innings in High-A, Wicks struck out 86 and walked just 17. That got him promoted to Double-A, where he was challenged by hitters who weren’t quite as willing to chase that changeup. But he still struck out 35 batters in 28 innings, although he also walked 11. He gave up five home runs with the Smokies, which is the exact same number he gave up in more than twice as many innings in High-A. Wicks finished the season with Tennessee with a record of 0-3 with a 4.18 ERA. Not great, but it’s the normal kinds of issues that you expect out of a pitcher going to Double-A for the first time.
Wicks’ entire arsenal revolves around his low-80s changeup that dives down and in to right-handed hitters. It’s a plus pitch and it flashes plus-plus at times. That changeup makes hit 91-94 mile per hour four-seam fastball (which sometimes touches 96) look better. It’s a slightly above-average pitch with decent movement, but when Wicks is at his best he can throw it to the upper corners of the zone for a strike.
Wicks also has a mid-80s slider and an upper-80s cutter that both show some promise. Wicks needs to improve the consistency of both pitches. The 78-to-80 mph curveball is a work in progress and is clearly his worst pitch. It would help if Wicks could get the curve up to at least fringe-average.
Jordan Wicks may not have the same kind of upside that some of the other starting pitchers in the top ten, but he has a much higher likelihood of reaching it. As you may have guessed, command and control are big deals for Wicks. As long as he can hit his spots, his stuff is good enough to get outs. MLB Pipeline just ranked Wicks as the sixth-best left-handed pitching prospect in baseball.
Wicks should start the 2023 season back in Tennessee, but a mid-season (or even early-season) promotion to Iowa is likely assuming nothing goes wrong. I wouldn’t say that a 2023 major-league debut is likely, but it’s certainly possible if things go well for Wicks.
Here is Wicks striking out 10 Peoria Chiefs last July with South Bend.
10. Miguel Amaya. C. DOB: 3/09/99. B:R, T:R. 6’2”, 230. International free agent (2015), Panama.
It’s been a long, strange trip for Miguel Amaya. Baseball America ranked the catcher as the Cubs’ number 2 prospect before the 2019 season and their number 4 prospect before the 2020 season. But Amaya hasn’t played much since then.
No one played in 2020, although Amaya did get invited to the alternate camp in South Bend and drew strong reviews for his work with the pitchers there. But he played in just 23 games for Tennessee in 2021 after suffering from right forearm tightness. Amaya and the Cubs went with the whole “rest-and-rehab” routine on the arm, but as he was ramping up to resume baseball activities in November, he had a setback and underwent Tommy John surgery.
Although Amaya still couldn’t throw in 2022 as he recovered from surgery, he was playing for the Cubs’ Arizona Complex League team by July 1, serving as the designated hitter. By July 22, he was back in Tennessee doing DH duties for the Smokies. In 28 games in Double-A, Amaya hit .278/.379/.485 with six doubles, one triple and four home runs. That was a career-high in both batting average and slugging percentage for Amaya.
Amaya did not just sit around and rehab while he was down with an arm injury. He re-dedicated himself to fitness and nutrition and he got buff. He was like that friend you haven’t seen for three years and when he shows up, you immediately ask “Dude! Have you been working out?”
When Amaya returned to Tennessee in July, it was like he was a completely different person. I would not say that Amaya was out-of-shape before he got injured, but he had a catcher’s body. It’s striking how lean and muscular Amaya is now. He completely re-made his body, and the results showed up in his hitting.
Amaya always got raves for his pitch recognition skills and his ability to get on base by a hit or a walk, but there was always a question whether or not he could tap into his plus raw power in-game. It seems his new body has untapped at least some of that potential. There could be even more to come. Amaya likes to hit the ball from gap-to-gap, so there could be a good number of doubles to go with those home runs.
Amaya was supposed to start catching in the Arizona Fall League last year, but he withdrew with a foot injury. Is it concerning that Amaya hasn’t caught a game since May 2021 and that he’s only caught 12 games since 2019? Yes. If it wasn’t, he’d be ranked higher. But the good news here is that before COVID and his arm injury, Amaya’s glove was considered well-ahead of his bat. He had soft hands and was good at blocking balls in the dirt. He framed pitches well. Pitchers loved working with him. While his arm strength was just average, good technique gave him good times on throws to bases. Who knows how strong Amaya’s arm will be when he’s ready to catch again? Maybe better?
Also, if you want some evidence of Amaya’s leadership skills, check him out translating for Kevin Alcántara at the Cubs Convention this past weekend.
Three years ago, Amaya was seen as a glove-first catcher with some unrealized promise as a hitter. His performance in 2022 was a good sign that Amaya was starting to live up to his potential at the plate. So as long as he hasn’t gone backwards defensively, he should be close to making his major league debut.
Amaya’s going to start the year in Triple-A Iowa, but he’s also one of just three catchers on the Cubs 40-man roster at the moment. Amaya’s major league debut could be a minor injury away.
Here’s Amaya crushing a home run. You can also get a glimpse of his new physique.
【AA Tennessee Smokies】— Masato (@GoCubsGoMarines) July 24, 2022
Miguel Amaya (#1) 2-run
Tomorrow: The top 5.