It’s the final day of Prospect Week here at Bleed Cubbie Blue and that means we’ve got the top five prospects in the Cubs system. I want to thank everyone for reading along and I hope you’ve gotten excited about the upcoming minor league season. As always, if there are any mistakes here, they are all my fault.
Normally, the top five prospects are pretty familiar to all of you, but there’s one this year that you may not be as familiar with, although you’re certainly familiar with his name.
1. Pete Crow-Armstrong. CF. DOB: 3/25/02. B:L, T:L. 6’0”, 184. Trade with Mets (2021).
Was there any doubt that Pete Crow-Armstrong would top the list? Crow-Armstrong, or PCA as he is commonly known, was a first-round pick by the Mets in 2020 out of Harvard-Westlake in Los Angeles, the same baseball powerhouse prep school that produced Jack Flaherty, Lucas Giolito and Max Fried. The Cubs said they scouted him extensively as an amateur and I believe them, because when the time came to trade Javier Báez to the Mets, they asked for PCA in return, even though he had played just six games as a Met before missing the rest of the season with a torn labrum.
While Crow-Armstrong was on the injured list, he worked on increasing his upper-body strength and re-tooling his swing. Whereas before he had a swing that was geared towards contact and hitting the ball on the ground, by adjusting his hands and keeping the bat in the zone longer, PCA was now hitting for power.
The changes Crow-Armstrong made paid off immediately at the plate. PCA absolutely dominated the Low-A Carolina League, hitting .354/.443/.557 with five doubles, three triples and seven home runs over 183 plate appearances over 38 games. He had 22 walks and 33 strikeouts. PCA stole 13 bases in 17 attempts. That kind of a performance is going to get a prospect promoted, and indeed PCA went to South Bend at the beginning of June.
There was a real adjustment period in the High-A Midwest League. Crow-Armstrong was still hitting the ball hard there, but he struggled to make contact and was striking out at an elevated rate. But that period of adjustment lasted about six weeks. I’ve seen on-line smartasses question PCA’s future potential by pointing out that his line in South Bend was good but not great. He hit .287/.333/.498 with 15 doubles, seven triples and nine home runs and 19 steals over 63 games. Crow-Armstrong struck out 69 times over 288 plate appearances—a strikeout rate of 24 percent.
But isolating Crow-Armstrong’s final two months in South Bend tell a different story. He returned from a minor injury where he missed five games but did not go on the injured list on August 2. From that day to the end of the season, Crow-Armstrong hit .323/.376/.478 with nine doubles, two triples and four home runs in 39 games, including the playoffs. The power dropped a little bit, but the strikeout rate also dropped to a solid 20 percent.
Crow-Armstrong was also named to the National League Futures Game roster last year. In his hometown of Los Angeles, he went 1 for 2 with a double.
Even if Crow-Armstrong couldn’t hit, he would be a special player because he is the best defensive outfielder in the minor leagues. In a recent article, MLB Pipeline’s Sam Dykstra said he was the prospect most likely to win multiple Gold Glove awards. Crow-Armstrong uses his speed and instincts to cover an amazing amount of territory in the outfield. He also prides himself on his willingness to dive, jump or crash into the outfield wall to make the catch. PCA has often said that he wants to catch every outfield fly. Somedays it seems like maybe he could. His arm isn’t elite, but it’s above-average for a center fielder.
Crow-Armstrong is on track to be the greatest Cubs defensive center fielder of my lifetime. Maybe of all time — I’m not going to try and compare him to Jimmy Slagle or anything. But the Cubs have run dozens of players out to center field in my life and on defense, the best of them were probably Bob Dernier and Brian McRae. Crow-Armstrong easily can be better than those two were.
The new hitting stroke is not just leading to more power, but a higher exit velocity and more hits. At the moment, Crow-Armstrong projects out to be an ideal leadoff hitter.
Crow-Armstrong probably won’t bulk up a lot more for fear of losing some of that mobility on defense or speed on the bases. Crow-Armstrong is an aggressive baserunner with plus-plus speed who takes a lot of chances. In the Midwest League, those chances paid off a lot more often than they didn’t, but one has to think that he may need to moderate those tendencies as defenses in the upper minors and the majors aren’t prone to so many mistakes when hurried. But he should still steal a lot of bases and score from second on a many singles to the outfield that most runners wouldn’t even try to score on.
There are a few places where Crow-Armstrong could stumble. Sometimes he gets a little too pull-happy at the plate and that can lead to weak contact on better stuff. There’s always the chance that he fails to adjust to better pitching higher up in the minor leagues. There are no guarantees here. Finally, PCA is a guy who plays with his hair on fire most of the time and that can lead to injuries. He’s already torn his labrum once as a professional.
Crow-Armstrong should start the year in Double-A Tennessee where he’ll be the most-watched man on the field. From there, he should be on track for a major-league debut in 2024. Between his elite defense, his new-found solid power and his ability to get on base and then steal a base, PCA has the potential to be a star for years to come. And even if he doesn’t, his glove should still make him a productive major league outfielder.
These “Catch Up” hype videos that the Cubs make are actually quite good. They give you a little insight into the player and they’ve got a lot of highlights. They’re not going to show you anything bad about the player, but it’s not like I’m going to grab a video and say “Here’s PCA striking out on a curve in the dirt” either.
2. Brennen Davis. OF. DOB: 11/02/99. B:R, T:R. 6’4”, 210. Drafted 2nd round (2018), Basha HS (AZ).
It was another injury-filled season for Davis, which seems to be the only thing standing between him and a long and productive major-league career. Davis was suppose to make his major-league debut last year after a strong 2021 campaign that landed him on everyone’s Top 100 prospects list. But he got off to a slow start in Triple-A Iowa (after impressing in a short stint there in 2021), hitting just .195/.286/.299 over 22 games. His strikeouts, always a point of concern in his development, had increased and his easy power to all fields was gone.
Davis eventually revealed that he’d been suffering from a back pain that the doctors were having trouble diagnosing. Eventually he underwent back surgery, where they discovered a “vascular malformation” which was called the “best-case scenario” for Davis. Instead of missing the entire season, he was back in Iowa by late August. But Davis didn’t really hit any better in Iowa at the end of the year than he did at the beginning. Davis got off to a good start in the Arizona Fall League, but shut it down after just five games after he experienced some more discomfort in his back. That turned out to be a stress reaction unrelated to his surgery, although it might have been something he injured as he worked his way back from the layoff.
Certainly the number of injuries that Davis has had is starting to be a big concern. But it’s not like he’s had one chronic injury that keeps flaring up. Instead, it’s just one thing after another — a hamstring issue in high school, a broken finger after getting hit by a pitch, a concussion after getting hit in the face and the back issues last year. Is Davis injury-prone or has he just suffered a series of bad breaks? Until the back issue, the evidence pointed towards the latter. Now, we can’t be so sure.
But if Davis can get healthy, he can be a special player. He’s a five-tool player (well, maybe 4½ tools) with his easy power to all fields as his best tool. He’s a solid center fielder with good speed. Davis has a strong enough arm for right, where he could be a plus defender.
The only tool with a question is the hit tool. Davis does make good hard contact to all fields and he especially likes to hit the ball into the outfield gaps. But Davis has had some contact and pitch recognition issues which have lead to a lot of strikeouts. He probably won’t hit for a high average, but he draws enough walks to give himself a solid on-base percentage.
Davis projects to be the kind of player who gets underrated — he does lots of things well rather than be truly excellent at a few things.
Davis was supposed to arrive in the majors last year, but the injuries set him back. But ever since he was drafted out of high school, Davis has been praised for his maturity, his hard work and his leadership qualities. Davis says he’s healthy and ready to go for Spring Training. The Cubs outfield is a bit crowded at the moment, but if he’s healthy and playing like he did at the end of 2021, Davis will force his way into the Cubs’ lineup this year.
There weren’t a lot of highlights from Davis in 2022, but here he is hitting his first ever home run at Principal Park in Des Moines in September.
3. Kevin Alcántara. OF. DOB: 7/12/02. B:R, T:R. 6’6”, 205. Trade with Yankees (2021).
Kevin Alcántara has more offensive upside than anyone in the Cubs system and I seriously debated ranking him above Davis. In the end, the fact that if Davis is healthy he’s major-league ready (and that he’s got some upside himself) caused me to rank Alcántara behind him here.
Not many players in Low-A get their own nickname, but Alcántara has earned one in The Jaguar. It’s a nickname he loves and the cat does symbolize Alcántara’s combination of speed and explosive power well.
A prized international signing of the Yankees in 2018, Alcántara did so well in the Dominican Summer League in 2019 that he forced his way to the Gulf Coast League before his 17th birthday. That he wasn’t overmatched there was a great sign for his future. But Alcántara, like everyone else, lost the 2020 season to COVID and then a minor injury delayed his start to the 2021 season back with the Yankees’ complex team. He only got nine games in there before he was dealt to the Cubs for Anthony Rizzo.
Alcántara dominated the Arizona Complex League in 2021 and started the 2022 season as a 19-year-old in Low-A Myrtle Beach. He got off to a slow start in April, but then Alcántara hit .304 with six home runs in May and never looked back.
Spending the entire 2022 season with the Pelicans, Alcántara hit .281/.359/.453 with 15 home runs and 14 steals in 495 trips to the plate. That’s good for a 19-year-old, but it’s even better when you look at what he did away from extreme pitcher park the Pelicans play in. On the road, Alcántara hit .303/.366/.505 with nine home runs over 54 games. He also got better as the season went on. From August 1 to the end of the season (including the playoffs), Alcántara hit .291/.368/.437 with four home runs in 117 plate appearances overall.
“The Jaguar” (or El Jaguar, I’ve heard both) has a short, quick swing despite his long, lanky arms. He made big strides in pitch recognition as the season went on, although he still gets fooled sometimes by good breaking pitches. But Alcántara is learning to be a more patient hitter and he drew a solid 55 walks last year to go with his 123 strikeouts. Not outstanding, but certainly not bad for someone so young and with such power potential.
Defensively, Alcántara has enough speed and range to play center field and he does make some highlight catches out there. But he’s probably destined for right field where his above-average arm (that has the potential to improve) will easily play.
Also, I don’t know how important or even how repeatable this is, but Alcántara has earned a reputation for coming up big in big moments. This isn’t a guy who lets the pressure get to him. That’s certainly not a bad thing. From his appearance at the Cubs Convention last weekend, Alcántara also gave off some fun-loving and positive vibes that could make him a fan favorite.
Alcántara is tall and lanky and is still growing into his tall frame. He’s definitely added some muscle since the trade with the Yankees, but he could still add on even more. Baseball America recently ranked him as the best athlete in the Cubs system, so the hope would be to add strength without costing him the speed and explosiveness that he already has. So far, he has.
Obviously there is some risk with anyone so young as Alcántara. His size also gives him a big strike zone, which he’s going to have to learn to cover or better pitchers will exploit holes. But there’s no indication at the moment that’s going to be a major problem.
Alcántara already makes most Top 100 prospect lists and he’s got the potential to make some Top 20 prospect lists by the time the season is over. He’ll be in South Bend as a 20-year-old and the Cubs will likely continue to play it slow with him. He may struggle to adjust early in the season (and it will be his first time in cold weather), but if history is any guide, he’ll have figured it out and will be dominating the Midwest League by the end of the year, if not earlier. A major-league debut in 2025 is certainly possible.
Here’s the “Catch Up” video for “The Jaguar.”
4. Cade Horton. RHP. DOB: 8/20/01. 6’1”, 211. Drafted 1st round (2022), Oklahoma.
The Cubs certainly made a controversial pick with the seventh pick in the first round last year when they picked Horton, a pitcher from Oklahoma who had a 4.86 ERA over 53⅔ innings coming back from Tommy John surgery as a redshirt freshman for the Sooners. It certainly didn’t help that Horton didn’t pitch in the minors last year whereas position players they passed on in the draft like Brooks Lee, Gavin Cross and Zach Neto got off to terrific starts with their new teams. Yes, taking Horton was part of a strategy that got the Cubs Jackson Ferris in the second round and Horton was expected to be drafted in the 10-to-15 range anyway. But that’s cold comfort to Cubs fans who dreamed of someone like Brooks Lee manning the hot corner at Wrigley for years to come.
It’s always difficult to rank players who haven’t made their professional debuts yet, but at least in the case of Horton, he played in the College World Series and pitched in the finals against Ole Miss. The Sooners lost, but it wasn’t Horton’s fault. He left with a 2-1 lead in the eighth inning, having allowed just four hits, all to left-handers. Horton had struck out 13 and walked no one in that game. He was at 107 pitches when he was pulled.
I went back and watched every pitch that Horton threw in the College World Series: the finals against Ole Miss and an earlier game against Notre Dame. I left convinced that if the Horton in the CWS is the Horton the Cubs are going to get going forward, they made a great pick.
Horton didn’t just come out of nowhere. He was projected as a second- or third-round pick out of high school in Norman, Oklahoma in 2020, but went undrafted in that abbreviated five-round draft because of his strong commitment to play both football and baseball for the Sooners. He never did manage to get on the football field and then he suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament in January 2021 that cost him his freshman season after Tommy John surgery.
The Sooners brought him along slowly in 2022. Horton mostly played third base and didn’t pitch until late-March. Horton worked his way back to the mound in short stints after that. The results were inconsistent, which is not unexpected from someone coming back from Tommy John. Some good outings, some terrible ones. His regular season ERA was 7.94, which does not say “Top Ten Pick” to anyone.
But by the time the playoffs rolled around, Horton seemed fully recovered from the surgery and the Sooners took the training wheels off, letting him throw more than 90 pitches in each of his final five starts. Horton’s postseason ERA was 2.61 with 49 strikeouts and just six walks in 31 innings.
In the win against Notre Dame, Horton threw 100 pitches over six innings. He gave up five hits and two runs, both of which came on a two-run home run in the sixth. He struck out 11 and walked just one.
Horton was even better in the no-decision against Ole Miss. He threw 106 pitches over 7 1/3 innings. He allowed four hits and all four of them were by left-handers. He was charged with two runs, although one was came on an inherited runner and the other was a home run on an elevated slider to Jacob Gonzalez, who is currently projected to be a top-five pick in this year’s draft. Horton struck out 13 batters and walked no one, although he did hit one batter.
As impressive as that line was, what I saw was even better. Horton’s best pitch was his 95-to-98 mile per hour fastball with good movement. He coupled that with a sharp-breaking slider that comes in at 88 to 90 and rates as plus. His 12-6 curve is a solid third pitch. That one comes in at between 82 and 85. As broadcaster Kyle Peterson said at one point, it’s major-league stuff.
Horton wasn’t perfect. I think he threw two or three changeups combined in the two games. He clearly doesn’t trust it much at this point and he’s going to need to to get left-handers out. Right-handed hitters were absolutely hopeless against Horton in those two games, but lefties could get a hit off of him.
The other issue in the CWS games was that Horton’s stamina may not be all the way back. The first time through the Ole Miss lineup, Horton’s stuff looked close to perfect. The fastball was up around 97 or 98, up in the zone and with good movement. The slider had a sharp break and came in around 90. Major leaguers would have struggled to hit it. The second time through the order, the pitches didn’t have the same kind of sharpness, They weren’t bad, but they were hittable by better hitters, as Jacob Gonzalez proved. The command wasn’t quite as good. But Horton battled through that and regained his sharpness in the later innings, but the velocity on all of his pitches was down a bit. Still, it was encouraging to see him make the adjustments to get his pitches back to where he wanted them, even if he had to take a little off them. That’s the kind of mound presence a lot of major leaguers don’t have. (The Notre Dame game followed a similar pattern for Horton.)
The issue, of course, is that the real Cade Horton? Because if it is, he’s at minimum a number-two pitcher and possibly a number-one. But he’s yet to prove that he can withstand the daily grind of pitching every fifth day and keeping that stuff at that level throughout a 162-game season. Heck, he hasn’t even been able to prove he can stay healthy. He seems to have made a full recovery from Tommy John and he says he made some tweaks to his delivery to keep him healthier. But we won’t know until he pitches in a full season.
After recovering from Tommy John and getting pushed to the limit in the College World Series, the Cubs were not going to let him pitch in a game again in 2022. Instead, he reported to the Pitch Lab in Mesa where they worked on the mental side of the game and tried to work on his changeup a bit. They also put him on a strength and conditioning program.
Horton is going to be one of the most fascinating stories of 2023. I have no idea where he’ll pitch this year — the Cubs started Jordan Wicks in South Bend, but that’s just a guess. But wherever he does end up pitching, I know I’m going to be watching.
Here are all 13 strikeouts in Horton’s record-setting performance in the CWS finals.
5. Matt Mervis. 1B. DOB: 4/16/98. B:L, T:R. 6’4”, 224. Undrafted free agent (2020), Duke.
I’m still not one-hundred-percent sold on Matt Mervis and judging by the signings of first basemen Trey Mancini and Eric Hosmer, I don’t think the Cubs are either. It’s not that he can’t succeed in the majors, just that there is still a lot of uncertainty. But judging on what he did last year, there’s a whole lot of upside to “Mash” Mervis as well.
It’s hard to argue with the season Mervis had in 2022. Mervis started the year in High-A South Bend, despite a thoroughly mediocre season in Myrtle Beach in 2021. Mervis found the Midwest League to be not much of a challenge. In 27 games, he hit .350/.389/.650 with nine doubles and seven home runs over 108 trips to the plate.
Those numbers are going to get you promoted, and Mervis hardly slowed down at all with Tennessee. In 53 games in Double-A, he hit .300/.370/.596 with 16 doubles, a triple and 14 home runs.
Once again, Mervis was promoted to Triple-A Iowa and he continued to hit. Over 57 games there, he hit .297/.383/.593 with 15 doubles, one triple and 15 more home runs. What’s even more amazing is that for every level Mervis went up, he walk rate increased and his strikeout rate decreased. By the time he got to Iowa, Mervis was walking in 10.4 percent of his plate appearances and striking out just 14.6 percent of the time.
After the season, Mervis went to the Arizona Fall League and while his average was down there (.262 with a .324 OBP), he did tie for the league lead with six home runs. He also hit one in the Fall Stars Game that doesn’t count in that total.
In the three levels combined, Mervis hit .309/.379/.605 with 36 home runs. He led all of the minor leagues with 119 RBI. Mervis was named the Cubs’ Minor League Player of the Year and MLB Pipeline recently named him the fourth-best first base prospect in the game.
So why would anyone have any doubts about “Mash” Mervis? For one, he came out of absolutely nowhere. As a draft-eligible junior in 2019 at Duke (where he was a two-way player) Mervis went undrafted through 40 rounds. He returned for his senior season and again went undrafted, although he certainly would have been taken had COVID not shortened the draft to five rounds. But hitting .208 with just nine home runs in 2021 was not a sign that he was an overlooked gem.
Mervis is a left-handed pull hitter, which is maybe not as big a deal with the banning of infield shifts, but that’s yet to be seen. He also had a 1.034 OPS last year against right handed pitching and “just” an .869 OPS against lefties. That’s not bad, but it might be a sign that he might end up as a platoon bat.
Some analysts have said that Mervis doesn’t have the defensive skills to be a regular first baseman and that he’s destined to be a designated hitter. I’m not seeing that. I don’t think Mervis will win any Gold Gloves at first base, but I think he can be at least average or slightly below. He moves a lot better than you might think and as a former pitcher, his arm is pretty good, for whatever that’s worth as a first baseman. Throwing right-handed is a bit of a handicap on throws to second, but there have been many good defensive right-handed first basemen throughout the history of the game.
It’s still up in the air how Mervis will handle major-league pitching. Mervis did make some adjustments with his swing coming into 2022, but there’s always the chance that there’s a hole in his swing that minor league pitchers couldn’t find but major league pitcher will. At times he struggled with velocity, but late in the season in Iowa I saw him turn on a few 97 mile per hour fastballs for a home run, so he seemed to make that adjustment as the year went on.
I don’t want all these “buts” to distract you from the real upside that Mervis has. Sure, things could still go wrong, but things could also go right. If they do, the Cubs have a left-handed hitting first baseman who’s good for 30 home runs a year and a .350 on-base percentage.
Mervis is ready for his major league debut, although the signings of Hosmer and Mancini may mean that he starts the season back in Iowa. Still, barring a disaster, he’s going to be in Chicago for much of 2023.
Here’s Mervis hitting a two-run home run in the Fall Stars Game in the Arizona Fall League. It’s also a sign that Mervis doesn’t “mash” everything to right field. He can carry one out to left-center if he gets ahold of it.
Thanks again for reading!