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Chicago Cubs 2023 MLB Draft preview

A look at some possible Cubs options ahead of this weekend’s MLB Draft.

Arjun Nimmala
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The 2023 MLB Draft starts this Sunday in Seattle and will continue through Tuesday. The first two rounds will take place Sunday and will be televised on MLB Network, ESPN and streaming on MLB dot com starting at 6 p.m. Central Time. Rounds two through 10 will happen on Monday and rounds 11 through 20 will finish up before the All-Star Game on Tuesday.

The Cubs have the 13th pick in the first round. The Cubs forfeited their second-round pick to sign free agent Dansby Swanson, but they get an additional pick after the second round at number 68 in compensation for the loss of Willson Contreras.

This year’s draft is considered to be the strongest in memory. Because the pandemic limited the 2020 Draft to just five rounds, many players who would have gone pro after high school headed to college instead. Those players are now re-entering the draft this year. On top of that, it is just a year with a lot of good talent. There will be players that go in the five-to-eight range who would have been number one picks in other years. At 13, the Cubs are likely to get a talent that would easily go in the top 10 or even top five in other years.

Although it traditionally hasn’t gotten much attention, in recent years baseball fans have come to understand that the Draft, alongside international free agent signings, is the best way to build a consistent winner. But the draft is also hard for fans to follow and it’s not a lot easier for MLB teams. While college baseball has been increasing in visibility over the past few years (or at least the College World Series has been), most fans are simply unfamiliar with most of the players drafted each year.

Although it is crucial for teams to pick the right player in the draft, most fans will have no idea who these players are. And unlike in the NFL or NBA Drafts, pretty much all of these players will spend, at minimum, a year in the minors and the vast majority will spend a lot more than that. In fact, an 18-year-old high school player could spend five years in the minors and still be considered young if he reached the majors at 23.

As far as whom the Cubs will take with the 13th pick in the draft, I have to confess that I have no idea. I don’t think that Cubs scouting director Dan Kantrovitz knows at this point either, although he had better have a better idea than I do. But the Cubs don’t know who will be available when they pick at number 13 and they also don’t want any other team to know who they’re considering either. The Cubs play these things closer to the vest than some other teams. For example, the Cubs weren’t connected to Cade Horton before the draft last year at all.

Despite that, I do have a list of players whom the Cubs could take at number 13. These are the players expected to get taken somewhere around when the Cubs pick. They are also players whom I’ve seen mentioned by the journalists who cover this stuff full-time as having been linked with the Cubs. But last year I did this and I listed eight players whom the Cubs could take with the seventh pick in the Draft. None of them were Cade Horton, and that pick is looking terrific at the moment, even if my predictions don’t. So if the Cubs don’t take one of these players, don’t think they made a bad pick. We won’t know that for three or four years, probably.

Arjun Nimmala, SS, Strawberry Crest HS (FL)

I’ve seen the Cubs linked with Nimmala more than any other player, but that doesn’t mean the Cubs are likely to draft him or even intend to if he’s available.

Nimmala is one of the youngest players in the draft as he doesn’t turn 18 until November. If the Cubs value that age-versus-level factor, Nimmala could be the pick.

Nimmala has been wowing scouts with his swing and his power potential. He puts up impressive exit velocities when he connects. There is some swing and miss in his game, so there is some risk. At least one scout has compared Nimmala as a hitter to someone that Cubs fans are quite familiar with — Alfonso Soriano. He doesn’t quite have Fonzie’s speed, however, which is just average.

Nimmala has the defensive skills to stay at short or become a plus defensive third baseman.

Enrique Bradford Jr., OF, Vanderbilt

Bradford’s game is all about his speed, which is elite. In 191 games at Vanderbilt, Bradford has stolen 130 bases and has only been caught 13 times. That speed also translates to the outfield, where he is considered to be an elite defender in center field as well. His arm is subpar, but like Juan Pierre, a player to whom he is often compared, he makes up for that somewhat by getting the ball so quickly.

Bradford has a good sense of the strike zone and he can put the ball in play and take a walk if he has to. Anytime he puts the ball in play, his speed out of the left-hand box gives him a chance at a hit. What he doesn’t have, however, is power. But there is some thought that his swing is pretty odd right now and that he’d hit a lot better with a major league team that can fix it. No one thinks he’ll hit 20 home runs or anything, but there is some thought that he can start driving the ball better with adjustments.

Matt Shaw, SS/2B, Maryland

Shaw has the kind of offensive profile that the Cubs have favored lately in that he makes good, hard contact and he commands the strike zone. Over the course of Shaw’s collegiate career, he’s walked more often than he has struck out. This past year, he struck out 42 times and walked 43 times in 317 plate appearances.

But Shaw does more than just put the ball into play. He had 20 doubles and 24 home runs this past season with the Terrapins. Shaw also has above-average speed and stole 18 bases. Shaw was also the MVP of the prestigious Cape Cod League last summer, so he can hit with a wooden bat.

If there’s a knock on Shaw, it’s his arm. He mostly plays shortstop for Maryland, but scouts think he’ll have to move to second base in the pros because of his arm. But his hands and footwork are good enough that Shaw could be a plus defender at second.

Nolan Schanuel, 1B, Florida Atlantic

The Cubs almost never draft a pure first baseman in any round. The last player drafted that the Cubs listed as a first baseman was Tyler Durna in the 15th round in 2018. The last time the Cubs took a first baseman in the first round was Jerry Tabb in 1973. So that’s why I think the Cubs probably won’t pick Nolan Schanuel.

However, that doesn’t mean they might not be tempted. Schanuel is one of the best pure hitters to come around in years, putting up video game numbers with FAU. This past season, Schanuel hit .447 with 19 home runs and a .615 on-base percentage. The left-handed-hitting Schanuel almost never swings and misses—he struck out just 14 times in 289 plate appearances. His college career strikeout rate is 7 percent. Schanuel made contact 94 percent of the time he swung at pitches in the zone. And he walked 71 times last year.

Yes, FAU isn’t in the SEC, but it’s not like they don’t play SEC schools sometimes. Schanuel went 4 for 7 with three home runs over two games at Florida this season.

If there’s a downside to Schanuel, besides his position, it’s that he’s not naturally a power hitter. He makes enough hard contact that he’ll drive enough balls over the fences, but he doesn’t habitually swing for the fences.

The other warning sign on Schanuel is that he struggled in the Cape Cod League last summer.

I haven’t seen anyone else make this comparison, but Schanuel seems reminiscent of John Olerud. He has an exaggerated leg-kick that Olerud didn’t have, but perhaps Schanuel will calm that down as a pro. But there’s a lot of risk there and little margin for error, because Schanuel seems to be limited to first base. (He can play there though. This isn’t a DH-only situation.)

Colin Houck, SS, Parkview HS (GA)

Parkview High School is a baseball power, with both Matt Olson and Jeff Francoeur being drafted in the first round out of Parkview this century. Houck is certain to be the third first-round pick.

Houck is an exceptional athlete. He was also the school’s quarterback and was ranked as a three-star recruit in football, but he turned down all football scholarship offers to concentrate on baseball. (He accepted an offer to play baseball at Mississippi State, but he’ll never make it there unless something goes disastrously wrong in the draft.)

As a hitter, Houck is strong right-handed hitter with more potential power to come as he fills out his 6’2” frame. He handled breaking pitches well in showcase events, although he does sometimes chase out of the zone. The feeling is that he has room to improve now that he’s concentrating on baseball alone.

On defense, scouts feel that Houck can be an above-average shortstop or a plus third baseman.

Aiden Miller, 3B, Mitchell HS (FL)

Miller’s older brother Jackson was taken in the second round by the Reds in 2020, although injuries and the pandemic have limited him to just four games so far in 2021 and none since. But Aiden is considered the even-better prospect, with tremendous plus-plus power potential and a solid approach at the plate.

Miller was on every team’s radar for this year’s draft after a strong 2022 junior season, but he missed most of this year with a broken hamate bone. His power was down upon his return, but that’s common with hamate bone injuries. If you’re drafting Miller, you’re gambling that he’ll heal up by next season and will be an elite hitting prospect right away.

On defense, Miller is good enough to stick at third base for the time being. His arm is plus. He’s not fast and you get the feeling that he’s eventually destined for left field, but hopefully that wouldn’t be until he reaches 30. And you’re also hoping he’s been hitting 35 home runs a year by that time anyway.

Jacob Gonzalez, SS, Ole Miss

I first noticed Gonzalez last year when he connected for a home run off of Cade Horton in the College World Series—which Gonzalez’s Ole Miss won over Horton’s Oklahoma. Gonzalez was about the only Ole Miss hitter to really square up and hit the ball hard off of Horton that day.

Gonzalez is a polished player who was a three-year starter at shortstop for the Rebels. He was National Freshman of the Year in 2021. At the plate, Gonzalez is a patient hitter who rarely misses pitches in the zone. His left-handed swing is geared toward pull-side power, but he’s strong enough to go the other way if he can learn to go that direction.

Defensively, Gonzalez is solid and steady, but maybe unspectacular. His foot speed isn’t great and some think he’ll eventually have to move to third or second. But his hands are sure and his arm is above-average, so he should be able to play either position.

Jacob Gonzalez would be a “safe” pick at 13. When I called him “polished,” it was a bit of a left-handed compliment. There’s a feeling that Gonzalez is a finished product without a lot of room to grow. He certainly seems like he’ll be a major leaguer, but the ceiling on him might be a bit lower than some other players still in the mix at 13.

Still, you could have said the same thing about Nico Hoerner five years ago and Gonzalez has a similar, hard-working and no-nonsense attitude as Hoerner. Neither one lets the pressure of the game get to them. Sometimes those guys defy expectations.

Blake Mitchell, C, Stinton HS (TX)

Mitchell is the best high school catching prospect in the draft. He’s got a plus-plus arm and is very mobile. His ability to move and block pitches and field bunts is remarkable for someone still in high school.

At the plate, Mitchell is a big, strong kid who should develop plus power — if he can make enough contact. Mitchell struggles to make contact and is known to chase. There’s a lot of risk there that Mitchell won’t be able to re-make his approach at the plate to make more contact as a professional.

Beyond that risk with Mitchell, the track record of drafting high school catchers in the first round this century is not good. To paraphrase Glengarry Glen Ross: First place in the drafting high school catchers contest gets Joe Mauer. Second place gets Travis d’Arnaud. Third place means you’re fired.

If the Cubs draft Mitchell, it will be because they believe in his glove and that it will provide a high floor no matter what happens with the bat. And there is a pretty high ceiling on Mitchell as well. If he can make the adjustments at the plate, Mitchell is a catcher who hits 25 home runs a year and provides Gold Glove defense.

Thomas White, LHP, Phillips Academy (MA)

I’ve listed position players first not because I think the Cubs are going to take a position player, but because I’ve seen them linked more often to a position player than a pitcher this year. But last year I told you that there was a 99 percent chance that the Cubs would take a position player and they took Cade Horton. That pick looks pretty good right now.

Hey, at least I only said there was a 99 percent chance they’d take a position player and not 100 percent.

White is a pitcher I’ve seen mentioned in connection to the Cubs, and it’s not hard to imagine why. Not only does he have three pitches that grade out as potentially plus, he’s a huge, intimidating left-hander. White is listed at 6’5”, 210, but Keith Law of The Athletic says he’s probably more like 6’7”, 250 right now. His fastball is now in the 94-96 mph range and touches 97. Some scouts think White could still add more velocity. His changeup is remarkably advanced for a high school kid. It comes in at 82-86 and with the same look as his fastball. His curve has some high spin rates, a sharp break and comes in at 78-80 mph. He doesn’t currently have a slider, but many scouts think he could learn one.

The downside on White is his command. Many big pitchers have trouble repeating their delivery and commanding their spots. Heck, Randy Johnson was 29 and in the majors for six years before he mastered it enough to throw strikes consistently. Many never really manage it.

One other downside to White is that he probably won’t be an easy sign. He’s committed to Vanderbilt and if he improves his control there, he could be a top-three pick in three years. But if he were determined to go to college no matter what, he would have pulled his name out of the draft. He’ll probably sign, but he won’t be cutting the Cubs (or any other team) any discounts.

If the Cubs take White, it will be because they think he can master his control well enough to be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. The upside here is sky-high.

Chase Dollander, RHP, Tennessee

I feel like Dollander is the pitcher the Cubs would draft if Jim Hendry were still in charge. Dollander was in the mix for the number-one pick coming into this year after a dominating 2022 season. But Dollander just didn’t look like the same pitcher this year. His slider, which was nearly unhittable in 2022, didn’t have nearly as much break. Dollander no longer had pinpoint control on his fastball. His walk rate jumped from 4.2 percent in 2022 to 7.8 percent this year. His ERA jumped from 2.39 to 4.75.

Still, Dollander still showed plus stuff at times this year. His fastball was still in the 95-96 mph range and touched 98, even if he couldn’t locate it like he did the year before. His slider still flashed plus at times, even if it was more inconsistent. He still has a big, upper-70s curve and an upper-80s change that flashes plus.

So what went wrong with Dollander this year? Was he injured? Did his mechanics get messed up? Was he just overused and tired? Were his eyelids jammed? (Bull Durham reference there.) If Cubs think they know what happened to Dollander and that they can fix it, they can get a top-five draft pick with the 13th pick. And it wasn’t like Dollander was bad this year. He still flashed top stuff. It’s was just a matter of inconsistency.

Still, there’s some risk there with Dollanger. But also an awful lot of reward.

Hurston Waldrep, RHP, Florida

Waldrep spent his first two years in college at Southern Miss before transferring to Florida for his junior year. Waldrep has some elite pure stuff. His fastball sits in the 95-to-97 mph range and with good movement. But his best pitch is a nasty upper-80s splitter that befuddled hitter in the recent College World Series. Waldrep’s splitter may be best swing-and-miss pitch in the draft. Waldrep also has a curve and a slider, but they’re both more average offerings. He gets most of his outs with the fastball and the splitter.

Waldrep also has a bit of a violent delivery and combined with his reliance on two pitches, there’s some real reliever risk here. Like Dollaander, Waldrep’s control also took a step backwards this year. His walk rate jumped to 12.7 percent at Florida.

So that’s 11 different players that the Cubs could take with the 13th pick and I’m only confident enough to say that there’s probably a 50/50 chance the Cubs take one of them. Still, we’ll find out who the next 20 Cubs prospects are starting on Sunday. We’ll be discussing and debating all of them right here.