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BCB 2024 top Cubs prospects countdown: 21 to 25

The countdown of the 25 best Cubs prospects starts with some promising arms and one really big bat.

Porter Hodge
Porter Hodge
Chloe Trofatter / USA TODAY NETWORK

It’s that time of year again when we count down the BCB top 25 Cubs prospects for 2024. Every day this week I’ll reveal another five prospects until we get to numbers five through one on Friday.

The Cubs system is especially deep and strong this year after a few strong drafts and trades that have replenished the farm system. MLB Pipeline recently put seven Cubs in their Top 100 prospects list, more than any other organization.

As always, the top 10 were pretty easy for me to compile, whereas numbers 15 through 25 are a lot tougher. There’s not a lot of separation between the Cubs’ 20th-best prospect and their 30th, so if one of your personal favorites didn’t make the list, it’s not a sign that they aren’t a prospect anymore. I could have taken this list out to 50 had I wanted to do all that work.

I’m taking a cue from Baseball America and not listing players over 25 from the Asian leagues as prospects anymore. Shōta Imanaga isn’t a prospect — he’s proved himself in the second-toughest league in the world. The Cubs’ signed him as a free agent and not as an international prospect. But if you are curious, I would have ranked him third had he qualified.

I’m also not going to rank any players who haven’t left the Dominican Summer League yet. As always with those players, I’ve never seen any of them play, either in person or live on video, so in the past when I’ve ranked them, I’ve had to rely on printed scouting reports and a few carefully curated videos designed to make them look good. And you could just look up that stuff yourself. You don’t need my opinion. Plus, there’s just something a little creepy about putting high expectations on a 16-year-old kid in a third-world country. Some of these kids will no doubt turn out to be incredibly good major league ballplayers. A few will be All-Stars. But none of them are going to do so this year. We will have plenty of time to rank them once they make it to America. I may re-evaluate this policy in future years, but that’s where I stand now.

I’m also including a too-long, didn’t-read summary of every player called “The skinny.”

When making up these rankings, I try to balance upside and the likelihood that they’ll reach their potential. I base my rankings on what I’ve seen, what I’ve read and what other people have told me. But the rankings are all mine and all the mistakes are my fault.

For the past two seasons I’ve stopped including what hand the pitchers hit with for obvious reasons. Also, if you click on the player’s name, it will take you to their page.

So now I’ll shut up about the rules and get to the players.

21. Porter Hodge. RHP. DOB: 2/21/2001. 6’4”, 230 lbs. Drafted 13th round (2019), Cottonwood HS (UT)

Porter Hodge is a power right-hander with a good moving 94-96 mile per hour fastball and a late-breaking mid-80s slider. His path the to major leagues is now clear after the Cubs moved him to the bullpen mid-season.

Hodge wasn’t on a lot of teams radar when the Cubs made him a 13th-round pick out of high school in Utah. He was a big, hard-throwing guy with limited experienced. There were a lot of questions about his fitness when the Cubs drafted him and he had back surgery over the lost 2020 season. But Hodge changed his eating and workout habits after struggling in his first season in the minors. He lost 25 pounds, which added a couple of miles per hour onto his fastball. The Cubs also reworked his slider to the point where it became a plus pitch. Through hard work, Hodge turned himself into a prospect on the verge of a major-league debut.

Hodge has the size and stamina to start, but he’s been unable to develop a third pitch or anything else to keep left-handers off-balance. His pitching delivery is a bit long, which isn’t surprising for someone 6’4”, but that has led to some control issues. This all caught up to him when he started the season in Double-A last year. After twelve starts for the Smokies, the Cubs moved Hodge to the bullpen. The results there were promising enough that Hodge was added to the 40-man roster this past November.

Hodge’s final numbers with the Smokies last year — 6-7 with a 5.13 ERA — don’t exactly inspire confidence in his future. But the stuff was a lot better than that and he was hurt by an abnormally high batting average on balls in play rate of .310 and a low strand rate of just 62 percent.

Hodge will get a good look in Spring Training, but he will almost certainly start the season in the bullpen at Triple-A Iowa. But if he puts in a couple of good months there, he’ll be in line for a mid-season call-up whenever there’s an injury to a reliever. He may have to ride the Des Moines-Chicago shuttle for a while, but he could be an effective sixth- or seventh-inning guy. And the possibility of returning to the rotation as a back-end starter in the years to come is not out of the question.

The Skinny: Hodge is a power right-handed reliever who relies on a plus fastball and slider. He could be a factor in the Cubs bullpen as soon as this year.

Here’s a good look at Hodge’s hard-breaking slider [VIDEO].

Here’s his fastball [VIDEO].

22. Haydn McGeary. 1B. DOB:10/09/1999. B:R, T:R. 6’4”, 235. Drafted 15th round (2022), Colorado Mesa.

The Cubs may have gotten another steal in the late rounds out of the Rocky Mountain region with Haydn McGeary. The Cubs took the big slugger in the 15th round of the 2022 MLB draft out of Colorado Mesa, where he was back-to-back Division II National Player of the Year after setting a Division II record with 75 home runs. He actually put up video game numbers in college with a triple-slash line of .481/.579/1.061 his junior season there — which was actually his fourth season because of the abbreviated 2020 season didn’t count against anyone’s eligibility. Even in the thin air of Grand Junction, that’s an impressive line.

Since getting drafted, McGeary has done nothing but hit. He had a short 18-game trial in 2022 before starting the 2023 season in High-A South Bend. After 20 games and a triple-slash line of .368/.467/.592 in the Midwest League, McGeary was promoted to Double-A Tennessee. His stats there were more human, but they were still good: .255/.382/.435 with 16 home runs over 104 games.

McGeary is a big right-handed slugger who with a simple hitting stroke that is geared to both power and contact. He has a very good eye at the plate for a power hitter and rarely chases bad pitches. His walk percentage last year was 15.2 and his strikeout percentage was 23.8, which, for a big slugger like him, is very good.

There are some warning signs on McGeary, however. He hit just .194/.321/.396 in 39 games after August 1, although that did come with seven home runs. Was that the league adjusting to him or did McGeary just wear down in his first full season of baseball? Was he playing through some nagging injuries? Those are questions that will need to be answered in 2024.

McGeary is also not much of a defensive first baseman at the moment. He mostly served as a designated hitter for Colorado Mesa and he’s still learning the intricacies of playing first base. The Cubs briefly thought of making a catcher out of him, but at 6’4”, that always seemed like a long shot. But he isn’t a slow plodder out there in the field and he’s more athletic than some give him credit. It’s certainly possible that with more experience, he turns into an average defensive first baseman.

It’s going to depend on other roster moves to see if McGeary starts the season at Iowa or Tennessee. I suspect that the number of corner infielders expected to play in Iowa (as well as his struggles down the stretch last year) means he returns to Tennessee to start the year. He’s then be in line for a mid-season promotion to Triple-A. By that time, we’ll have a better sense of what the Cubs have in McGeary.

The skinny: McGeary could be a potent right-handed slugger who can hit for average and get on base. His defensive limitations hinder his upside, however.

MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis has this video if you want another opinion on McGeary. It’s not much different than mine, but there are some highlights from Spring Training [VIDEO].

Here he hits a three-run home run for the Smokies in September. You can see how short and quick his bat is through the hitting zone.

23. Daniel Palencia. RHP. DOB: 2/05/2000. 5’11, 160. Trade with Athletics (2021)

Daniel Palencia is all about velocity. He’s got a fastball that sits 98-99 miles per hour and has been known to touch 102. The pitch also rides away from a right-handed hitter. It’s a true 80 pitch on the 20-80 scouting scale. He rode that fastball all the way to his major league debut last season, where he went 5-3 with a 4.45 ERA in 28⅓ innings last year. He struck out 33 and walked 14.

Palencia doesn’t have a lot beyond that fastball. He does have a hard, 90-91 mph slider with late break that grades out at least average at the moment and has the potential to be plus. But when batters are keyed in on that triple-digit fastball, the slider needs to be better than it is. Still, Palencia potentially has the two-pitch combination that has made a lot of great relievers in our time.

Palencia was a late bloomer, not signing with the Athletics until he was 20. That’s four years older than the normal signing age of 16. The A’s assigned him straight to Low-A, presumably because of his age. He struggled in Stockton, but the fastball intrigued the Cubs enough that they asked for him in return in a trade for Andrew Chafin at the 2021 trade deadline.

Both the A’s and the Cubs tried him out as a starter, but the lack of a solid third pitch meant that he was always likely to end up in the bullpen. Palencia started last season in the Smokies’ rotation, but after five starts (none of which went more than four innings), the Cubs promoted Palencia to Triple-A Iowa and moved him to the bullpen.

After six weeks in Iowa, Palencia got called up to Chicago for his major league debut on July 4, despite a 7.90 ERA in Triple-A. He pitched two scoreless innings and got the win in an extra-innings victory over the Brewers that day. Other than an “administrative” demotion where he never actually left the team in September, he stayed the rest of the season in the majors.

One positive aspect to Palencia is that he’s actually been tougher on left-handers than right-handers throughout his career. I don’t expect that to continue, but I can see that the way that Palencia buries that slider down and in, and often out of the strike zone could give some left-handed hitters problems.

Palencia’s biggest issue is control. He simply needs to throw that fastball for more strikes and he needs to improve that slider to keep major league hitters from sitting on the fastball. If he does that, there’s no reason Palencia couldn’t be a major league closer.

Palencia will come to Spring Training fighting for a roster spot. He still has options left, so he’s going to have to show something to make the Opening Day roster. But Palencia is exactly the sort of reliever that the Cubs hired Craig Counsell to find a way to get the best out of. Even if he doesn’t end up pitching the ninth inning, he’s the type of guy who could thrive if he’s given the right matchups. Even if Palencia doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, I expect to see Palencia pitch at Wrigley Field a lot this upcoming season.

The skinny: Palencia is a reliever with an elite nearly triple-digit fastball and solid slider who struggles with control. A late bloomer, he could end up as the Cubs’ closer one day if everything clicks.

You are probably familiar with Palencia already, but in case you forgot, here’s his heater [VIDEO].

24. Brandon Birdsell. RHP. DOB: 3/23/2000. 6’2”, 240. Drafted 5th round (2022), Texas Tech.

Birdsell was a fifth-round pick out of Texas Tech in 2022 where he had been the Big 12 Pitcher of the Year as a senior. Before that, his college career had been checkered. He started out at Texas A&M, transferred to San Jacinto junior college and then finally ended up at Texas Tech for two years. He missed the second half of the 2021 season with a rotator cuff injury, but he avoided surgery.

Before his injuries, Birdsell was a flamethrower who had little idea where the ball was going. He’s reinvented himself since then. His fastball has lost a tick, but he still throws 94-to-95 mph and can touch 97 at times. Also, Birdsell has much better command and control of that pitch than when he threw harder. He has an unorthodox delivery where his hands break contact, followed a a split-second hesitation. His motion is short and compact and the ball leaves his hand a lot quicker than normal, which can throw off the timing of some hitters.

After his fastball, the rest of Birdsell’s offerings are fringy, but they play a bit better than that because of plus control. His slider does have some promise, however. He also has a curve that he uses against left-handers and a change up, which he throws rarely.

After spending the rest of the 2022 season in the Cubs pitch lab, Birdsell made his professional debut for High-A South Bend last year. He made 18 starts for South Bend and went 3-5 with a 2.36 ERA. That got him promoted to Double-A Tennessee when Birdsell made six starts and went 1-3 with a 3.95 ERA. That doesn’t count starting Game 1 of the Southern League Championship Series where he got the win after allowing just one run after scattering four hits over five innings. Birdsell struck out five and walked one in that game.

Overall, Birdsell pitched 112⅓ innings last year. He struck out 102 batters and walked just 33. (That counts the postseason.)

Birdsell will probably start the 2024 season back with Double-A Tennessee. The ceiling on Birdsell isn’t high—he’s probably a No. 4/No. 5 starter at best unless he can develop those secondary pitches better—but his control and his workhorse attitude could land him a significant major league career. He’s looking at a possible 2025 major league debut.

The skinny: Birdsell gets by on his fastball and control. He could be an effective back-of-the-rotation workhorse or a setup man in a bullpen.

Here are some highlights for a five-strikeout game for South Bend last April [VIDEO].

25. Drew Gray. LHP. DOB: 5/09/2003. 6’3”, 190. Drafted 3rd round (2021), IMG Academy (FL)

Drew Gray is a tall, thin left-hander that the Cubs took in the third round of the 2021 draft out of IMG Academy in Florida. The Cubs believed in Gray enough to give him a $900,000 bonus, which was almost 50 percent above the bonus pool value of $628,000 for that pick. He made two starts for the rookie league team in Mesa that year before missing all of 2022 with Tommy John surgery.

So 2023 was really Gray’s first season as a professional. Still only 20 years old, he showed himself to be very talented and very raw. After three starts in the Arizona Complex League, Gray moved to Low-A Myrtle Beach in late-June. He made 11 starts for the Pelicans and went 0-3 with a 4.23 ERA. On the good side, he pitched 27⅔ innings, struck out 45 batters and held them to a .196 batting average. On the down side, Gray walked 23 and hit five batters. He walked more hitters than he gave up hits to (23 walks to 19 hits). As you can see from the innings total, he didn’t pitch deep into games. Gray never pitched more than three innings in any start. None of that Is too concerning for someone coming off of Tommy John surgery, but without a previous track record on Gray, we don’t know if his stamina and control problems are because of the injury, because he’s young or that’s just who he is.

What we do know about Gray is that he’s a tall and lean left-hander with three potential above-average pitches. His fastball is only in the 91-93 mph range, but it has terrific natural movement thanks in part to his three-quarters delivery. His upper-70s curve breaks down and his low-80s slider has a sweeping action. Both have above-average potential. He rarely uses his mid-80s changeup and it rates as below average.

Gray is also still young with a frame that could carry some more weight. There is a chance that he could still add a few miles per hour on to that fastball.

With Gray’s injury history, there is always the possibility that he ends up in the bullpen. But with three potentially above-average pitchers, the Cubs should hope he ends up as a mid-rotation starter.

After a reasonably successful season in Myrtle Beach, Gray will likely start 2024 in South Bend. But he doesn’t turn 21 until May and is likely a long-term project for the Cubs. He has the potential to be a top ten prospect at this time next season. Or his control could completely abandon him and he’d fall off the prospect radar altogether.

The skinny: Gray is a tall, lean left-handed starter with three above-average pitches and the chance to be a mid-rotation starter. Control problems and an injury history keep him from being ranked higher.

Here are highlights [VIDEO] from a game last September when he Gray struck out seven and allowed no hits and no walks over three innings. He did hit a batter in that game.

Tomorrow: Prospects 16 through 20.