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BCB 2024 Top 25 Cubs prospects countdown: 16 to 20

The countdown of the best Cubs prospects has two hard-throwing right-handers, a catcher, a slugging first baseman and a switch-hitting infielder.

Jaxon Wiggins
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

It is Day 2 in our countdown of the Top 25 Cubs prospects, according to me. There are some familiar names here today and maybe a few you are less familiar with.

Clicking on the names of the players will take you to their milb.com page.

16. Matt Mervis. 1B. DOB: 4/16/1998. B:L, T:R. 6’2”, 225. Undrafted free agent (2020), Duke.

Matt Mervis was given the chance to seize the first base job for the Cubs last May and he failed the capitalize on the opportunity. His issues in the majors last year reinforced some of the criticisms that scouts had of his breakout 2022 season—that he would struggle with higher velocity and against breaking balls from left-handers. Mervis was sent back down to Iowa in June after six weeks in the majors and did not return to Chicago, despite the Cubs urgent need for some offense at first base.

But Mervis’ time in the majors wasn’t quite as bad as the basic stat line of .167/.242/.289 with three home runs in 99 plate appearances makes it look like. For one, he had a terrible batting average on balls in play of .218. His hard-hit percentage of 43.1 percent was very good—better than Cody Bellinger or Dansby Swanson had last year. So he was hitting into a lot of bad luck. To be sure, Mervis’ struggles weren’t all bad luck. He struck out too much (32.3 percent) and he was swinging at too many pitches outside the zone. Even with all that, Mervis wouldn’t be the first player to struggle in his first taste of the majors before going on to having a successful career.

After the Cubs returned Mervis to Iowa, they made some adjustments to his swing and then left him in Iowa so he could work on them without having the added pressures of a major-league pennant race. And Mervis did have another strong season in Triple-A. His line for the whole season with Iowa was .282/.399/.533 with 23 doubles and 22 home runs in 100 games. In the 76 games after his demotion, Mervis posted a .280/.398/.524 line. He had more success turning on high velocity after the demotion. I’ve seen him drive a 99 mile-per-hour fastball over the right field fence on more than one occasion.

The Cubs trade for Michael Busch has clouded Mervis’ future with the Cubs, however. He can’t really play any position other than first base. Not only is Busch ahead of Mervis on the depth chart now, he’s got Haydn McGeary pushing him from behind. He really deserves another chance to show that he can hit major league pitching, but Mervis may not get that opportunity in Chicago. He turns 26 in April (he’s about five months younger than Busch), so time is running out.

Mervis’ projection remains unchanged from last year. He has plus power and the ability to hit 25 to 30 home runs a year in the majors. His hit tool is fringy, but his plate discipline is good, so his on-base percentage should be solid. He might need to be platooned against left-handed pitching and his defense at first base is below-average but not bad.

The Skinny: Mervis is a slugging left-handed-hitting first baseman who deserves another chance to succeed in the majors. But he might not get that chance with the Cubs.

I know Mervis didn’t have as many highlights in the majors as we all would have liked, but it’s hard to look at this video of his best moments in the majors last season and not see that there is something there. Especially his power.

17. Pablo Aliendo. C. DOB: 5/29/2001. B:R, T:R. 6’0”, 170. International free agent (2018).

Pablo Aliendo is a type of catcher that makes everyone around him better. He’s the best defensive catcher in the system and one of the best in all of the minor leagues. He has great hands behind the plate and an above-average arm. Aliendo is a terrific pitch blocker. He’s athletic and gets out of his crouch quickly to field balls in front of the plate. He’s fully bilingual and an excellent handler of pitchers. He runs well for a catcher.

Of course, if he could hit some more, he’d be one of the top prospects in the game and not just one of the Cubs’ top prospects. Last year was his first season in Double-A, where Aliendo hit .233/.332/.458 with 16 home runs over 91 games. There’s some pop in his bat, but he strikes out way too much (114 strikeouts over 375 plate appearances) and tries to pull almost everything. He has drawn walks in the minor leagues, but I worry that a lot of those walks were just him taking advantage of poor control in the minors more than anything else. It’s possible (although not certain) that those walks will dry up in Triple-A and the majors. Aliendo needs to make better swing decisions as he gets closer to the majors.

If that description sounds like a career backup catcher to you, it sounds that way to me as well. (It also sounds like a future manager, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.) There’s certainly the possibility that Aliendo learns to be more selective at the plate and becomes a starter with average power and a lot of walks, but a more realistic outcome is a career backup whom starting pitchers fight over to be their personal catcher.

Excellent defensive catchers are always prized and in high demand. Martín Maldonado and Austin Hedges have had long and valuable careers with pretty much the same profile as Aliendo has now.

Aliendo should start the season in Triple-A Iowa, although a roster crunch could keep him at Tennessee for a while. He’s not on the 40-man roster, so the Cubs will likely try to delay his major league debut for as long as possible and hope that his bat develops some more in Iowa. Still, catchers get hurt and sometime this season, the Cubs are going to need another catcher at Wrigley and that catcher will likely be Aliendo eventually. His ceiling may not be high, but it’s hard to imagine Aliendo not having some kind of major-league career.

The Skinny: Aliendo is a potentially elite defensive catcher with a limited offensive upside. He projects out to be a very good backup catcher.

Here’s a home run that Aliendo hit back in August [VIDEO]. As you can see, he does have a little pop in his bat when he gets ahold of one.

18. Michael Arias. RHP. DOB: 11/15/2001. 6’0”, 155. Minor league free agent (2021).

The Blue Jays signed Michael Arias as a shortstop in 2019 and released him in 2020 before he even played a game for them. The Cubs took a chance on him in 2021 on the hope that he could be a pitcher. It looks like that gamble could pay off big for the Cubs.

Arias got a quick cup of coffee with Low-A Myrtle Beach in 2022 before starting last season there. He quickly established himself as the best pitcher in the Pelicans rotation. In his 11 starts in the Carolina League, Arias allowed zero or one run in nine of them. That performance gave him a 1-4 record with an ERA of 2.55. Arias struck out 64 batters over 42⅓ innings while walking 25. Opposing hitters had a .164 batting average against Arias.

That performance got Arias promoted to High-A South Bend, where his results weren’t quite as good, but the stuff was undiminished. Arias made another 11 starts for the SB Cubs, going 0-6 with a 5.77 ERA. (The W-L record is deceiving because he only went five innings four times all season, limiting the opportunity for wins.) In South Bend, Arias struck out 46 and walked 26 in 39 innings.

Arias has a very unusual pitching motion where he kind of whips the ball at the plate from an almost sidearm position. The two-seam fastball sits 94-to-96 mph and can touch 98. It also has some wicked sink to it. He complements his plus fastball with two above-average off-speed pitches. His upper-80s changeup has a lot of sink to it and is an effective weapon against left handers. His mid-80s slider could use a bit more bite to it, but it still gets swings and misses from right-handed hitters.

The biggest issue with Arias is that he’s new to pitching and his control just isn’t good at the moment. His weird delivery is difficult to repeat consistently and that can lead to pitches that are way out of the zone or worse, hang right over the plate. (Although he did only give up three home runs last year. But he was pitching in some tough environments for home runs.)

Obviously Arias’ control issues make him a candidate for the bullpen, as does his rather thin frame that raises some questions about his ability to withstand the punishment of throwing 140 innings a year. But with one plus pitch and two that are potentially above-average, the Cubs have to try him as a starter as long as they can. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me if he first pitched out of the bullpen in the majors before hopefully earning a spot in the starting rotation.

The Cubs had to add Arias to the 40-man roster this past November to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, but it’s highly unlikely that he pitches in the majors in 2024. He’s still a long-term project. His upside is a good No. 4/No. 5 starter, but there is considerable relief risk there. Arias is unlikely to see the majors until 2025.

The Skinny: Michael Arias is a raw pitcher with an unusual delivery and unusually good stuff. He can be a solid major-league starter if he can develop better control.

Here are the highlights from Arias’ best start of the last season: five innings, no hits, six strikeouts and two walks. Also, while Arias is still a thin dude, he looks a bit bigger to me than his listed 6’0”, 155 pounds.

19. B.J. Murray Jr. 3B. DOB: 1/05/2000. B:S, T:R. 5’10”, 205. 15th-round pick (2021), Florida Atlantic.

Switch-hitting B.J. Murray Jr. is the type of prospect that can get overlooked because he doesn’t really have a plus tool. His plate discipline is very much above average, but that’s not considered a tool. But while Murray doesn’t have a lot of strengths to his game, neither does he have any real weaknesses. He strikes out a bit too much, but that’s more a factor of his selectivity getting him into pitchers’ counts rather than a lot of swing-and-miss in his game. Combine that with his ability to play first, second and third base competently and Murray is a good candidate for a modern day “super sub.”

The past year has been quite the ride for B.J. Murray. After playing in the Arizona Fall League after the 2022 season, Murray joined Team Great Britain for the World Baseball Classic. (Murray is from the Bahamas.) He started at third base in all four games for the British and was 3 for 13 with two doubles and two walks. The highlight was probably a game-tying RBI single against Cardinals reliever JoJo Romero.

Murray then made his Double-A debut and spent the whole season with the Smokies. He played 124 games and hit .263/.382/.462 with 34 doubles, four triples, 16 home runs and 14 stolen bases. Along the way, he played third base, first base and a little bit of second. He also came up big in the postseason as the Smokies won their first unshared Southern League title since 1978. Murray was a huge contributor to that title, going 5 for 14 with a double and a three-run home run in the third inning of the final game that gave the Smokies a lead that they would never relinquish.

Murray is that rare switch-hitter who is equally good from both sides of the plate. He has a little more power from the right side, but it’s not a big difference. He’s a selective hitter who draws walks which, combined with his average hit tool, gives him good overall on-base percentages. He hits the ball hard to all fields with 35 percent of his balls in play going to the opposite field last season. That gave him a ton of doubles. His home run potential is fringe-average, but he makes up for that with a ton of doubles.

Defensively, Murray is average at third base and above average at first. He can play second base and not hurt you there. The Cubs have never tried him in the outfield, but I think he could handle both corner outfield spots competently. His arm is good enough for right field.

Once again, Murray isn’t fast, but he’s not slow either. He is a smart baserunner, which makes his solid speed play up a bit. By picking his spots, Murray is a good base stealer.

Murray is an easy guy to root for. He’s not a tools monster, but a guy who gets he most out of average tools every game. On top of that, he’s lacking in any noticeable weaknesses. It is a bit of a problem that he isn’t really an up-the-middle player. I don’t think he could handle shortstop or center field on anything other than an emergency basis. Other than that, he has everything a team is looking for in a bench player. He even switch hits.

I’d really like to see the Cubs challenge Murray and have him start the season in Iowa. I realize that there could be roster issues that prevent that, but I don’t think he has much left to prove in Double-A. He’s not on the 40-man roster, but I’m guessing he’ll be a non-roster invite to Spring Training. After that, he’ll just be waiting for an opportunity to make his major league debut.

The Skinny: B.J. Murray Jr. is a switch-hitting corner infielder who does a lot of things well with no significant weaknesses. His major league ceiling is as a super-sub who plays the corners and second base.

I want to show this Murray RBI from the WBC for Murray [VIDEO] because even though it’s an infield single, it’s against a major league pitcher on a 95 mph fastball and only an exceptional effort by the shortstop kept it out of left field. And also because Murray hustled down the line to beat out the hit.

Here’s a more traditional highlight of a home run.

And finally, here is Murray making a bare-handed play at third [VIDEO].

20. Jaxon Wiggins. RHP. DOB: 10/03/2001. 6’6”, 225. Drafted, second round (2023), Arkansas.

Jaxon Wiggins was the Cubs’ second-round supplemental pick (compensation for Willson Contreras) out of Arkansas last summer. The Cubs gave Wiggins an overslot bonus despite the fact that he hadn’t pitched at all in 2023 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in January.

Before Wiggins got hurt, he flashed first-round quality stuff with the Razorbacks but was hindered by a lack of control. His fastball is potentially plus-plus, sitting 95-97 miles per hour as a starter and 98-100 as a reliever. It was a bit straight, so the Cubs are doubtlessly looking at different grips that might get a little more movement on it. But they definitely don’t want to mess with anything that might cost him velocity.

Wiggins’ second-best pitch is his slider that grades out as above average. It comes in at 85-87 mph and breaks down and in to a left-handed hitter. He has a mid-80s changeup that breaks down late. Scouts grade it as a potential average pitch. The reports I’ve read note Wiggins also has an upper-70s curve, but I didn’t find any video of it. (At least I don’t think I saw it.) It’s clearly a fourth pitch that he doesn’t throw often.

The other thing that is impressive about Wiggins is that he’s a very tall and athletic pitcher. He really has the build that scouts look for in a major-league starter. He also has a smooth and clean delivery.

Other than his health after Tommy John, the biggest question facing Wiggins is going to be his control. Wiggins struck out a ton of batters at Arkansas, but he also walked a lot of them too. His sophomore season he pitched 66 innings and struck out 82 batters while walking 43. That walk number needs to come down.

Control issues are common with young arms who throw hard and some of them outgrow it. Most of them don’t. The Cubs obviously believe his athleticism and their pitch lab gives Wiggins a leg up on developing a better feel for the strike zone. But while Wiggins has the raw stuff to be a mid-rotation starter, those control issues could exile him to the bullpen one day. Still, that fastball/slider combination could be devastating out of the pen.

Wiggins is already throwing down in Mesa, so he should be healthy at the start the season. I expect that the Cubs will bring him around slowly off of surgery. His age and draft position would indicate a start in Myrtle Beach, but considering his biggest issue is control and that it often takes a while for pitchers to regain their control after Tommy John surgery, I doubt that they’d want to risk shattering his confidence in front of the fans in South Carolina before they feel he’s ready. So I’d expect some time in Mesa, but he should pitch in Myrtle Beach sometime this year. A late-season appearance in South Bend is unlikely, but not impossible if everything goes well.

The Skinny: Jaxon Wiggins is a big, athletic, hard-throwing right-hander who is coming off Tommy John surgery. He has the stuff to be a mid-rotation starter, but control and health issues could make him a reliever.

This video of Jaxon Wiggins highlights at Arkansas has some annoying music playing through it, so I’d suggest you mute it. (Unless you like it, I guess.) But it does give a good look at his motion and his pitching repertoire.

Tomorrow: 11 through 15.