We are at the halfway point in our countdown of the BCB top 25 prospects for 2024. As we’ve noted before, the Cubs system is very deep at the moment. I think there’s a bit of a drop off after 12, but that’s just going from “excellent” to “pretty good.” And the first two guys on today’s list could easily be top five prospects in a different year.
I feel like I wrote too much about our number 11 prospect today. Did I mention he was just 19 last year?
If you click on the player’s name, it will take you to their milb.com page.
11. Moises Ballesteros. C. DOB: 11/08/2003. B:L. T:R. 5’7”, 195 lbs. (allegedly). International free agent (2021), Venezuela.
Moises Ballesteros can hit. He might have the best hit tool of any prospect in the Cubs system. He’s aggressive at the plate, but he’s able to identify and lay off pitches that he can’t drive. His short, quick left-handed swing through the zone is geared towards contact. And while spraying the ball hard to all fields is Ballesteros’ specialty, he also has average-to-above-average power. He was so good at the plate in 2023 that the Cubs named Ballesteros the Buck O’Neil Minor League Player of the Year. On top of that, he just turned 20 in November. The offensive upside here is tremendous. Like a .300 average with 25 home runs and a ton of doubles upside.
Ballesteros started last season in Myrtle Beach, where he finished 2022. He spent 56 games in Low-A and hit .274/.394/.457 with 12 doubles and eight home runs. While his on-base percentage was better at home, he hit six of his eight home runs on the road, away from the heavy air of Myrtle Beach, where fly balls go to die. That got Ballesteros promoted to High-A South Bend, where his numbers were almost as good. The strikeouts were up a bit and the walks were down in High-A, but his batting average and slugging percentage were up. He also played exactly 56 games in the Midwest League, putting up a line of .300/.364/.463 with 15 doubles and six home runs.
Ballesteros got a late-season call-up to Double-A, and went just 5 for 21, all singles, with one walk over five regular-season games. But that meant Ballesteros was with the Smokies for the playoffs. In four playoff games, Ballesteros went 4 for 13 with three walks.
If Ballesteros is such a good hitter, then why isn’t he ranked higher? Mainly because there are real questions about his defensive ability and conditioning. His fielding is just not good at the moment. He doesn’t do a good job blocking pitches. The rest of his game is inconsistent. Sometimes he’ll do a nice job fielding a bunt and making a throw and other times he’ll be slow out of the crouch or make a throwing error. Reportedly, he doesn’t frame pitches well. I haven’t heard anyone complain about the way he works with the pitchers, but I haven’t heard anyone rave about it either.
Still, it’s not all bad. He did improve behind the plate in 2023. Whereas last year I wrote that there was no way he’d stay behind the plate, this year I think there is at least a chance. His arm strength is good, even if his accuracy could be better. While I think caught stealing percentage is a problematic stat, he did improve in that area last year. In 2022, opposing base stealers had an 87 percent success rate. In 2023, it was down to 80 percent. Passed balls stayed the same (10) but in more than twice as many innings. So he is making some progress. It should be noted that the Cubs are and have always been more optimistic about his chances to stay behind the plate than I am.
And it is really catch or bust or Ballesteros. His listed measurements of 5’7” and 195 pounds are a joke — he’s taller and much heavier than that — but he’s still pretty short for a first baseman, which is the only other position he’s ever played. Conditioning is also an issue with Ballesteros. He seems to be able to play with the weight he’s carrying now, but he’s going to have to watch it to be sure that he doesn’t put on even more weight. But even if he can play at that weight, it’s going to be an injury issue going forward. Especially on those knees that are so crucial to being able to catch. The good news is that Ballesteros’ bat is so special that he should be a positive contributor even if he just serves as a DH. But that would limit his value.
Ballesteros will start the 2024 season in Double-A. If he continues to hit the way he did in 2023, then he’ll be in Iowa by mid-season. After that, his ability to catch is going to determine his major-league future.
The skinny: Ballesteros is a plus hitter for average and power whom the odds are against being able to stay behind the plate.
I really want to show you this RBI single on a 1-2 count [VIDEO] because I think it’s the most descriptive of what kind of a hitter Ballesteros is.
OK, this home run is kind of typical for Ballesteros as well.
12. Alexander Canario. OF. DOB: 5/07/2000. B:R, T:R. 5’11”. 165. Trade with Giants (2021).
(Yeah, Canario hasn’t weighed 165 in probably eight years.)
I think in a less-stacked organization, Alexander Canario would be a much bigger deal. Think about what Canario is. He’s a big, athletic four-tool player with plus power. He’s a solid right fielder with a plus arm. Right field is his natural position, but he’s fast enough and his instincts are good enough that he can play a credible center field. Yes, his hit tool is fringy and there is a lot of swing and miss in his game that is going to limit his upside. He’ll never hit for a high average. But you can’t tell me that there aren’t a lot of teams that wouldn’t take that package in right field and batting sixth in a lineup.
Canario’s 2023 season got off to a late start because of the devastating broken ankle injury he suffered in Winter Ball in October 2022. Other than he pretty much stopped stealing bases, the injury didn’t seem to have any lasting effects on Canario’s abilities. After rehab stints in Mesa and South Bend, Canario returned to Iowa on July 14 and it was like he had never left. Canario hit .276/.342/.524 with 12 doubles and eight home runs in just 36 games. That performance earned him his major league debut in September and in just his second game (and first start), Canario hit a grand slam against the Pirates.
Canario is an aggressive hitter whose philosophy seems to be swing hard and swing early. His bat speed through the zone is impressive. Obviously there’s a lot of swing and miss there, especially on breaking pitches, but when he does make contact, it’s hard contact. The ball really flies off of Canario’s bat. While he is a free swinger, Canario does have at least some plate discipline. He’ll draw a decent number of walks that will keep his on-base percentage from being an embarrassment.
Canario has an option left, so he will probably start the season in Iowa again. He’s already had a taste of the majors and he didn’t look overmatched in limited play. With Seiya Suzuki out in right field, he’s going to have to wait to get another opportunity and when it does, he’ll have to seize it. Canario could also be a mid-season trade asset as well.
The skinny: Canario is a powerful and aggressive slugging outfielder, best in right field but good enough for center. His path to playing time in Chicago is complicated.
Relive Canario’s grand slam:
13. Luis Vazquez. SS. DOB: 10/10/1999. B:R, T:R. 6’0”, 165. Drafted 14th round (2017), Alberto Melendez Torres (PR).
The Cubs drafted Luis Vazquez as a 17-year-old high school player out of Puerto Rico in 2017. And then for five years (plus the lost 2020 season), Vazquez distinguished himself as a good-field/no-hit shortstop. Basically, organizational depth. But last season, something clicked for Vazquez at the plate. His strikeouts dropped, his walks increased and his power soared. He hit 16 home runs over his first five seasons in the majors and nine of those came in 2022. But he more than doubled that total in 2023 with 20 home runs split between Tennessee and Iowa.
Between 58 games in Double-A and 66 in Triple-A, Vazquez hit .271/.361/.456. He had 20 doubles and the 20 home runs. The Cubs added him to the 40-man roster this winter after he had passed through Rule 5 eligibility the previous two seasons without any interest from the rest of the league.
Despite the increased power, defense is still the strong spot of Vazquez’s game. He’s a no-doubt shortstop with great range—especially up the middle—and sure hands. (He’s become known for his barehanded plays as well.) Vazquez’s arm is also strong enough to make those throws from deep in the hole or even third base. It seemed like more often than not last year, Vazquez would make a highlight play on defense that got passed around social media.
The step forward on offense is what has turned Vazquez from organizational player to an actual prospect. He’s added some muscle which has improved his hard-hit rates from previous years. It’s also given him the confidence to take balls to the opposite field. But mostly, Vazquez is just better at keeping his swing under control and is making better decisions on what to swing at. He still strikes out a bit too much and his hit tool is still fringe-average. But at least the bat plays at the bottom of the order nowadays.
Vazquez isn’t really competing with Dansby Swanson or Nico Hoerner for a job. He’s in competition with Nick Madrigal and Miles Mastrobuoni. He’s definitely a better fielder than either one of the latter two infielders. All he needs to do in Iowa this year is prove that the gains he made at the plate are for real.
The skinny: Always a plus defender with a plus arm, Vazquez developed power last year. Still only 24, he has a chance to become a good-glove utility infielder with enough pop that he won’t hurt you at the bottom of the order.
Here are all five hits — including a home run — that Vazquez had in a game for the Smokies in May.
And here is an example of his defensive skills [VIDEO].
14. Luke Little. LHP. DOB:8/30/2000. 6’8”, 220. Drafted 4th round (2020), San Jacinto JC (TX).
It seemed like the Cubs were looking for a reliable left-hander out of the bullpen all season last year. It looks like one arrived on September 6 when the Cubs selected the contract of Luke Little. Little was excellent for the Cubs in his first taste of the majors and you have to wonder if he had arrived earlier, maybe the Cubs would have been playing more games in October.
Still, the very fact that Little made the majors last year wasn’t something that many would have predicted last April. A fourth-round pick in 2020, the Cubs were trying to make a starter out of Little in 2022. You have to ask why because Little really only has two pitches, but I suppose it’s a lot easier to move a starter to the pen than a reliever to the rotation. Besides, another left-hander, Justin Steele, thrives with basically a two-pitch arsenal.
Little started 2023 in High-A South Bend, where he got a 13 inning cup of coffee in 2022. After 17⅓ innings, 21 strikeouts and a 0.52 ERA, Little got promoted to Double-A. Exclusively a reliever for the Smokies, Little pitched 34⅔ innings over 23 appearances. He struck out a whopping 63 batters and posted an ERA of 3.12.
That performance earned Little a trip to Des Moines on August 5 and at Iowa, he pitched 11⅔ innings over eight relief appearances. He struck out 21 batters and had an ERA of 1.54 in the International League. After a month of that and with the Cubs bullpen breaking down in Chicago, he got his callup to the majors.
Little pitched seven times last year for a total of 6⅔ innings. He struck out 12, gave up five hits and didn’t allow a run.
Little’s fastball is a 70-grade pitch that comes in at 96-98 mph and can touch 100 occasionally. He delivery also hides the ball well and combine that with his size and release point and the hitters don’t have a lot of time to react. It pairs nicely with his low-80s slider/sweeper that works against both left-handed and right-handed hitters.
Little has also been very successful at keeping the ball in the ballpark. Since being drafted, Little has allowed just two home runs over 147 professional innings. One came in rookie ball in 2021 by top Mariners prospect Harry Ford. The other came last year in Double-A.
The one thing that I haven’t mentioned is Little’s control. It’s not good. Tall pitchers often have issues with control because it’s harder to repeat their delivery. But to truly be an elite reliever, Little will have to throw more strikes.
Little has a very good chance to start the season at Wrigley. His goal for this year is to make himself too valuable to be sent back down to Iowa and to become a valued member of Craig Counsell’s bullpen.
The skinny: Luke Little is a tall, hard-throwing left-handed reliever with a plus-plus fastball and a plus slider. His shaky control is the only thing holding him back now.
15. Cristian Hernández. SS/2B. DOB: 12/13/2003. B:R, T:R. 6’1”, 175. International free agent (2021), Dominican Republic.
The Cubs signed Cristian Hernández out of the Dominican Republic in 2021 to a $3 million bonus and a lot of fanfare. Many scouts called him the best prospect of the international free agent class that year. Since then, most of Hernández’s career has been met with a shrug and Peggy Lee singing “Is that all there is?” But Hernández just turned 20 and the promise that he showed as a 16-year-old is still there. He’s simply not making the progress that everyone expected.
After a 2021 season in the Dominican Summer League and a 2022 season in the Arizona Complex League that can be both be best described as “OK,” Cubs fans finally got to see Hernández play in front of fans in Myrtle Beach last season. And while Myrtle Beach and the Carolina League are tough places to hit, Hernández very much underwhelmed by hitting .233/.302/.301 with four home runs and 118 strikeouts in 106 games. You can’t even blame that on Pelican Park, since Hernández hit worse on the road than he did at home.
On defense, Hernández got moved to second base mid-season. Some of that was because of the emergence of Jefferson Rojas, but some of that was because his arm turned out to be not as strong as advertised.
Hernández is tall — probably a bit taller than the 6’1” that he’s listed at — and he hasn’t been able to cover the strike zone with his average bat speed. But a bigger issue is that Hernández just hasn’t grown into his big frame like he was expected to. He’s still very skinny and just doesn’t have the strength to drive the ball with any authority. When he does make contact, it’s a lot of weak contact.
It also seems like Hernández has just lost confidence at the plate. He seems defensive when he swings—almost like he’s not expecting to make hard contact.
If this seems awfully harsh for a guy I have ranked as the 15th-best prospect in a loaded system, it is. I very much debated leaving Hernández off the rankings entirely. But in the end, I came back to the fact that he was just 19 years old and in the Carolina League last year. Were he an American, he’d probably just be finishing up his freshman year in college. The athleticism that drew the Cubs to him in the first place is still there. He has above-average-to-plus speed and stole 27 bases last year. His glove is still solid—he wasn’t moved off shortstop last year because he couldn’t make the plays. And you have to wonder what kind of upside he’d have if he’d commit to weight training and give some strength to that athletic body. Hernández’s ceiling is still sky-high. You’d think there’s a 20/40 good-glove shortstop in there somewhere, but the odds of him getting out are starting to dim.
I’d have Hernández repeat Myrtle Beach next season to try to rebuild his confidence. At 20, he’d still be young for the Carolina League. If things start to click there, bump him up to South Bend in July.
The skinny: Cristian Hernández is a tall, skinny shortstop with tremendous promise who has so far failed to live up to expectations. This season could be his last chance to show that expectations were not misplaced.
Here’s a video that the Pelicans put together last year on Hernández. You get a little background on him, some nice highlights and Cubs minor league hitting coordinator Rachel Folden’s thoughts on him. Watching this and you can see that the high ceiling is still there.
Also, Cristian mentions his little brother Alexis. Alexis is also a shortstop in the Cubs system who hit .315 for the Cubs Arizona Complex League team last year. The two of them could be teammates this season in Myrtle Beach. Alexis is also a candidate to make this list next year.
Tomorrow: 6 through 10.