Today we’re wrapping up our countdown of the best prospects in the Cubs system heading into the 2024 season. We have an outfielder, two infielders, a right-handed pitcher and a left-hander.
If you doubt the importance of the draft, all five of today’s prospects were first-round draft picks. Two of them were taken in the first round of the 2019 and 2020 drafts by the Dodgers and Mets respectively, but the other three are the Cubs’ first-round pick from each of the past three seasons. So in addition to trading for a lot of good prospects, the Cubs have been drafting well since Dan Kantrovitz took over as scouting director in 2020. OK, we’ll give him a pass for the 2020 picks. That was a brutal draft under extraordinarily difficult circumstances and he was new to the job. Even then, he got Luke Little in the fourth round. But since then, Kantrovitz has done quite well.
As always, clicking on the players name will take you the player’s milb.com page.
- Pete Crow-Armstrong. CF. DOB: 3/25/2002. B:L, T:L. 5’11”, 184 lbs. Trade with Mets (2021).
I think most of you know what Pete Crow-Armstrong is about by now. He’s an elite, 80-grade defensive center fielder who regularly makes highlight-reel catches. He gets great jumps on the ball off the bat and uses his plus speed to cover amazing amounts of ground. Then, he’s willing to sacrifice his body in dives or by crashing up against the wall. Once he catches the ball, he has an above-average arm to get the ball back into the infield quickly. There might never have been a center fielder in Cubs history as good as defensively as Crow-Armstrong is likely to be.
The word I use to describe Pete Crow-Armstrong is “aggressive.” When the Mets drafted him in 2020, he said the one player he modeled his game after was former Cubs shortstop Javier Báez, the man he would be traded for a year later. Now, there are a lot of differences between Crow-Armstrong and El Mago — Pete’s left-handed and is an outfielder are just two — but they have that same attitude when they take the field. Crow-Armstrong is not a guy who plays it safe out there. He goes for the extra base. He tries for that fly ball that he might or might not be able to catch. He swings at the first pitch in the zone that he thinks he can drive.
That made for some thrilling highlights in the minor leagues. But I couldn’t help but think that he wouldn’t get away with stuff like going from first to third on an infield single in the majors as often as he did in Double-A. The defenders are better, the fly balls are hit harder and the pitches have more bite to them. That’s something that Crow-Armstrong got a taste of last September. The Cubs don’t want to break him of that aggressiveness. It’s one of his best traits. But they do want him to be smarter about it. He needs to know when it’s a good opportunity to gamble and when he needs to play it safe. But he’s intelligent enough to figure that out with more experience and talented enough that he’ll still be able to keep opposing teams alert. Crow-Armstrong should continue to punish them if they make even the smallest mistake.
At the plate, Crow-Armstrong has gotten stronger over the past two years without losing any speed. He’s also re-worked his swing so that it is more geared to pull the ball for power. His aggressiveness causes him to swing and miss more than you’d like, but he is able to work a walk if he doesn’t see a pitch he likes. He power probably grades out at an above-average 55 and his hit tool at a more fringe-average 45. But the walks and hit-by-pitches will keep his on-base percentage respectable.
One more positive factor for Crow-Armstrong is that he hasn’t shown much of a platoon split throughout his minor league career. He’s not likely to be a guy who has to sit against lefties.
After a successful first season in the Cubs system in 2022, Crow-Armstrong started 2023 in Double-A Tennessee. He was hitting .289/.371/.527 with 19 doubles, five triples, 14 home runs and 27 stolen bases over 73 games by August 1 when the Cubs decided that he didn’t have anything left to prove in the Southern League and promoted him to Iowa.
Triple-A proved to be a bit more of a challenge as Crow-Armstrong hit just .174 (4 for 23) with a double and two home runs over his first six games. But like he has at every other level, Crow-Armstrong made some adjustments and started to thrive. By September 10, Crow-Armstrong was hitting .271/.350/.479 with six home runs and 15 steals over 34 games. That got Crow-Armstrong his first major league call-up.
You likely know what Crow-Armstrong did in the majors. Manager David Ross didn’t give him any consistent playing time (to be fair, the Cubs were fighting for a playoff spot and it was no time to let anyone struggle) and he went 0 for 14 with three walks and seven strikeouts.
I don’t think Crow-Armstrong’s struggles in limited action spell anything bad for his future, but it did point out a few things he needs to work on. He certainly had trouble getting around on fastballs up and in. But he’s struggled out of the gate at almost every level he’s been at and has made the adjustments and thrived. I believe Crow-Armstrong will do so in the majors as well.
Crow-Armstrong’s defense gives him a much higher floor than almost any prospect the Cubs have had in the time I’ve done these rankings. If the bat fails to live up to expectations, he’s still an elite glove. And if he reaches his potential and hits .260 with 20 home runs and 40 steals, what is that? Steve Finley in his prime?
What moves the Cubs make the rest of the winter will determine whether Crow-Armstrong starts the season in Iowa or Chicago. I don’t think it would be a bad idea for him to spend a month or two in Triple-A. But I expect that Crow-Armstrong will spend most of the year at Wrigley.
The skinny: Pete Crow-Armstrong is an elite defensive center fielder with plus speed and above-average power. He could be an All-Star for many years to come.
Here’s about 12 minutes of PCA highlights. It’s mostly hitting highlights, but there are a few fielding gems in there. Also, tell me that he didn’t come up with that move on the triple around the 1:20 mark from watching Javy Báez.
And here are the highlights from his major-league debut in Denver where he made those two fantastic catches [VIDEO].
2. Cade Horton. RHP. DOB: 8/20/2001. 6’1, 221. Drafted 1st round (2022), Oklahoma.
If you’ve been reading me over the years, you know that I push back on the idea of a guy having “number-one starter” potential. That term means something in scouting circles and it is not just the guy who gets the Opening Day start for each team. There are usually only about 10 to 12 number-ones in the league at any one time
So believe that I’m serious when I say Cade Horton has the potential to be a number-one starter. He’s the best Cubs pitching prospect since Mark Prior. There’s no guarantee that he will and it’s more likely that he ends up as a number 2 or number 3. But the makings of a top-of-the-rotation pitcher are there.
The Cubs surprised everyone when they took Horton in the 2022 Draft. He had missed all of his freshman year with Tommy John surgery and he didn’t return to the mound until midway through his sophomore year. He showed the usual growing pains of a guy who was rusty from missing so much time and recovering from an injury.
But a switch seemed to turn on for Horton during the Regionals, Super-Regionals and the College World Series. He was so good that he was now being talked of as a possible first rounder as a draft-eligible sophomore. When he struck out 13 and walked no one in 7⅓ innings of the title game, he was looked at as a first half of the first round pick. The Cubs took him at seven.
The Cubs shut Horton down for the rest of 2022 and started him in Myrtle Beach last April. After just four starts, 21 strikeouts in 14⅓ innings and a 1.26 ERA, they moved him up to South Bend.
Horton got hammered in his first start in High-A, but then settled down and dominated again. At one point, he had allowed no runs in four out of five starts, all of at least four innings. He made 11 starts for South Bend and struck out 65 and walked just 12 in 47 innings. His Midwest League ERA was 3.83. That earned Horton his second promotion of the year, going to Tennessee on August 1.
Horton didn’t find Double-A any more challenging. Well, maybe a little, but just a little. In six regular season starts at Tennessee, he had a 1.33 ERA. The strikeouts were down and the walks were up a bit — 31 strikeouts and 11 walks over 27 innings. Horton followed that up with two starts in the playoffs. He won both of them, allowing just one run and four hits over ten innings combined. He struck out 11 and walked four.
Horton has a plus fastball with good movement. It sits 94-96 and can touch 98. But his slider is his best pitch—a nasty 84-86 mile per hour pitch that can touch 88 and breaks hard, down and away from a right-handed hitter. Horton is unafraid to throw the slider in or out of the strike zone. Even more amazing, he’s only been throwing the pitch for a little over a year.
His low-80s curve and low-80s changeup are still pitches in development, but the curve probably ranks as average now and his changeup is a really promising pitch that he’s worked on a lot this past year. It could end up as maybe an above-average when he gets more comfortable with it.
What generally separates a number-one starter from a number-two or even a number-three is control and stamina. Right now Horton’s control is more in line with a 2 or 3 starter. But he’s made so much progress in just one year that I wouldn’t be surprised to see him develop plus control. He certainly has a clean, simple pitching motion that is easily repeatable. That helps a lot.
The primary reason I ranked Crow-Armstrong ahead of Horton is Horton’s injury history. Pitchers are always risky and Horton has already had one Tommy John. The old saying “There’s no such thing as a pitching prospect” applies here.
Horton could very well be pitching out of the Cubs rotation by mid-season 2024. He’s already close to a finished product. He mostly needs to work on the curve and the changeup and going deeper in games. The Cubs pretty much kept him on an 80-pitch limit in 2023.
The skinny: Cade Horton’s plus fastball and plus-plus slider give him top of the rotation potential. It almost seems certain, barring injury, that he’ll be in the Cubs rotation by the All-Star Break.
Here’s a hype video the Cubs made about Horton a month ago. It gives you a bit of insight into his career.
And here is Horton striking out six in his Double-A debut.
3. Matt Shaw. INF. DOB: 11/06/2001. B:R, T:R. 5’11”, 185. Drafted 1st round (2023), Maryland.
Last summer’s draft was believed to be one of the deepest on record and so far, its living up to the hype, The Cubs took Matt Shaw with the 13th pick and he’s looking like someone who would have been a top-5 pick in another season. Heck, it looks like he maybe should have been taken five picks earlier in this draft.
After a brief stay in the Arizona Complex League, the Cubs sent Shaw to South Bend. The Cubs generally don’t have players skip levels, but there were already several young and promising shortstops at Myrtle Beach and Shaw had been the Big Ten Player of the Year his senior season at Maryland.
It turns out there was no reason to worry about the aggressive placement. Shaw demolished the Midwest League, hitting .393 (33 for 84) with a .427 OBP and four home runs in 20 games. He even stole seven bases in eight attempts.
Shaw was promoted to Double-A in late August, where he finished out the season. Shaw hit .292 (19 for 65) with three home runs and six steals in 15 games for the Smokies.
Shaw isn’t a big man, but he generates a lot of bat speed with some quick wrists and a lot of upper-body strength. He’s very good at making contact and putting the ball in play to all fields. He’ll drive an outside fastball to right field or connect on a low curve with a single up the middle. He especially likes to drive doubles into the opposite-field gap. When Shaw gets all of a pitch, he can drive it out of the park. Shaw neither walks nor strikes out much, but he rarely swings at a pitch that he just can’t hit. Of course, there aren’t that many pitches that he can’t make some kind of decent contact on.
Shaw grew up in Massachusetts watching the Red Sox and Dustin Pedroia. It’s said that he modeled his game after Pedroia and it’s easy to see the resemblance.
Defensively, Shaw has sure hands at either shortstop or second base. His range at both positions is probably fringy, but he makes most of the plays that he gets to.
The bigger issue is his arm, which is definitely below-average. Because of this, most scouts had him pegged for second base in the majors. Of course, second base is currently occupied for the Cubs and the way Shaw played last year, a major league debut in 2024 seems probable.
When asked about this at the Cubs Convention last month, Shaw said that he’s taking “99 percent” of his chances at third base this winter. (The Athletic sub. req.) It seems counter-intuitive to take a guy who lacks the arm for shortstop and move him to third, but if the Cubs can make a third baseman out of Nick Madrigal, they can make a third baseman out of almost anyone. Shaw has the work ethic that makes it seem possible. The bat would certainly play there. There’s a need and it’s worth a shot.
Matt Shaw is a man in a hurry. Whether he starts this season in Tennessee or Iowa, he will be in Iowa soon enough. And after that, a major league debut could happen at any time. If he manages to master third base, it probably can’t come soon enough.
The skinny: Matt Shaw is an exciting hitter with strong contact skills who can hit for a plus average and above-average power. Finding a position for him could be a challenge, but his bat will play anywhere.
Here’s MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis talking about Matt Shaw [VIDEO]. A lot of highlights are included here, including a nice one on defense.
4. Michael Busch. INF. DOB: 11/09/1997. B:L, T:R. 6’1, 210. Trade with Dodgers (2024).
I just did a whole article on Michael Busch when the Cubs acquired him just last month. I wrote pretty much everything that I would write here back then.
So go back and read that if you need a refresher, but here are a few selected quotes:
Make no mistake about it, Busch can hit. He has a quick stroke through the zone with a natural lift to it. He makes hitting look effortless and the power is impressive when he gets ahold of it. Most of his power is from right field to dead center as he has generally drives the ball on the line when he goes to the opposite field. But it’s not hard to envision Busch depositing more than a few home runs in the left-field baskets at Wrigley.
The biggest improvement that Busch made in the minor leagues last year was cutting down on his strikeout rate. Over the 2021 and 2022 seasons in Double-A and Triple-A, Busch struck out at a rate of 26.0 to 26.3 percent. But he cut that down last year to 18.8 percent and his walk rate jumped from 9.9 percent in Triple-A in 2022 to 13.9 percent last year.
Busch is a patient hitter with excellent pitch recognition skills. Some observers have argued that the “patience” crosses the line into “passivity” at times, but he’s definitely a hitter who likes to see a lot of pitches and to jump on the one that he knows he can crush.
Overall, however, Busch is a potential middle-of-the-order power hitter with a solid hit-tool and excellent on-base skills. The Dodgers have compared his bat to Max Muncy’s, except that Busch can be expected to hit for a higher average. So if you can get someone who hits 30 home runs a year with a .270 batting average and a .380 OBP, that’s an All-Star, even at first base. Less than that would still be a playable everyday first baseman and a huge improvement over what the Cubs trotted out there in 2023.
Since the trade, the Cubs have made it clear that they expect Busch to win a spot on the Opening Day roster and they expect that he will be playing first base, at least against right-handed pitching. He certainly has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues.
The skinny: Michael Busch is a strong left-handed bat with plus power potential and an above-average hit tool. He should be on the Opening Day roster, probably playing first base.
I had a collection of highlights in the earlier article, but if you want something shorter and sweeter, here is Busch hitting two home runs in Tacoma last August. You can see that the raw power is real.
5. Jordan Wicks. LHP. DOB: 9/01/1999. 6’3”, 220. Drafted 1st round (2021), Kansas State.
Jordan Wicks has always had a great feel for pitching, but his raw stuff took a step forward in 2023. The biggest difference is his upper-80s cutter, which he introduced in 2022, became a reliable weapon last year. That makes his average 91-94 four-seam and two-seam fastballs play better. Of course, his best weapon is still his plus-plus low-80s changeup that drops off the table late. He also has a curve and a change that give him a six-pitch arsenal, but both of those pitches are a bit fringy and are mostly used to keep hitters from sitting on his better stuff.
Wicks started last season in Double-A Tennessee and finished it in the major-league rotation. He made 13 starts for the Smokies and went 4-0 with a 3.39 ERA. He struck out 69 batters and walked 19 over 58⅓ innings.
He left for Iowa at the end of June and was about as good in Iowa. He made seven starts and went 3-0 with an ERA of 3.82. Wicks struck out 30 and walked 13 in 33 innings.
Wicks made his major-league debut on August 26 and he got the win after allowing just one run over five innings. He struck out nine and just walked one that day. His first four starts in the majors were excellent, allowing just one or two runs in each of him. His final three were not nearly as good, which meant he finished his first taste of the majors with a record of 4-1 and a 4.41 ERA.
Wicks relies a lot on that 70-grade changeup, which he uses a lot to finish off hitters. But he has improved his command of his two fastballs, which allows him to paint the corners a lot better than before. And of course, that cutter is emerging as an effective tool.
If Wicks has a weakness, it is giving up home runs. He doesn’t give up a particularly high number of fly balls, but when he does, they tend to fly out of the park. When a pitcher’s velocity is just average, he’s got much less margin for error on mistakes. Wicks’ command and control are improving, but he needs to be more consistent with it to reach his full potential.
After his showing last season, it seems like the floor for Wicks is a number-five starter. He’s already there, isn’t he? And the ceiling, which used to be a four, has inched up to a three. I have a rule to never make a comp to Kyle Hendricks, but you can see how Wicks could learn a lot from Hendricks in the way that Kyle mixes up his pitches to keep hitters off balance and set them up for the changeup. Obviously Wicks isn’t there yet with the science of pitching. But he is also left-handed and while he doesn’t throw hard, he throws a lot harder than Hendricks.
Wicks will be fighting for a spot in the starting rotation in Spring Training. He has options left, so if there’s a numbers game he may end up back in Iowa to start the year. But if he builds off of what he did at the end of last year and pitches well, he should spend the majority of the season in the majors.
The skinny: Jordan Wicks is a left-handed starter who gets outs by mixing up his pitches and setting up his devastating slider. He could be a fixture in the Cubs rotation for years to come, starting in 2024.
Here’s the hype video the Cubs made about Wicks. It’s full of highlights and insights from Wicks about his mentality.
And you can relive the highlights of Wicks’ first major league start.
Thanks for reading! Let’s hope some of these prospects bring the Cubs several World Series titles over the next decade.