Cubs Insider’s Annual Prospect List: Top 20 Arms

The Cubs can’t produce home-grown pitching, or so the saying has gone for the past few years. But those of you who have uttered some version of that phrase in the past don’t have much more time to do so. We’re already beginning to see the fruits of the new research and development department’s labor up in Chicago in the form of Justin Steele, Adbert Alzolay, Keegan Thompson, Scott Effross, and Manny Rodríguez. And while some of those guys profile more as relievers and swingmen than long-term starters, there’s a whole load of pitching prospects right on their heels poised to take up Chicago rotation slots.

After digging into the Top 20 Bats in a previous post, we now turn our attention to those arms that are coming up through the system. Much like the hitters, this group of pitchers is more impressive than any of the past versions of my list here at CI. You’ll read about some serious high-upside guys here today.

You might hear a lot about the spike-curve grip that the development staff has a ton of pitchers working on and think that there are efforts to make every pitcher follow the same path to the majors. In reality, it’s exactly the opposite. The development staff, from Craig Breslow on down, has worked to highlight and improve upon the qualities that make the pitchers in their system unique.

From DJ Herz’s crossfire delivery to Ethan Roberts’s natural ability to spin the ball and Jordan Wicks’s evolving pitch mix, quirks are the reasons pitchers succeed in today’s version of the sport. And those quirks are what make this system stand out.

The affiliate associated with each player is their Opening Day MiLB assignment, pending injury or delay keeping them in extended spring training. Their age is in parenthesis and represents their baseball age, or age as of July 1. Stats are from the 2021 season.

#1 Ryan Jensen (22), Tennessee

A+/AA | 80.0 IP, 4.16 ERA, 1.09 WHIP
.194 AVG, 27.6 K%, 9.5 BB%, 54.4 GB%

This might be a bit of a surprise coming out of an offseason that saw Herz and Caleb Kilian making all the headlines. Jensen is coming off the most underrated season of any pitching prospect out there and one that puts him atop my list here in 2022. He entered last season with arguably the two nastiest pitches in the system: a wipeout slider and a sinker that looks more like a slider moving in the opposite direction. Look past that 4.16 ERA and you’ll find a ton of stats that prove how good of a year Jensen had last year.

He was burned by an unsustainable and absurdly high HR/FB rate during the first month of the season, but he generated a ton of groundballs, piled up the strikeouts, and successfully hit his innings limit of 80. The big question is if he will be able to go deeper into starts (he only logged six innings in two of his twenty starts), which is a matter of command.

#2 Caleb Kilian (25), Iowa

A+/AA | 100.1 IP, 2.42 ERA, 0.88 WHIP
.204 AVG, 29.2 K%, 3.4 BB%

This is a major league starting pitcher. You’ll see plenty of guys on this list that come with a decent amount of reliever risk, but Kilian is not one of them. He has a full repertoire of offerings including a cutter that is elite and that newfound spike curve that everyone has been talking about for the past few months since he debuted it in a masterful Arizona Fall League championship game.

We know the control is very good considering he put up some of the best walk rates in the entire minor leagues, but now we will see if the command is where he needs it to be. That’s a skill he will have to figure out so he isn’t punished for filling up the zone in Triple-A and the majors. Along with Jensen, there’s a pretty good chance we see Kilian make his way to Chicago at some point this year.

#3 DJ Herz (21), South Bend

A-/A+ | 81.2 IP, 3.31 ERA, 1.05 WHIP
.154 AVG, 40.4 K%, 13.6 BB%, 37.7 GB%

I can’t speak highly enough about Herz. He’s got a fastball with an insane amount of life, a breaking ball that works both inside the zone and as a chase pitch, and a changeup that should be in discussions for the best in the system. His 40.4% strikeout rate puts him in discussion with the likes of Grayson Rodriguez (arguably the top pitching prospect in baseball). Herz has a swagger about him that allows him to pitch with confidence on the mound and strive to get better off of it.

And don’t let people tell you that his extreme crossfire delivery needs to be changed in order to make it as a starter. Those mechanics contribute to him being as dominant as he is. He will face more challenges this year as he climbs the organizational ladder, so don’t be surprised to see his strikeout rate drop quite a bit…to 32%.

#4 Kohl Franklin (22), South Bend

No 2021 stats due to injury

In a system filled with dudes that are returning from injuries, especially on the pitching side of things, Franklin might be the one I’m most excited to see take the field again. He’s two years removed from making his lone appearance as a teenager in Single-A South Bend as a part of their run to a Midwest League title in 2019. Now 22 and surely be on an innings, all I need to see is that mid-90s fastball, spike curve, and 70-grade changeup in action. And I say mid-90s heat, but remember when he was clocked tossing 99 mph in his first live BP since his oblique injury? No need to drop him down this list until he proves he should be any lower.

#5 Jordan Wicks (22), South Bend

A+ | 5.0 IP, 5.14 ERA, 1.43 WHIP
.241 AVG, 15.6 K%, 9.4 BB%, 33.3 GB

Cubs fans have fallen so in love with James Triantos from last year’s draft that we tend to forget the team’s first selection was actually Wicks, a guy that most experts think was a steal for the Cubs at No. 16. If you’ve read elsewhere that the left-hander has Jon Lester vibes, you’re on the right track. He is a pitchability guy who also happens to have some nasty offerings, including a new curveball and the best changeup from last year’s draft. He’ll be a fast riser through the system and profiles as a mid-rotation starter.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on his fastball as it will be an important pitch for him to pair with that new hook he’s got. It is probably the thing I’m most concerned about entering the 2022 campaign.

#6 Brailyn Marquez (23), Tennessee

No 2021 stats due to injury

It’s been a wild ride since I ranked Marquez as my number one pitcher in the system a year ago. He dealt with a bout of COVID, which gave him a late start to spring training last year, then he ran into shoulder problems that kept him from pitching in any games. Now he is off to another late start as the result of a second COVID infection. I’m obviously not holding those issues against him here, but the big lefty flamethrower always had a lot of reliever risk associated with him.

Two years and one inning of competitive action later, I’m pretty comfortable assessing Marquez as a reliever long term. While I think he can be an impact multi-inning reliever, his projection is still limited due to the role. This is about as high as I can bring myself to rank a guy that can hit an absolute peak of 2.0 WAR in a season.

#7 Daniel Palencia (22), South Bend

A- | 41.1 IP, 4.79 ERA, 1.40 WHIP
.224 AVG, 28.9 K%, 13.3 BB%

Palencia is my pick to win the Cubs MiLB Pitcher of the Year award in 2022. He hasn’t done enough on the field to warrant a higher ranking here, but he has the tools to be incredible. He already has a heater that regularly touches triple digits and stays there deep into his pitch count. Pair that with a curveball that is consistent but flashes as a plus pitch and a developing changeup, and he has long-term starting pitcher written all over him.

Although he only stands 5-foot-11, Palencia has a body that should be able to withstand a bigger workload this year, at least doubling his 41.1 innings from a year ago. He’ll need to show that his offspeeds are here to stay and continue to put up the numbers we saw as a Cub in 2021 as opposed to as an Athletic in 2021. If he can do those things, we are looking at a true breakout campaign from the righty.

#8 Tyler Schlaffer (21), Myrtle Beach

CPX/A- | 55.0 IP, 4.58 ERA, 1.55 WHIP
.286 AVG, 22.3 K%, 8.9 BB%, 39.8 GB%

We should be preparing for a major breakout from Schlaffer this year. He is a guy that might fall through the cracks if you are scouting the stat line, but it was pretty apparent watching him for nine starts in Myrtle last summer why the Cubs selected the Homewood-Flossmoor product in the ninth round back in 2019. I believe there are already two plus pitches in his repertoire with a changeup that completely drops off the table and a cutter that is devastating on lefty hitters. Strangely enough, lefties actually hit him around the ballpark a bit. I think it’s going to take some sequencing changes for him to really take off in 2022.

#9 Koen Moreno (20), EST

No 2021 stats due to injury

The parallels between Moreno and reigning Herz, the org’s reigning MiLB Pitcher of the Year, are too obvious to not point out here. Both players were overslot signings in the top 10 rounds of their respective drafts (2019 & 2020). They both were selected out of North Carolina high schools after being scouted by Cubs super-scout Billy Swoope. They each played multiple sports in high school and are freak athletes. And like Herz, Moreno is ready to break out in his first full season as a pro.

#10 Anderson Espinoza (24), Tennessee

A+/AA | 58.0 IP, 4.19 ERA, 1.41 WHIP
.234 AVG, 31.9 K%, 12.8 BB%

What a wild ride for Espinoza. Going into 2016, he was Baseball America’s 16th best prospect in the game. Then he didn’t appear in a game from 2017-20 thanks to injuries. The craziest part of it all? He is still only 24 years old. Espinoza will surely show off his great secondary offerings as a member of the Tennessee rotation to begin the year and considering he is already on the 40-man roster, there is an outside shot that he makes an impact in the Chicago bullpen by year’s end.

#11 Ethan Roberts (24), Chicago

AA/AAA | 54.0 IP, 3.00 ERA, 0.96 WHIP
.176 AVG, 32.6 K%, 7.7 BB%, 45.1 GB%

Roberts leads off the crew of terrific true relievers and he will join the Cubs at least to open the season. What sets him above the others is the quirkiness he brings to the mound. He’s the Spin Rate Guy (trademark pending), with two pitches that would be in the upper-echelon of MLB spin rates: a fastball with natural cut and a  slider that he describes as his favorite pitch to throw. His size actually plays into his delivery really well because he releases the ball from a low angle, making it tough on hitters during this launch angle era. Plus, he’s got the it factor. I’ve got Roberts eating up the 7th and 8th innings in Chicago for years to come.

#12 Ben Leeper (25), Iowa

AA/AAA | 35.0 IP, 1.29 ERA, 0.80 WHIP
.124 AVG, 39.0 K%, 9.6 BB%, 34.8 GB%

Many people like Leeper as the best relief prospect in the system and I can’t really argue with them. He is basically a two-pitch guy, rocking a mid-90s fastball and the best slider in the organization (majors included). The depth and velo of his slider makes me think he can throw it every single pitch and still put together a decent season statistically. He doesn’t benefit from being on the 40-man roster like Roberts or Rodríguez, but Leeper will still be in Chicago at some point this year.

#13 Michael McAvene (24), EST

No 2021 stats due to injury

McAvene was being stretched out as a starter, but he has dealt with injuries his entire career dating back to his college days at Louisville and carrying forward to a missed 2021 campaign. Because of that, we might be looking at a permanent switch to the bullpen in 2022, but I’ve been in favor of that role from the day he was drafted. He can let that fastball eat in shorter stints, frequenting the 96-99 mph range instead of 92-95 mph. And when you are looking for a mindset of a closer with a big “F you” attitude on the bump, search no further than McAvene.

#14 Max Bain (24), South Bend

A+ | 93.0 IP, 5.52 ERA, 1.48 WHIP
.232 AVG, 26.7 K%, 13.2 BB%, 33.2 GB%

It’s crazy to think last season was Bain’s first as a Cub. It’s even crazier when you realize he ate as many innings as he did while still getting his feet under him and changing the way he pitched for the majority of the year. At this point, he features a true four-pitch mix and should spend a considerable amount of time in Double-A. I’d like to see fewer non-competitive pitches this year, which will lower that walk rate and allow him to work deeper into games.

The biggest concern I have is his inability to generate grounders. Bain can get away with a sub-35% groundball rate as a reliever but he’ll need to limit the homers if he wants to stick as a starter. I wouldn’t dare bet against him being able to do just that.

#15 Alexander Vizcaino (25), restricted list

Rk/A+ | 19.2 IP, 5.95 ERA, 1.68 WHIP
.194 AVG, 28.2 K%, 20.7 BB%

If Vizcaino can put together a full season of innings — something that is already at risk because of a late start to spring training and his current placement on the restricted list for undisclosed reasons — this ranking will look silly. His changeup and slider are both really good putaway pitches and there’s a reason the Yankees placed a kid that hadn’t pitched above Single-A on their 40-man roster. Now 24 years old, we are going to have to see more than just nasty pitches from Vizcaino moving forward. Can he get results while piling up more innings?

#16 Riley Thompson (25), Tennessee

No 2021 stats due to injury

Thompson is yet another pitcher returning to action after a missed season. At this point, his age is the biggest thing working against him because the big righty will be turning 26 this July and has yet to throw an inning above Low-A. But his three-pitch mix is very exciting and both his spike curve and changeup are brutal on righties and lefties alike. He’s got the size and efficiency to remain a starting pitcher and it’s my expectation the Cubs continue to roll him out there as such, beginning the year in Double-A Tennessee.

#17 Brandon Hughes (26), Tennessee

A+/AA | 42.0 IP, 1.71 ERA, 1.14 WHIP
.201 AVG, 34.3 K%, 9.7 BB%, 34.8 GB%

The former center fielder has quickly turned himself into a lefty out-getter in just a couple seasons. His fastball-slider combo is tough on both left- and right-handed hitters and he put up some of the best numbers in the system a year ago. There was a good possibility he would have been snagged in the Rule 5 Draft had the owners not canned it. Instead, we will get to see Hughes try to complete this amazing development story when he debuts in Chicago later this year.

#18 Cory Abbott (26), Iowa

AAA | 96.0 IP, 5.91 ERA, 1.56 WHIP
.257 AVG, 29.8 K%, 12.2 BB%, 33.9 GB%

I’m frustrated for Abbott because the Cubs bouncing him around from the Iowa rotation to the Chicago bullpen wasn’t fair for his development. The 26-year-old became the three-true-outcome version of a pitcher in 2021, striking out nearly 30% of the batters he faced, walking guys at a career-high rate, and still giving up his fair share of homers. I think Abbott would benefit greatly from being gifted a full season in the Iowa rotation (something the Cubs can do with their pitching depth in the majors) or converting him full-time to the bullpen.

#19 Dominic Hambley (19), Arizona

No stats, drafted in 2021

We’re wrapping up the list with a couple guys that are big projection plays. There were plenty of players that fit into that category with the bats (the entire Myrtle Beach lineup, for example) but I haven’t included many players we don’t know much about with the arms. Hambley is a 2021 draftee out of a Canada high school and I assumed there was no way the Cubs could sign him away from his Oregon State commitment when they selected him in the 18th round. He is an abnormally advanced pitcher considering his situation and is someone we might see actually get some innings at Myrtle Beach later in the year.

#20 Cayne Ueckert (26), Iowa

A+/AA | 31.0 IP, 1.45 ERA, 0.81 WHIP
.129 AVG, 32.5 K%, 10.5 BB%, 46.9 GB%

Ueckert rounds out a group of four true relievers that crack this top 20 and that’s a real testament to the strength this system has in lights-out bullpen arms. The righty really jumped onto the scene during spring training thanks to some solid performances, but he initially began to take off with a truly dominant 2021 campaign. His numbers are staggering across the board and he gave up zero runs in 22 of the 26 games he pitched last year.

Even more, he never allowed more than two runs in a game the whole season long. Ueckert is no longer the 27th rounder that put up brutal numbers at McNeese State. He is a legitimate contender to carve out a back-end bullpen role in Chicago for the next several years.

Honorable Mention

Burl Carraway, Chris Clarke, Danis Correa, Jeremiah Estrada, Scott Kobos, Luke Little, Joe Nahas

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