Jed Hoyer made several moves over the last year that, while unpopular at the time, brought an influx of young talent the likes of which the Cubs haven’t seen since the 2014 and ’15 seasons. The organization will continue to strengthen the system with the seventh pick in next year’s draft and three top-50 international prospects, including shortstop Alexis Hernandez (younger brother of Cristian).
Next season should be a pivotal one for the Cubs system as some of those players they acquired this year should work their way up to Double-A. That puts them very close to Chicago, but this isn’t horseshoes and we’re not here to talk about just getting to Tennessee.
While there might not be many obvious choices for players who can have an immediate impact on the Cubs roster in 2022, there are a few who can help later in the year. Brennen Davis, a top 20 prospect in all of baseball, is the most obvious of those. Many want Davis in Chicago right away, and that’s still possible, but it’s more important that he develops the right way so he’s able to adapt quickly to big league pitching and can stay up once he’s promoted.
Davis is likely to be joined at some point next year by Christopher Morel, who still has some things to work on at the plate. Morel had a great August and September at Tennessee, flashing wicked bat speed and an amazing arm combined with crazy athleticism.
If the DH is added to the National League, Nelson Maldonado, a Cubs 2019 draft pick out of Florida, could be in line to handle those duties. He cleaned up through the middle of August at Double-A and had one of the best summers of any Cubs hitting prospect with a 134 wRC+ before he went down with an undisclosed injury in August.
Nelson Maldonado – a pure hitter pic.twitter.com/qYB8yNzwqH
— TheBullpen🐾 (@RealCubsAnalyst) June 26, 2021
Based on how Cory Abbott finished the year, he has to be in contention to help out at some point. He struck out 28 in 23.2 innings and had a 1.90 ERA in September, plus he pitched well in St. Louis the final weekend. Caleb Killian and Dakota Chalmers are wild card starters and might also be competing for spots depending on what Hoyer does this winter. Chalmers is a free agent at the end of this year but still has two options left and could be added to the 40-man roster rather than being allowed to walk.
Ryan Jensen looked very good during his short tenure in Tennessee to end the year and will probably begin there again in 2022. Jensen should be joined in Tennessee by Anderson Espinoza, who is gaining strength after missing the better part of four seasons in the Padres system. The former No. 1 prospect flashed three plus pitches over six weeks with the Cubs and now it’s just a matter of whether he is healthy enough to be a starter or is best served as a reliever. Either way, it’s a pretty good get for Jake Marisnick.
Anderson Espinoza had his best outing in the Cubs system with 5 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 3 BB, 7 K for South Bend.
Espinoza's mid-90s FB, "gyro" slider, and his CB led the way last night.
Here's a clip of all his strikeouts and a few other of my favorite pitches from his outing. pic.twitter.com/wjPB8ZqBFl
— Greg Zumach (@IvyFutures) August 22, 2021
How fast top pick Jordan Wicks develops over the next year will be of key interest as well. The lefty out of Kansas State is known for a strong work ethic but he will need something else to go with his plus changeup, so the Cubs will likely try to tweak his fastball and curveball over this winter. Wicks is likely to start next year at High-A South Bend, where he ended this year by pitching in four games.
The bullpen is the most likely area to see immediate impact from prospects, as there are several pitchers who could help out at a moment’s notice. Ethan Roberts, Ben Leeper, Cayne Ueckert, Scott Kobos, and Brandon Hughes all looked good this season and could be in Chicago for years to come. The key for all these players is to continue building experience and confidence at the higher levels of the system even if they aren’t in the bigs right away.
Ben Leeper 100% nasty pic.twitter.com/5M7yLZN2dk
— TheBullpen🐾 (@RealCubsAnalyst) May 30, 2021
You probably noticed that I did not mention Chase Strumpf, Nelson Velasquez, Miguel Amaya, or Brailyn Marquez. All are still a year or more away from being ready, though I could see Strumpf and Velazquez making it to Chicago late in the year if things fall into place perfectly. Amaya and Márquez spent most of 2021 battling injuries and need to get back on the field before any real predictions can be made about their arrival.
With that in mind, there are several other players that were injured this past year and basically have not played since 2019 due to the pandemic. Kohl Franklin, Riley Thompson, Jack Patterson, Ben Hecht, and Michael McAvene are all high-end arms who could move quickly and contribute next year under the right circumstances.
The system’s greatest strength right now is its depth, but development is imperative moving forward. While getting help in Chicago in 2022 will be great, the Cubs need to cultivate success from a group that includes Hernandez, Kevin Made, DJ Herz, Ed Howard, Reggie Preciado, Kevin Alcántara, James Triantos, Owen Caissie if they want to keep their competitive window open well into the future.