The big leagues may still be locked in limbo, but it’s business as usual for those players not assigned to a club’s 40-man roster. That means the March 7 spring training report date and a full season of baseball are unaffected by anything that takes place at the bargaining table between Major League Baseball and the MLBPA. Many of those minor leaguers have been at their respective facilities throughout the offseason, with the Cubs hosting some of their top prospects for an intense camp that started in November and runs through this month.
The team is also running a two-week program starting this week and leading up to the official report date, just to get everyone on the same page. That’s particularly important as the organization heads into the first season of its retool/rebuild sans most of its former superstars. How the Cubs go about developing this current group of minor leaguers may well determine the direction of the franchise over the next decade or more, so they need to find that sweet spot between getting too aggressive with hitters and handling their pitchers with kid gloves.
There’s also the matter of integrating into the system all the new players they drafted or picked up in midseason trades, some of whom got little to no experience with their new org due to injuries or timing. Then you take those players who had to find their footing in the wake of the lost 2020 season that threw their training and playing schedules completely out of whack.
Between the odd circumstances and the Cubs’ ongoing efforts to foster camaraderie among the overall group, not to mention the increased visibility of these young players, I think we’re going to be getting a different vibe than what we’ve seen in the past. I don’t want to say that prospects weren’t driving and feeding off of one another in the past, but it really feels like there’s an even more communal atmosphere in Mesa that will continue to grow at the various affiliates.
Add that to improved methodology in terms of both physical and mental development and I believe we’re going to see some breakouts and/or bouncebacks from several players in the system. Yeah, I know, really going out on a limb there. When you think about it, though, there are plenty of guys who fall short of the hype or who never really put their stamp on their career to bust out and force the parent organization to fast-track them.
With that in mind, I’ve got five players I’m really looking forward to seeing this year for various reasons. These aren’t unknowns by any stretch, but each of them has a question mark or three that may have caused people to reconsider jumping on — or maybe they’ve already jumped off — the bandwagon.
He’ll be only 20 years old when his birthday rolls around in less than a month and he’s got just 32 professional plate appearances, but perhaps the biggest knock against him is that he replaced Javier Báez. Not directly, of course, but Crow-Armstrong was the return from the Mets in the deal that sent Javy and Trevor Williams to New York.
The young center fielder saw his A-ball season cut short by an injury to his right (non-throwing) shoulder, so he has yet to suit up for the Cubs at any level. He’s been fully released to resume all activities at this point and his swing looks great, but it’s his glove that may carry him to Chicago.
Good to see Pete Crow-Armstrong back in the cages pic.twitter.com/zFADu2VFXd
— RushingBaseball (@RushingBaseball) November 16, 2021
Speaking to 670 The Score recently, Cubs’ VP of player development Jared Banner said Crow-Armstrong is one of the best defensive center fielders he’s ever seen. There was even a Mookie Betts comp in there, so take that for what it’s worth. So are we looking at a potential MVP or the second coming of Albert Almora Jr.? Or maybe, and this is wild so follow me here, PCA is his own person. Whatever the case, I’m very interested to see him in action this spring.
The kid from Mt. Carmel was hampered by both the pandemic and a hamstring issue, struggling to a .225 average during his first professional season with Low-A Myrtle Beach. Howard came on strong toward the end of the year, hitting .250 in August and .283 in September, offering hope that he was starting to figure things out.
Now all of 20 years old and possessed of what might be the best defensive skills in the organization, Howard is primed to take off at South Bend and maybe beyond. More than anything he can do on the field, it’s his exceptional makeup that has me convinced he’ll have no problems navigating the rigors of life as a top draft pick.
Heck, he’s said as much himself.
“I genuinely think everything happens for a reason, so I think I was put in this situation, drafted by this organization, for a reason,” Howard told NBC Sports Chicago’s Gordon Wittenmyer. “That’s why I have so much trust in myself, because I feel like I was built for it.”
Go read that piece and tell me you don’t feel the same way. A lot of folks soured on Howard after he struggled out of the gate in 2021, but they’re going to be telling you they knew he had it all along after they get a look at him this year.
I’m cherry-picking in a big way on this one because Bain is one of the guys I’ve been on from the start. He’s visited with us on The Rant Live a couple times and he’s vocal on social media, so it’s not like we’re talking about an unknown commodity here.
Still, Bain had inconsistent results during his first season of affiliated ball and he’s got plenty of room to improve when it comes to his control and sequencing. As cerebral a ballplayer as you’ll find anywhere, Bain has worked incredibly hard in the offseason to get stronger and improve his pitch design in order to be more efficient.
We got DUDES at the complex that have been putting work in all winter AND there are waves of us coming down over the next 2 weeks ⚾️⚾️⚾️
— Max Bain (@mbain_38) February 14, 2022
Rather than just trying to hit triple digits, he wants to maintain his mid-90s velocity deep into games while also sharpening his secondaries. If he’s able to follow through on his intentions, we could very easily see Bain in Iowa by the end of the season.
Part of the return for Yu Darvish, the 19-year-old Caissie spent most of 2021 in the Arizona Complex League as he adjusted to pro ball and a new system. His strikeout numbers were a little higher than you’d like to see, but he’s an on-base machine who’s also blessed with exceptional power and he won’t turn 20 until July. With a little more experience, even the hitter-unfriendly confines of Myrtle Beach won’t be able to contain him.
As excited as I am to see how that power develops as he matures, I’m intrigued by the notion of the Cubs working him out at first base a little bit. They neglected that position for a long time with Anthony Rizzo serving as an anchor for so long, but even an increased focus in recent years hasn’t really led to a bona fide prospect you can pencil in at Wrigley long-term.
You figure Caissie will continue to fill out his frame — he’s currently listed at 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds — so he’s a corner man one way or the other. The DH coming to the NL may help his cause as well, though I don’t think that alone will speed his ascension through the ranks.
I’ll keep this short since I’m already running long and just wrote about him recently, but Triantos might be the player I’m most looking forward to seeing. His prep stats were absolutely freakish and he did nothing in the ACL to indicate the production was a fluke. He just turned 19 in late January, making him the youngest of this group by far, and he’s got legit five-tool potential.
The Cubs could have a pair of ginger snaps at Myrtle Beach if both Triantos and Caissie are there next season, something that would make Pelicans games must-see events. But unlike the aforementioned slugger, Triantos has a phenomenal hit tool that stands out among his peers and maybe even some of those at much higher levels.
Exactly where he’ll be playing is a question, though, particularly with so many other shortstops throughout the system. He’ll surely be getting a lot of time at second and third in addition to short, much of which will depend on who else it at whatever level he finds himself, and there’s no time to rush when it comes to determining a spot.
So there you have it, folks, I dug deep to name prospects ranked at Nos. 5, 7, 9, and 11 on MLB.com’s Cubs prospect board. However, I’m not just saying these guys are going to be solid in 2022, I’m saying they’re going to break out to the point where even those of us who’ve been following closely are going to be surprised. If I had to make one pick from the group, I’d say Triantos is the one who most firmly establishes himself as a dude.
But don’t sleep on Bain, who is going to put things together this year and will dominate at Double-A Tennessee.