Cubs Sign the Most Creative Deal of the Draft with Wilson Cunningham

Wilson Cunningham after signing with the Cubs via Cunningham family

A special thanks to Wilson Cunningham for meeting with me for this interview.

Cubs draft Twitter was sent into a scramble in the 20th round of this year’s draft with those words. Another high school pitcher, but one that wasn’t on their radar. Who was this mystery pitcher? Standing 6’8″ with a very projectable frame and coming from an impressive high school, Wilson Cunningham has all the features you’d like to see from a draft pick. He also wasn’t listed on the primary draft ranking websites like Prospects Live or Baseball America. Cunningham was committed to the University of Chicago, an institution known for producing more Nobel laureates than future MLB players. The selection required a deeper dive.

Cunningham signed the most creative deal in the Chicago Cubs draft class, and after reaching out to a few contacts within the game, it’s a deal that no one could provide a similar example of seeing before. Unlike most players, Cunningham signed a contract with the Cubs, but he will be attending the University of Chicago as planned.

It was all a huge surprise, [but] a wonderful surprise…

Wilson Cunningham

Who is Wilson Cunningham?

Standing 6’8″ at 185 lbs. during his Senior year of high school, Wilson Cunningham’s frame may resemble a basketball or volleyball player rather than what one would expect on the baseball diamond, but the Cubs see untapped potential. Despite only throwing in the mid-80s with his fastball, the lanky lefthander offers no shortage of future physical projection. Cunningham is well aware he doesn’t light up the radar gun, but he is also attuned to the unique skills he brings when he steps out on the mound. “You look at the other guys in the organization or the other Draftees [interms of velocity]. I’m a little behind the curve there, but I think what I have going for me is my height [and my] left-handedness,” Cunningham said. “So, right now, as a pitcher, I’m really comfortable with my fastball. I’ve heard players on my team when we do intersquads say ‘hey, you hide the ball really well, or it’s really tough to hit off you even though you’re not throwing as hard as everyone.’ And I think, maybe, just maybe, releasing closer to the plate might help with that, just [using] my long frame. My fastball has tons of natural sink. It’s definitely not a true four-seam. It kind of runs towards the end of the bats and induces a lot of soft contact, which is really great.” 

Wilson Cunningham on the mound via Cunningham family

Though he didn’t discuss the concept by name, his long frame allowing him to release the ball much closer to the plate is an intriguing attribute. That concept is known as a pitcher’s extension. The Cubs organization is known to favor pitchers with a long extension and higher “perceived velocity” (the ball appears to be traveling faster to a hitter than it is). But Cunningham also fits the Cubs’ recent development model of targeting players who can make significant gains with proper instruction. After investing heavily in the Performance Science and High-Performance departments, the Cubs have another ideal player to build physically from the ground up. After speaking with Cunningham, he confirmed that he’s made significant strength and weight gains. He now sits over 200 lbs., with plenty of projectability remaining.

What is far more difficult to teach is a player’s intelligence and mentality. Though I can’t speak to the specifics about Cunningham’s demeanor on the mound, it shouldn’t come as a shock that the University of Chicago-bound student boasts a curious mind and a keen ability to understand the intricacies of advanced mathematics. The lefthander’s major as he enters his university years? Applied mathematics with a focus on economics. I would bet concepts such as spin rate, spin axis, induced vertical break, and tunneling won’t be too difficult to pick up. 

The Deal Coming Together

The Chicago Cubs’ scouting departments leave no stone unturned and have a very collaborative process in building their draft plans. There may not be a better example of incorporating both aspects into results than the selection of Wilson Cunningham. According to Cunningham, this process came together near the end of the draft cycle.

“About two and a half weeks before the draft, my dad actually got a call from the area scout (Evan Kauffman). He called me and said, ‘Hey, nice to meet you. I’ll be sending you an email. Just fill out [a draft prospect questionaire], and if there is a time, we can Zoom with your whole family later this week. And so that was a Monday, I believe, and then we set up the zoom for [that] Thursday,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham’s Zoom invite brought in high-level executives within the Cubs Scouting department, including VP of Scouting Dan Kantrovitz. But despite a very positive meeting, Cunningham didn’t leave the session feeling confident it would happen. “I honestly didn’t think I was going to get drafted. I thought that they were just getting to know me; maybe they keep tabs on me while I’m at school and kind of check up on me in a couple of years to see how I’m doing, baseball-wise. But they mentioned the plan a little bit about doing both, going to school, playing for the Cubs, [though] it was pretty vague on the logistics,” Cunningham said.

The Cunningham family already were planning to be in Chicago the week of the MLB Draft on a campus tour, and so the Cubs planned a tentative meetup at Wrigley Field on Sunday (the first day of the draft) if time would allow. 

 As it turned out, the scouting team was able to schedule the time. “A week later, we go to Chicago, and we’re at Wrigley. And, the day before Evan [Kauffman] texted me and said, ‘Yeah, you’re good to go. We can meet with you,'” Cunningham said. 

After being escorted by Scott Munson and Ben Kullavanijaya (Coordinator and Assistant in Amateur Scouting) up to the offices to meet Evan Kauffman, the Cubs brought in the real heavy hitters within the Cubs organization. If there was any question about how interested the Chicago Cubs were in Wilson Cunningham, it was quickly answered when both Kantrovitz and Cubs Assistant General Manager/Vice President, Pitching, Craig Breslow met with the Cunningham family. Without any time to lose on the morning of the MLB draft’s first day, the Cubs laid it out to Wilson and his parents. “They talked more about the plan and they said ‘Hey we’re really considering drafting you. They just went over the whole plan again and talked more [about the] details and everything,” Cunningham continued. After reaffirming his interest in pursuing baseball professionally, the Cubs told him to keep his phone on him on Tuesday, day three of the draft. 

The Waiting Game

As Wilson Cunningham and his family prepared for a life-changing day, he toured the University of Chicago campus trying to hold back nerves. According to Cunningham, “It’s Tuesday, and we’re actually on the University of Chicago campus touring the school as I had never seen it with COVID and everything. So [my family is] there, and we’re all on our phones on the draft tracker refreshing. I don’t know if I get drafted at all, or if it’s 10th, 12th, 15th, or 20th round. We just left the tour because we couldn’t handle it. We were super excited and angsty and everything. So we waited.” After what must have felt like an eternity, Cunningham finally was contacted by Evan Kauffman. “We sat down in this little café, and I got a call from Evan. I’m like, oh my gosh, oh my gosh, this is it. It was around the 15th round. And then he said, ‘Hey Wilson. We’re just making sure that you’re really seriously considering this course,'” Cunningham said.

His parents thought Wilson had been drafted there but to no avail. Time ticked by, and countless refreshes of the draft tracker later, Wilson Cunningham finally saw his name pop up as the 20th Round selection of the Chicago Cubs.

“The big day” via Cunningham family

Next Steps

The complexities of this signing meant that all the respective ducks needed to be in a row. The Cubs worked tirelessly behind the scenes and were in communication with the Cunninghams. First and foremost, the family wanted to make sure that Wilson could continue to attend school and have that school paid for by the Chicago Cubs as promised. 

It is common practice for Major League organizations to offer signed players funds to pursue college education if the player retires. What is truly unique about this deal is that the Cubs pursued language that would specifically allow Cunningham to tap into those resources immediately rather than within two years after a player retires. 

“College Scholarship Plan (CSP) or Continuing Education Program (CEP) funds to help you attend an institution that offers training for personal and professional development. A CSP provision would allow you to attend a university or college, provided your studies are in pursuit of an undergraduate degree.”

With such a special deal, an even more personalized training regimen was required. According to Cunningham, he is off to the University of Chicago to begin fall classes this September through the end of the academic year (in June). However, he will still dedicate time to his baseball activities. “I will be at school full-time student at school, and I’ll be training remotely with the Cubs. It does also helps to be in Chicago with the staff there. I’ll be on the lifting [and] throwing program. I’ll be checking in with people,” Cunningham said. “Then over spring break and over the summers (and maybe even some long weekends here and there), I’ll be in Arizona with the ACL Cubs as a full-time baseball player.”

The Cubs didn’t enter the 2021 Draft with the most bonus pool money or draft selections, but they worked behind the scenes to bring in an amazing group of players. To accomplish this, they had to be creative in their bonus pool allocations and explore unique avenues to bring in projectable players, like Wilson Cunningham. 

Wilson Cunningham would like to thank his family, friends, and his coaches, Glenn Zielinski, Brett Kay, and Blake Hawksworth, for helping him prepare for a future in baseball and in his studies. He would also like to thank Cubs officials Evan Kauffman, Dan Kantrovitz, and Craig Breslow for making sure that the deal was a win-win [for himself and the organization]. Most importantly he’d attribute this whole situation to God.

Who Should Represent the Cubs in the Arizona Fall League?

Chris Clarke from Rich Biesterfeld (@biest22)

After nearly two years, the Arizona Fall League is finally back. This annual event served as a prospect proving ground where organizations could send their upper level prospects to face off against higher level competition. According to the AZ Fall League, the majority of all participants in the league make the majors, which is a remarkable statistic. This fall, the Cubs will send six representatives to team up with Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles (Angels), and Oakland farmhands to field the Mesa Solar Sox.

Historically, organizations sent only players in the AA or higher levels, but with the following changes made in 2019 (see below) the options for who a team can send are nearly infinite.

Beginning with the 2019 season, any player under contract with a Major League organization will be eligible for nomination for the Fall League. Previously, all Triple-A and Double-A players were eligible, so long as they were in Double-A by at least Aug. 1. Clubs could also nominate one player below the Double-A level (as the Cubs did with Nico Hoerner in 2018) and one foreign player from a country that doesn’t have a winter-ball circuit. Also, no players with more than one year of Major League service time could participate.

Now, all that is gone, which could lead to some fascinating Fall League rosters. Clubs could, in theory, send multiple Major Leaguers who need more development time or, at the other end of the spectrum, load their AFL contingent with younger players who they want to get experience against advanced competition. MLB added that this particular change will be evaluated again after the 2019 AFL season, so if rosters get too crazy, the change might not be around for long.

Sam Dykstra in 2019

Picking the Cubs 2021 Reps

In identifying players below I tried to be realistic in innings totals for the year. Privately, the Cubs have noted a goal of approximately 100 innings for many of the Cubs minor league starters so this rules out many of the starters who have pitched since the beginning of the season. Names like Max Bain and Cam Sanders likely would not have the room to add more innings while staying under the limit. Other pitchers like DJ Herz, Richard Gallardo, and Tyler Schalffer are likely a year away from this level.

On the hitting side, expect a mix of positions since these teams do need to field a full roster. Each organization can send six participants and the AZ Fall League is a great time to emphasize versatility. The final consideration is that the AZ Fall League can serve as 40-man roster tryout prior to the Rule 5 draft. Todd Johnson provided a great breakdown of 40 man roster considerations.

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Pitchers

  1. Chris Clarke: The 6’7″ righthander has looked solid in his return form a lingering hip injury. He has been making up for lost time, but at the time of this article only has 40 2/3 innings. Clarke should be a fast-mover in 2022 and likely will start at AA or higher. He has used a starter’s arsenal to succeed at South Bend (4.30 ERA with 41 Ks in 40 2/3 innings). Clarke is already 23 years old so debuting at AA at 24 isn’t a concern, but it would be advantageous to let him compete against upper level players this fall.
  2. Jordan Wicks: Once Wicks made his debut, this pick became much more realistic. The Cubs 2021 first-round pick logged 92 1/3 innings for Kansas State prior to the draft and was widely regarded as one of the most advanced pitchers selected. There are some that feel that Wicks should start at AA next season in a similar manner to Los Angeles Angels LHP, Reid Detmers, who was the top college lefty in the 2020 draft. Even if Wicks only pitches in shorter outings, he should have the opportunity to try his hand against competition that will likely be in the A+/AA range of talent. Out of all the selections, this feels the least likely.
  3. Dakota Chalmers: The Cubs claimed the righthander with a killer fastball/curveball combo from Oakland in June. The former Dan Kantrovitz draft pick has had a mixed bag this season and sits with a 6.55 ERA, but he has had flashes of brilliance. Chalmers is eligible for the Rule 5 draft if not added to the 40-man roster. With that fastball-curveball combination it wouldn’t be in his best interest to give up on starting, but it would be ideal for him to at least get a run as a reliever in AZ to finish out the season.

Other pitchers to consider: Ryan Jensen, Danis Correa, Gabriel Jaramillo, Ethan Roberts, Michael McAvene, Brandon Hughes, Brian Hudson

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Hitters

  1. Brennen Davis: After missing the first month of the season following a concussion suffered late in Spring Camp, Brennen Davis has absolutely scorched the ball to a tune of .284/.387/.507 in 79 combined games between A+ and AA. His K% is still high at 29.6%, but that number has decreased in the last month. Davis is not far from making his Wrigley debut and the AZ Fall League makes complete sense to give some additional reps and face off against high level competition.
  2. Chase Strumpf: Strumpf mashed during instructional league last year. He continued that trend into 2021 with a solid start at South Bend, but his .211/.335/.380 line at AA leaves much to be desired. Instructional league is not a viable option to grade how well Strumpf if progressing. He has battled injuries, but has started to turn it around before being put on the 7-day IL following a COVID outbreak at AA. If healthy, Strumpf should get a chance to play all over the diamond for the Solar Sox.
  3. Casey Opitz: Already regarded as having a major-league caliber glove and demeanor at C, Opitz should be a quick mover through the minor leagues. He is a strong bet to spend time in AA in 2022. Every team needs catching and I’d bet the Mesa Solar Sox pitchers would be lining up to throw to Optiz. The 2021 draftee is currently slashing .300/.382/.334 in limited at-bats.

Other hitters to consider: Nelson Velasquez, Andy Weber, Chris Morel

What do you think?

Rosters are set to come out soon. Who do you think will suit up as the Chicago Cubs’ representatives on the Mesa Solar Sox. Games begin October 13th!

Three Possible Paths to Walk: The Cubs and Ian Happ are at a Crossroads

Ian Happ by Rich Biesterfeld (@Biest22)

Ian Happ is a lightning rod for discourse on Cubs Twitter. The 27-year-old has always been a polarizing prospect. After being drafted 9th out of the University of Cincinnati, Happ endured emotional turmoils but still managed to produce a .272/.362/.452 (131 wRC+; 31% above league-average production) with a 22.7 K% across two minor league seasons before entering the 2017 season ranked as MLB Pipeline’s 28th overall prospect. Despite the on-field success, publications frequently mentioned Happ as a trade chip ($) for a team in the middle of its contention window. 

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Happ wasn’t traded and, instead, served as an offensive catalyst for the 2017 club by slashing .253/.328/.514 with 24 home runs and a 1.9 fWAR. His 31.2% strikeout rate was concerning, but optimists viewed that as an area he could improve with more major league reps. He entered 2018 as the leadoff hitter, but it wasn’t long before those strikeouts only intensified (36.1% in 2018). In a surprise move, the Cubs demoted Happ during the 2019 spring training. He slowly made improvements. Over 387 plate appearances in 2019 and 2020, Happ fully realized his potential. His .260/.350/.530 slash line with a manageable 26.4 K% and outstanding 130 wRC+ landed the centerfielder squarely in the Cubs’ plans. The Cubs had found their future centerfielder and leadoff man.

Now that future role is uncertain at best. From the start of the 2021 season to July 25th, Happ produced a ghastly .175/.286/.315 slash line with a .272 weighted OBA and 69 wRC+. He, surprisingly, cut down on his strikeouts (28.4%), but Happ was a man caught in between. And his platoon splits only intensified (51 wRC+ against LHP) for the switch hitter across that period prompting calls for Happ to give up switch-hitting. At that point, moving on from the 27-year-old appeared to be the obvious choice. Since July 26th (exactly one month ago), Happ caught fire. 

Happ is producing, including last night’s game-tying home run. Happ’s last month is a quality .258/.343/.516 line with an outstanding 130 wRC+. His strikeout rate is back up to 34.3%. His production is remarkably similar to (and in some ways better than) his career numbers before 2021 (.248/.344/.481 with a 31.5 K% and 116 wRC+).

The choice becomes much more complicated, and it appears the Cubs are left with three options:

  1. Hold on to Happ for 2022
  2. DFA Happ
  3. Trade Happ this offseason

Let’s explore each of these options below

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Retain Ian Happ for 2022

Ian Happ is polarizing. For as many fans ready to move on, a large contingent views the young outfielder as a player worthy of one more chance. Fans point to the career 109 wRC+ and his breakout 2019 and 2020 numbers. Still more see the impact that Happ brings to the community. Others view 2022 as a transition year and would hate to sell low on a player who could bring far more value on the field or in a trade if he were to rebound. While his offensive production slipped during the bulk of 2021, Happ still has believers.

Designate Ian Happ for assignment

Regardless of Happ’s production, his offensive profile leaves many fans with a sour taste in their mouths. There is a large contingent of the fanbase who are willing to move on from the outfielder. They view the last month as nothing more than a hot streak in a small sample size. He is striking out as much as he ever has, and his overall season numbers still leave nothing to be desired. Due to Rafael Ortega’s emergence, Happ is playing more in the outfield corners than centerfield. In this group of opinions, it’s hard to see the Cubs bringing anything back in a trade, so why should the Cubs give Happ playing time at the expense of another player who could be a long-term answer in the outfield.

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Trade Ian Happ this offseason

The last camp is the most divisive, which is to continue to play him, hoping that you could trade him this offseason. I won’t pretend that trading Happ (even with a solid finish to the 2021 season) brings back impact players. But is it possible to both maximize playing time for hopeful future contributors like Ortega, Hermosillo, and Wisdom by moving Happ around the diamond while also agreeing he doesn’t fit the organization’s future plans? I would argue that it is, and Happ can bring back talent to the organization via trade. It may seem farfetched, but the Red Sox faced a similar conundrum with Andrew Benintendi the last offseason. 

Benintendi was widely rumored to be near the top of the Cubs draft wish list in 2015. However, the Red Sox nabbed Benintendi two picks ahead of the Cubs before selecting Ian Happ out of Cincinnati. Despite a 4.4 fWAR 2018 season, Benintendi only produced a .260/.307/.410 line for a 94 wRC+ in his major league career before last offseason’s trade. Injuries certainly contributed to his downturn, but Benintendi didn’t show offensive power or defense in centerfield. With rising salaries due to the arbitration process and two years of control remaining, the Red Sox fielded offers and found teams were willing to gamble on a former top-10 overall pick. 

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In a complicated 3-team trade with the Royals and the Mets, the Red Sox traded Benintendi and received five players back: Franchy CorderoJosh Winckowski (Mets), Freddy Valdez (Mets), Luis De La Rosa, and Grant Gambrell (Royals). Cordero didn’t work out for the Red Sox. Still, according to MLB Pipeline, Winckowski slots in as the 19th best prospect in Boston’s system. Both Valdez and De La Rosa are young players having success in the Florida Complex League. The Red Sox turned Benintendi into a Top 20 system prospect and a handful of lottery tickets.

Where do you land? 

Improving an Imperfect MLB Draft: Part 1

I’ve gone on record that my favorite day of the year is the first day of the MLB Draft. While my wife doesn’t like to hear such talk around the holidays, I stand behind it. Since 2001 (the Mark Prior draft), I’ve followed the draft and have done so passionately for over a decade. But the current system is inherently flawed and it significantly affects amateur players, major league organizations, and the game itself. For a review of how the draft operates, see the Chicago Cubs MLB Primer. While it is geared towards the Cubs 2021 draft, it covers the background of the current system. In Part 1/3, I’ll tackle one improvement that MLB should explore in future drafts.

An Incentive to Lose

Players play to win the game. Fans watch games to see their team try to win a ballgame. Unfortunately, once a team is no longer in playoff contention, the current system encourages teams to lose every game the rest of the year to improve draft position. In paraphrasing Ricky Bobby’s enigmatic character, If you ain’t [in] first, you’re [better off in] last. The system pays to tank. Not only are teams awarded higher picks, but the bonus pool system described above also provides extra overage flexibility. The Chicago Cubs are prime examples of using this tanking method. From 2012-2015, the Cubs picked 6th, 2nd, 4th, and 9th while bringing in Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Ian Happ. All four players contributed to playoff teams.

And with a more recent perspective, the draft that exists in its current form incentivizes teams to lose big. Four teams project to lose 100 or more games (Orioles, Diamondbacks, Rangers, and Pirates) and nine teams projected to lose 90 or more. From 2005-2011 there was not a single year where nine or more teams lost 90+ in a season. It’s always possible that this year is an aberration, but tanking is rampant and makes baseball unwatchable after July.

A Possible Path Forward: the Draft Lottery

The Premise: Teams try to win 

Truly remarkable, I know. But right now, can you blame organizations for hoping to lose games once they know they won’t be in playoff contention? There’s almost nothing worse for an organization consistently failing to make the playoffs while picking 14-17th in the draft. To change that, teams need to have incentives to try to win. The way to do that is to provide an opportunity to secure a higher first-round pick to teams that win. Enter the MLB Draft Lottery.

Leagues like the NBA, WNBA, and NHL use a lottery to dissuade tanking, but (in my opinion), their method is flawed. Teams that lose more have better odds of receiving a top pick. While it prevents teams from guaranteeing a top pick, it still increases the probability that they’ll receive one. So let’s change that. Run a draft lottery with reverse odds for all non-playoff teams. Non-playoff teams that win the most games have the highest odds of securing a top-four pick.

The following scenario presumes a few things. First, playoffs are expanded in the new CBA. I selected a total of 16 playoff teams to run the scenario, though I am not personally a fan of that high a number. Second, I’m not including any teams who failed to sign their first-round pick in 2021 for clarity’s sake. Three, I only evaluated the 14 teams with the worst records. I did not project who would finish in 1st/2nd in a division or how MLB would run an expanded playoffs.

Reverse Standings as of 8/21/21

  1. BAL
  2. ARZ
  3. TEX
  4. PIT
  5. MIA
  6. CHC
  7. MIN
  8. WSN
  9. KCR
  10. COL
  11. DET
  12. CLE
  13. NYM
  14. LAA

 Respective odds of winning #1 pick

  • LAA: 14%
  • NYM: 14%
  • CLE: 14%
  • DET: 12%
  • COL: 10%
  • KCR: 9%
  • WSN: 8%
  • MIN: 6%
  • CHC: 5%
  • MIA: 3%
  • PIT: 1.5%
  • TEX: 1.5%
  • ARZ: 1%
  • BAL: 1%

A team’s odds of securing a top 4 pick are in reverse order of standings of all non-playoff teams. The rest of the draft plays out in normal order. For example, if the Angels and Indians finish with 86 wins and 84 wins, respectively, missing the playoffs, they would have the best odds (14% each) of the top pick. Odds decrease with a worse record. The Orioles and D-Backs would only have a 1% each of winning the top pick. In the hypothetical, Los Angeles (Angels), Cleveland, Kansas City, and Miami all miss playoffs and receive picks 1-4 in the draft via lottery. The Orioles, D-Backs, and Pirates finish with the three worst records.

The hypothetical Top 14 in the 2022 Draft would be the following (based on records as of August 21, 2021):

  1. LAA
  2. CLE
  3. KCR
  4. MIA
  5. BAL
  6. ARZ
  7. TEX
  8. PIT
  9. CHC
  10. MIN
  11. WSN
  12. COL
  13. DET
  14. NYM

Wrap up

The incentive is there to compete. Instead of teams hoping to lose, every single game matters. Competitive games are played until the last game of the season. And fans and front offices no longer have to hope for losses in secret. However, teams that are just overmatched (like BAL and ARZ) aren’t buried, but there is a big difference between the fifth pick and the first overall pick. Now the calculation is how can teams buy more even in a losing season.

A lottery adds excitement and intrigue to the draft and it can help to improve tanking, but it is far from the only measure needed to address competitive balance and improve situations for players and teams. Future parts of this series will address bonus pools and market size of clubs.

Quick Thoughts on MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 Cubs Ranking

Brennen Davis via Clinton Cole (@cdcole55)

Note: It appears that MLB Pipeline has dropped their latest Chicago Cubs Top 30 prospect rankings. With no official announcement, it is possible that the list is in process, but as of now it appears ready to be officially released.

Publications like Baseball America have been around for decades. Others like Prospects Live are on the rise. But when it comes to prospect rankings, none are shared as widely as MLB Pipeline. As the official ranking of Major League Baseball and a free resource, Pipeline’s prospect rankings have become the de facto reference point for prospects.

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Top of the List

  • Brennen Davis: The outfielder was just ranked 14th overall as a prospect by MLB continuing his ascendancy to elite prospect.
  • Brailyn Marquez: after battling COVID and then a shoulder injury that has kept him from pitching in affiliates baseball, Marquez lands at 95th overall and second in the Cubs system. It’s hard to remember that Marquez still has upper level potential
  • Cristian Hernandez: Pipeline is betting on upside with Hernandez. He has elite upside, but he won’t make his stateside debut until next year at the earliest.
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Prospect Debuts

  • Jordan Wicks: The 2021 first round pick of the Cubs lands at 6th in the system. Per MLB, “His fastball has gained about 5 mph since high school and he now operates at 91-94 mph and reaches 97 with high spin rates and good carry up in the strike zone.”
  • James Triantos: Readers of this website know all about Triantos, who sported elite contact rates in the showcase circuit before he was drafted in the second round. Triantos was drafted as a third baseman and likely ends up at the hot corner. He ranks 11th in a deep Cubs system
  • Christian Franklin: A big upside selection in the 4th round, the Cubs believe Franklin is a “plus CF”. He has high strikeout rates, but offers incredible value at that stage in the draft. Jim Callis viewed him as a second round pick. He ranks 22.
  • Pablo Aliendo: a surprise selection in the Top 30, Aliendo gets rave reviews for his work with pitchers. He shows energy behind the plate and could be a solid future catcher. Aliendo slides in at 29th in the Cubs system.
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Other Takeaways

  • The Cubs had five shortstops ranked in the Top 30: Hernandez, Howard, Preciado, Triantos, and Made. You can’t have too many shortstops.
  • I wouldn’t put too much stock in Pipeline ranking Howard ahead of Made, who is having more success at the same level as a younger player. Many evaluators are willing to give Howard a mulligan after not playing in almost two years and jumping straight to Myrtle Beach. Made’s improvements are impressive by themselves.
  • DJ Herz (12th) and Caleb Kilian are fascinating back-to-back ranked players. They are very different pitchers, but both having big success this season. Herz, in particular, is proof the Cubs can develop pitching. Kilian may make his MLB debut in 2022.
  • There are countless ways that evaluators can rank the players in the Cubs system, but more than anything this is a very balanced list. This is a system on the rise.

“You can’t have too many outfielders?”: Alexander Canario

Alexander Canario via Todd Johnson (@CubsCentral08)

Prelude: The Chicago Cubs charted their course. While that is without their on-field captain and rough seas lie ahead at the major league level in the near term, the organization brought in a host of players that one can dream of impacting the next great Cubs team. It’s become a saying that “you can’t have too many shortstops”; it’s less common to say that about outfielders. After compiling perhaps the deepest crops of shortstop prospects in organizational history, the Cubs dramatically filled out their outfield pipeline by adding Greg Deichmann (not listed below), Kevin Alcantara, Pete Crow-Armstrong, and Alexander Canario at the deadline. I’ll examine each of these players in the series.

Part 1: Kevin Alcantara

Part 2: Alexander Canario

Part 3: Pete Crow-Armstrong

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Alexander Canario

The 21-year-old outfielder has been lighting the world on fire since he was traded to the Cubs and immediately promoted to Hi-A South Bend. In 14 games since the trade, Canario is showcasing well above-average power, but also above-average K%. He’s slashing .259/.306/.517 with 4 home runs and has a .359 wOBA. His K% sits at 29.0% with a walk rate of 6.5%. The eye test matches the stats with Canario struggling against breaking balls and demolishing mistake pitches. While that may dampen your excitement, the 21-year-old is getting his first chance of prolonged playing time post COVID and having success. Like Alcantara, Canario incorporates high-level tools, albeit more related to overwhelming power carrying the projection. He also will take patience and a lot of hard work with the Cubs hitting infrastructure, but the payoff could well be worth it.

In the write-up of the trade, I had this to say:

Canario is a huge upside prospect with a very high variance. He has impressive power that is generated from incredible bat speed. Canario represents a player that is a good test for the Cubs hitting infrastructure. He did take some time to adjust in the early going of the season (hardly an uncommon sentiment in a post COVID season) and since June 2nd, Canario has put up a .265/.340/.482 line with a 112 wRC+ and 26.6 K%/10.2 BB%.

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Mechanics: Canario holds his hands above his head and uses a very small leg kick that provides balance and weight transfer. He starts from an open stance. His head stays very stable through the point of contact. He appears to generate significant force through the zone.

His swing and scouting report is very similar to Teoscar Hernández of the Toronto Blue Jays.

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Future projection: Canario has loud power, but the K% stands as an area for improvement. It’s uncommon for hitters to consistently strikeout approximately 30% with low walk totals and immediately produce at the big-league level. He is a long way from Wrigley and there is a high degree of risk in his profile, but Canario has the potential to eventually produce above-average production. Continuing the comparison to Teoscar Hernández, his line in the minors and majors produced the following:

Teoscar Hernández via Fangraphs
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That 2014 season for Teoscar Hernández is remarkably similar to Canario (update: apparently his agent agrees; see tweet above). Hernández entered the 2015 season ranked as the #9 prospect in the Houston system by both MLB Pipeline and Baseball America. As you can also see, it has taken Hernández a few years to adjust to major league pitching. He’s currently experiencing a breakout for the Blue Jays. Hernández offers a glimpse at a possible offensive ceiling for Canario, but reaching that ceiling will require significant progress in the next few seasons. Like Alcantara, Canario is another exciting prospect, but the risk in his profile is just one of the reasons “you can’t have too many outfielders”.