Young arm with three average pitches. He’s a long way from Wrigley, but one to watch in 2021.
How acquired: International Free Agency 2016
When you think about Cubs pitching prospects with a legitimate chance to become a mid-rotation starter or better, Yovanny Cruz should be one to consider. Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2016 during the two year penalty window on international free agency, Cruz doesn’t receive the fanfare of bonus baby, Richard Gallardo. Don’t let the more modest signing figure ($60,000) fool you, there is a lot to like about the young righthander.
Mechanics and Control
Yovanny has a very smooth delivery. He uses his high waisted 6’1″ frame to deliver pitches around the strike zone. His high walk numbers are surprising, but he often will just miss a corner and put himself in worse counts. Another tendency is Cruz can get into the habit of relying on hitters chasing a slider instead of challenging them in the strike zone. Sequencing at the lower levels of affiliate ball isn’t concerning and should improve even as he reaches the upper levels of the minors. He can get out of whack at times, but in several instances he was able to quickly get a ground ball with his heavy sinker or a strikeout on his slider. If “it breaks”, Cruz has shown the ability to “fix it” mid-inning.
Fastball: Cruz’s velocity has increased steadily and now sits 92-96, but has peaked in the upper 90s. I haven’t seen this in game, but MLB Pipeline reports he hit 99. Unfortunately, by all accounts, it appears to be a low spin offering. Cruz is young enough that some time in the pitch lab could do wonders. The Cubs pitch design gurus can help Yovanny create more spin, especially with his solid feel for spin with his slider. Spin isn’t everything and the total movement pattern (horizontal and vertical movement) is equally important to the pitch. Another method to consider may be to have him change his fastball to include a “cut” dynamic. With Cruz’s more over the top delivery, this may play better than his current fastball.
Changeup: I like the pitch and think it plays pretty well, especially for his level. It has above-average potential, but needs far more consistency. Even just an average changeup can play if he can develop his fastball and slider into plus pitches.
Slider: It’s a good secondary pitch and probably the one closest to plus. He shows a solid feel for it and will throw it to lefties and righties. When he gets in a jam, he’ll go to his slider often to get swings an misses. Overall there’s good spin here and that’s promising for future in the development of Cruz’s repertoire.
It’s imperative to see where Yovanny Cruz is once baseball is back. Everything was trending upwards heading into 2020. He will flash three average-to-plus pitches and shows enough projection that there’s more to dream on.
I just love the pressure. Honestly, I love to perform better when it’s the big games, and it’s stressful games. And it’s being put in the situations that most people will fold. I love those.
A special thanks to Davidjohn Herz for taking the time for an interview with.
Davidjohn (also goes by DJ) Herz came into the organization in the 8th round of the 2019 draft. Unlike previous recent drafts, the Cubs placed increased emphasis upon upside at the risk of rawness and/or prior injury. Herz represented the former as clips available leading up the draft showcased projectability and a three-pitch mix that was was far more about “flashing” above-average “stuff” than repeating it on the mound. The Cubs identified Herz as an ideal pitcher to bring into the player development system with the upside as an impact pitcher who features a bulldog mentality on and off the mound.
The clip (from 2019 footage) provides an important look into progress that Davidjohn had made in the Cubs system on all three of his pitches, but they don’t tell the whole story. According to DJ (and even the Assistant GM and Vice President of Pitching, Craig Breslow), he’s made enormous progress with his pitching mechanics. “Even [Craig] Breslow came up to me one day in spring training like, ‘Did you work with a pitching coach or trainer over the offseason?” Because your mechanics are looking way better than what they did from your first season’.” Herz said during an interview with Ivy Futures.
Herz attributes the improvements in his mechanics to focusing solely on baseball after being a three-sport athlete in high school. “I played basketball. I played football at very high levels. And now I’m putting all my focus on baseball. So I think it’s really helping me a lot.” Just like countless players across baseball affiliations, the lost 2020 robbed critical player development opportunities, but count DJ among those that used his time wisely. When DJ was drafted he was a svelte 175 lbs. and reported to spring training in 2020 at 185 lbs. But now, Davidjohn is rocking at 200 lbs. after adding even more muscle. “Because fortunately, this COVID period, [it] did a lot of good things for me, which I needed. I needed to get a lot stronger, I needed to gain weight.” Herz said.
However reshaping his body is only the first step to prepare for the 2021 season. Pitch development is critical to Herz competing at the next levels. DJ’s pitch mix in 2019 featured an improving change-up, albeit one that lagged behind his fastball and breaking ball. It appears there is significant improvement in the offering during DJ’s throwing sessions. According to Herz, “One thing that I’ve also been working on the offseason is my changeup, just commanding it. It’s got very good movement. It’s just I need to get command. But it’s coming along really good. And I picked it up really quickly.”
In addition to the change-up, you can count Davidjohn among the spike-curve adopters in the Cubs organization. “We’ve been working around with the curveball in spring training, which changed it from a regular curve to a spike curve now. And we’re trying to get it [from a] 10 to 4 [shape] now, trying to get to 11-5, 12-6.” Herz said. “And that’s coming along very good. I got buddies helping me from like [Cubs pitching prospect] Chris Clarke, who’s been working on me with that.” Cubs prospect hounds will no-doubt recognize Chris Clarke’s name-dropped in there. Clarke was a fellow draftee from the 2019 draft who features an impressive curveball. MLB pipeline gives it a 65 grade on the 20-80 scale (better than a “plus” pitch) and has this to say about the offering, “Clarke’s hammer curveball ranks as the best in the system and is effective against both left-handers and right-handers with its powerful downward break.” Herz was very gracious to Clarke for his help in developing the pitch. If DJ can incorporate anywhere near the shape and action of Clarke’s curveball, it should be a plus offering.
In a clear example of burying the lede, DJ was seriously optimistic about an increase in velocity on his fastball. He posted recent video of him hitting 102 on a crow-hop/”pull-down”. Those type of exercises are used by agencies like Driveline to increase velocity. Typically velocity readings from pull-downs are 2-3 mph faster than on the mound. Due to a COVID precaution during instructs, he doesn’t know where he’s currently throwing, but in spring training, he was able to experience the fabled “pitch lab”. With the caveat that there was likely some adrenaline in play due to throwing in front of the front office, according to DJ, he’s showcasing consistent velocity. “I only got to throw [there] two times in spring training. And each time I didn’t throw a pitch under 92. And I was sitting 93-95 just in the bullpen in the lab.” Herz said. DJ went on later to provide a fastball goal for 2021, “I’m hoping by next season, I’m at 97-98.”
Perhaps what I was most struck by in my interaction with Davidjohn was his tenacious mentality and will to improve himself. Baseball is a game of many more failures before successes. The response in handling challenges helps to determine the level of player he can become. DJ outlined his goals for 2021. “For me, it’s just showing everybody that, how bad I want it. And that, and just, I mean, just going out there and doing what I do. I just love, I just love the pressure. Honestly, I love to perform better when it’s the big games and it’s stressful games. And it’s being put in the situations that most people will fold. I love those.” Herz said. “Just do what I do and focus on what I’ve been working for. And all the hard work will pay off.” Cubs fans should look forward to seeing Davidjohn Herz in the big games.
Nico Hoerner experienced a meteoric rise from surprise 2018 first-round pick (#24 overall) to the first 2018 draftee to make it to the majors a little more than a year later. A 2019 MLB debut was impressive enough, but it was even more extraordinary after Nico played a total of 89 games across four levels from 2018-2019 due to injuries. Hoerner’s debut was must-see baseball in San Diego. His 3 hits, four RBIs, and reliable defense at shortstop showcased everything fans had heard about Nico as a prospect. Hoerner slashed .282/.305/436, displaying a solid hit tool and defense while popping three homers for good measure in a valiant effort to keep the Cubs afloat in the 2019 pennant race.
Needless to say, expectations were high entering 2020, perhaps unfairly so. Hoerner garnered his share of darkhorse NL Rookie of the Year picks. The Cubs offseason brought little serious competition at the second base position. Native son Jason Kipnis provided insurance and a strong role model for Hoerner entering the year, but wasn’t an obvious candidate to start at second throughout the season. What is unclear is if it was ever the Cubs’s intention to have Nico make the opening day roster. It appears the initial plan in spring training was for the Cubs to have Hoerner spend several weeks in Iowa and be promoted when he was ready. Even Nico himself said all the right things about focusing on development rather than making the roster on opening day.
But if you’re reading this from your time in quarantine, you know the 2020 season did not go as planned. On March 12, 2020, Major League Baseball made the decision to cancel the remainder of spring training and delay the 2020 regular season. Players, fans, and organizations were left wondering what would become of the 2020 season if it occurred at all.
It took over 100 days for an announcement of baseball returning. As a byproduct of the pandemic changes, including expanded rosters, alternate sites, and no minor league baseball, it made little sense for Nico Hoerner to bide his time in South Bend. Batting 8th and playing second base, Nico started against the Milwaukee Brewers on Opening Day.
Credit David Ross for navigating the playing time for Hoerner well during the abbreviated 2020 season. From 7/24-8/6, Nico played nearly every game until a .235/.289/.265 slash and .250 wOBA (53 wRC+) forced Ross’s hand. The 23 year old second baseman sat until 8/13 to give Jason Kipnis a chance to demonstrate his best Mickey Morandini impression. Nico’s playing time took a step back, but was a consistent late inning replacement providing exceptional defense (96% percentile in outs above average; 3rd in baseball at 2B). He had a share of excellent hitting performances sprinkled throughout the season, including a 3/4 day against the Tigers on August 26th, but what became startlingly evident was that there was minimal power on display.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Nico’s 2019 debut was the three home runs he belted. He sure didn’t look the part of a scrappy slap hitter when he launched his first career home run into the centerfield bleachers, nor did he when he turned on 98 mph and drove it over the fence a few days later. But if you evaluate each home run separately a trend arises.
Home run 2: Pitcher Clay Holmes. Pitch cement mixer slider over the heart of the plate. 82.2 MPH
Home run 3: Pitcher Ryan Helsley. Pitch fastball. 97.6 MPH
Nico Hoerner can hit a fastball. He can smoke a heater. He can wake up at 4 AM (I’d never say 3 AM) and drive 97 mph cheese into the gaps. In 2019 he hit fastballs to a tune of .310/.353/.476 with an xwOBA of .374 and had only a 7.9% whiff%. In 2020, it was down a bit to .230/.281/.279 (likely due defensive positioning, but also due to a change in launch angle – see below), but still had an xwOBA of .341 and only a 7.8% whiff%. On breaking and offspeed pitches, his whiff% climbs to over 34%. Pitchers exploited that weakness, his ISO plummeted to a ghastly .037, and his K% shot up to 19%. When he did hit, they were singles.
Launch angle may also help to represent Hoerner’s decrease in production from 2019 to 2020. Launch angle is a much talked about topic within baseball circles and while it isn’t the end-all-be-all, there are positive correlations between launch angle and offensive production such as xwOBA and ISO (among many others). Take, for example, the previous two statistics xwOBA and ISO. Among all players in 2019, xwOBA and ISO, there was the following association between these metrics and launch angle.
In 2019 Nico Hoerner had a 3.9% average launch angle on batted balls. In 2020 it dropped to 0.8. The histogram below demonstrates some remarkable differences in 10 degree increments between Nico’s 2019 and 2020.
Exploring Nico’s whiff% by zone reveals more insight into his 2020 issues. In 2019, Nico didn’t whiff a single time on balls belt high in the zone, but in 2020, belt high and away (still in strike zone) rose to 12%. His overall whiff% on pitches in the zone increased in the lower strike zones. Pitches low and out of the zone gave Nico even more fits. His Whiff% on down-and-in rose to 44% and down-and-away to 65%.
His 2020 was a disappointment, but the real question going forward is “what will his 2021 look like?”. There will be some significant hurdles to overcome for Hoerner going forward. But there are serious reasons for optimism of Nico going forward.
Contact bat Nico’s bat is one that fans have been pining for for years. They now have him in the system and he plays a position of need.
Minor swing changes Even minor swing changes can unlock substantial improvements in overall offensive value. An improvement from his 0.8 launch angle in 2020 to a comparable 3.9 launch angle could do wonders for his profile.
He’s 23 It was his first “full season”. If you combine his 2019 and 2020 seasons it’s still only 68 games. There’s plenty of time to adjust.
Defense It was exceptional, which provides him a high floor as a player.
It was 2020! Even star players around the league with consistent historical recent performances had horrendous years.
You’ll forgive Nico if he has whiplash from the last several years. He’s shot around the Cubs system at breakneck speeds, oftentimes just long enough to have success before hit by an injury or promoted elsewhere. His 2019 provided a hint at his ceiling, and his 2020 demonstrated his floor. His 2021 season will go a long way toward forecasting the future of the Cubs organization at second base.
Expected weighted on base average
Factors in expected outcomes of contact using Statcast data to remove defense from the equation
Quality of contact + K + BB
Measures only extra base hits.
Weighted runs created
Attempts to quantify total offensive value and extrapolate the data into total runs. It takes park effects into account. 100 wRC+ is average.
Future plus bat at the 2B position. Could move very fast in ’21
How acquired: MLB Draft 2nd round 2019
While the Ryan Jensen selection pointed to a new draft strategy for the Cubs in 2019, the selection of Chase Strumpf in the second round immediately brought a familiar profile back to the Cubs system. Strumpf represents a safe and accomplished bat who should move quickly through the Cubs system. A three year NCAA career with a .297/.409/.507 college slash line made an immediate impression on Cubs fans following the draft.
Chase Strumpf continued to carry that strong first impression into the low minors with an excellent .292/.405/.445 line in Eugene. A brief stop (six games) and a back injury in South Bend led to a paltry .506 OPS, but expectations for 2020 remained high.
Strumpf was a limited participant in the 2020 spring training with a cast on his left (non throwing) arm and with the baseball shutdown, fall instructional league would serve as the opportunity to see him get game action. Chase Strumpf made the most of his limited time in instructs batting an absurd line of .375/.414/.792(!) with a 1.205 OPS and showing improved power. Instructs stats are courtesy of @FullCountTommy via Arizona Phil over at TCR.
Strumpf has a nice balanced swing. He utilizes a leg kick before landing in a crouch and bringing a line-drive swing through the zone. Strumpf’s head stays level through the point of contact. He’s able to drive the ball the other way. The Pac12 may not be the SEC, but it’s no slouch. Strumpf has faced impressive pitching in college. He can get beat and, in my viewing would chase on breaking balls down and in. He did sport a 20% K rate in instructs this year as well. All of these notes are normal parts of development. He’s capable of making in-atbat adjustments. There’s no glaring mechanical issues or holes in the swing that prohibit him from succeeding at the next level. I have this as an above-average hit tool and one that can continue to carry him through the minors and, ultimately, to the majors.
Strumpf can hit the ball to all fields but the majority of home run power (at the present) is from his pull side. As he gets stronger the hope is the doubles in the right-center gap morph into over-the-fence power. At instructs, he led the organization with 3 home runs, but we’ll have to see in a larger sample size at AA or higher. From 2019, I’d put it at average power, but it has above-average potential.
Unfortunately, defense doesn’t appear to be Strumpf’s strong suit. He worked at 2B (his primary position) and 3B in instructs, but the arm doesn’t lend itself to being an asset at the hot corner. It’s common for instructional league to move players around the diamond to test out versatility and expose minor leagues to concepts like shifting. I worry this is most likely below-average fielding and arm grades, but at 2B that’s still very playable. Solid defensive positioning can make up for deficiencies, especially at second base. He’s not a butcher out there and Cub fans should not have Daniel Murphy flashbacks (don’t worry that link is Cubs fan safe).
Chase Strumpf has average speed now, but if steals happen as he advances that’s likely as a product to intuition and baserunning. He has enough lateral movement playing second base to cover the position.
This is a bat first profile, but one that can comfortably slide in at second base. I’m a believer in the bat. Right now there’s above-average hit and average power, but if the power keeps advancing you could be looking at a plus hit (.280 in BA per Fangraphs) and above-average power (19-22 HRs per Fangraphs) in the middle infield. To give you a contextual example that’s a line very similar to Jonathan Villar’s for the Orioles in 2019. Hang with me because Villar put up a .274/.339/.453 line with 24 home runs and below average defensive grades good for 4.0 fWAR. That’ll certainly play and if surrounded by above average defenders at shortstop and first base, Strumpf at 2B fits right in adding another patient polished bat to the lineup.
Has all the makings of at least a future league average bat in a starting catcher
How acquired: International Free Agency 2015
Miguel Amaya is a divisive prospect in Cubs system rankings. There are some prognosticators who view Amaya as the no-doubt top prospect in the Cubs system with a future as an above-average bat and future all-star catcher. Others see a catcher putting in the work, but not breaking out like a Brennen Davis or Brailyn Marquez. It’s also fair to question how much the bat will play at the next level. And then you see this granny from Miguel Amaya and you wonder just how quick he can get a flight to Wrigley.
Baseball America listed Amaya as having the best strike zone judgment in the system. With players like Andy Weber, Chase Strumpf, and Alfonso Rivas in the Cubs organization, that is enormous praise. At this time I have it as an average hit tool. That’s about a .250-.260 hitter. With good strike zone judgement ideally leading to higher walk totals, that’s someone capable of a .340-.350 OBP.
The power department is where Amaya has made the most successful development. What I had rated as solid average power in 2019 when he blasted 11 home runs in pitcher friendly Carolina League stadiums at the age of 20, appears to be blossoming into above-average power at least. I won’t lie, this is an unfair comparison. That swing looks reminiscent to Carlos Lee. I don’t believe Amaya will ever reach that level of power, especially considering it was a different offensive environment at the time, but I think there’s real power coming.
Below image lists every catcher (minimum 220 at bats) who achieved a 100 wRC+ or better (see stats below) in 2019. It’s not a long list with roughly half the league having a catcher who was an above average offensive performer. Miguel Amaya can certainly be that. The power and strike zone judgment leads you to dream on a top 10 bat at the position with a wOBA of around .340.
Field/Arm/Work with Pitchers
By all accounts, Amaya has made consistent progress with his defense. Reports out of the alternate site suggested that Miguel worked considerably on his framing and receiving. From my 2019 video review, it’s solid, but like all young catchers could get a bit erratic at times. Of note, it’s unlikely that Cubs officials are going to pan Amaya in the press so it’s not an unbiased opinion, however he still had heaps of praise. Losing out on 140 minor league games hurt countless players inside and outside the organization, but I’m not sure Amaya is one of them (or at least not to the same extent). Miguel getting to work with advanced minor league and even major league pitchers every day will ultimately benefit him taking the next step.
I had the arm as above-average in 2019. I think it’s better than that now. In limited viewing in the Winter Leagues, Miguel is showing off what could be a plus arm.
Pitchers love throwing to Miguel Amaya. As he takes that next step to big-league catcher, commanding the respect of pitchers a decade his senior will be vital to his success. No one knows the dynamic of a pitcher-catcher relationship like someone directly involved so I’ll just leave it to Cubs pitching prospect, Jack Patterson, via Greg Huss (@OutOfTheVines) to describe Amaya’s work with pitchers.
He’s a catcher. Cubs fans have been spoiled watching Willson Contreras’s speed (albeit not his baserunning) over the years. Miguel has below average speed and I think it may tick down from there. It’s not part of his game and not tied to future projections.
With all that said, I still have Amaya as the fifth best prospect in the Cubs system. Admittedly I created that ranking prior to watching Amaya bash doubles into the gap and come rumbling around first with so much moxie that Mike Matheny tried to call all the way from Kansas City to have the opposing team throw at him. But I am also mindful that Miguel’s body type is far more Victor Caratini than Willson Contreras at this stage. I do question what the body may look like in his 26-29 years. So much of a catcher’s success behind the plate is tied to lateral mobility and I would imagine the Cubs development staff is keenly aware of the steps needed to keep him a viable and better defensive catcher
I’ll stick with my 5th best in the system ranking. Amaya is, in my opinion, a definite Top 100 prospect. He’s close to the majors and an absolute field general. The bat looks like it’s continued to improve, he works extraordinarily well with pitchers, and he’s popping off back picks to 2B with ease. The featured image in the article is from 2017 when Miguel was the youngest player on the Eugene roster. My wife and I had tickets behind home plate. It was clear then that Amaya was absolutely a take-charge catcher. I looked to my wife in the 5th inning after he blocked a pitch in the dirt and looked the runner back to third before going to the mound to calm down the pitcher (Jose Albertos) and said “that is a future major league catcher”. Fans may not have to wait long for that prognostication to be fact.
Weighted runs created
Attempts to quantify total offensive value and extrapolate the data into total runs. It takes park effects into account. 100 wRC+ is average.
Young righthander oozes projection with potential to be impressive mid-rotation starter
How acquired: MLB Draft 2018
Kohl Franklin was primed for a breakout season in 2020 with a slot in a full season rotation lined up. As a 6’4″, lean projectable righthander with three pitches he can land in the strikezone, Kohl is a dream for the Cubs Player Development staff. The Cubs have struggled to develop a significant starting pitching prospect for years, but with vast improvements in pitch design and biomechanics in the organization, Franklin becomes one of several legitimate prospects on the rise.
Mechanics and Control
Franklin is a long lanky righthander with a repeatable delivery despite a lot of moving pieces. He comes set in a balanced position and like most Cubs farmhands, Franklin has a long arm path. Kohl hides the ball well, but doesn’t incorporate a lot of deception in his pitching motion. Kyle Hendricks would be impressed with how quickly Franklin works. For a 19 year old facing recent college draftees, I was impressed with his control. He consistently works around the plate and he’ll give up some walks, but he doesn’t get mechanically out of sync as compared to his peer group. Command still a smidge behind control, but you can see the foundation for improvements in both as he matures. I’ll avoid putting a particular projection on either control/command in someone this young (especially without seeing in the past year), but both are encouraging.
Fastball: It has some zip. Even in 2019, Franklin’s fastball would be consistent low 90s with good movement. His fastball has some natural run to his “arm side” (meaning it’ll tail into right handed hitters). When Franklin is going well he’ll throw the pitch on the outside to righties and let it creep back onto the plate. That will appear like nibbling, especially in the low minors (see the control/command above), and Kohl can be guilty of it, but it’s a good use of the fastball. The most encouraging aspect of the fastball is the climbing velocity. What started out as high 80s when drafted, now tops off at mid 90s. There’s hope for even more as he continues to grow. I have this pitch as above-average right now.
Changeup: Franklin was drafted with a promising feel for a changeup. While it is still developing, his changeup is coming along. It’s a low 80s offering, with good fading action. It plays off Franklin’s natural movement on his fastball. Unlike the breaking ball, he doesn’t telegraph the pitch so it plays up with a 10 mph separation from the fastball. This is an above-average pitch with plus potential.
Curveball: Franklin can really snap a few curveballs. He’s always had a feel for spin as he was one of many pitchers the Cubs drafted from 2017-2018 who relied on a curveball as their offspeed specialty. When he got to pro ball though he’s become an adopter of the Cubs “spike curve” that they’ve incorporated into pitching repertoires throughout the organization. Especially as Kohl experiences velo gains with his fastball, the hammer curve can play off fastballs higher up in the zone. My only concern is the views from 2019 still show him “telegraphing” the pitch. The arm slot appears to be more over the top. He already throws from a high 3/4 delivery. I’ll reserve judgment on the arm slot changes as those could be different now, but it’s an average pitch at present.
Slider: There’s been talk that Franklin was working on a slider prior to the shutdown. But the progress of that is unknown.
Kohl Franklin offers the upside of a mid-rotation starter on a playoff team at present. Pitchers of this level are often the best pitcher on mediocre teams and capable of putting up consistent 2.5-3 WAR annual performances. If that at all sounds like a disappointment, it shouldn’t be. This is the level of a player that would start twice in a 7-game playoff series and you’d feel good about your chances. This current projection is based on his 2019 performances and limited video that Kohl has posted on his social media accounts. If Franklin debuts an effective slider, that could improve the overall projection. Recently, Matt Dorey, VP of Player Development for the Chicago Cubs, noted Kohl had some of the highest upside in the system. That’s enormous praise and enigmatic of the work that Franklin has exhibited during the shutdown and at instructs.