Prospect Report: Cam Sanders

The 2018 draftee has top 10 prospect upside and is showcasing electric stuff this season

Cam Sanders via Rich Biesterfeld (@Biest22)

How acquired: MLB Draft, 12th Round, 2018

The Cubs’ 2018 draft is shaping up to be one of the most dynamic in the last two decades. Sanders had mid-90s velocity and a big curveball coming out of LSU in the 12th round. Most prospect publications thought he had high-leverage reliever upside if everything clicked, but that his control could hold him back. In fact, Sanders was most notable for being the son of former major leaguer, Scott Sanders. Cam Sanders debuted with 16 2/3 innings across the AZL and at Eugene in 2018 before a strong season in 2019 (2.94 ERA in 21 outings [20 starts] with 84 Ks in 101 innings) for then Low-A South Bend. Sanders used his time during the pandemic to his benefit. Cam Sanders garnered incredible feedback after his 2021 spring camp success. Cubs contacts were impressed with Sanders‘ improved command and ability to maintain velocity to the fifth inning (reminder this was spring camp so it was the equivalent to spring training for the major league squad).

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Mechanics and Control

Sanders starts his motion with a quick step-back before initiating his throwing motion. His windup is abbreviated and similar to his throws from the stretch albeit without the rock back initiation. He appears to gather himself well at the top of his motion. Sanders features a longer arm stroke, but one that appears to hide the ball through the arm path well. He does have a habit of falling off to the first base side (though that leads to some impressive K-struts). His mechanics showcase an athletic, fluid delivery.

Though the control has taken a significant step forward, it still can come and go. Some of this should be put within the context that this is the first professional ball Sanders has played in 18 months. His control averages out to be solid, but can flash above-average at times. His command is still a work in progress, but like his control, can also flash above-average. There are innings where Sanders can put multiple pitches where he wants them in or out of the strike zone. When he does that, hitters can do little with them.

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Pitching Arsenal

4-seam Fastball: Sanders had velocity in 2019, but it fluctuated in the 91-97 mph range. So far this season, Sanders was 96-98 mph in his first outing and 93-96 mph in his second. His third saw him hit 98 mph, but few other reports on his velocity are out there from that start. This pitch plays well up in the zone, but he’s still able to dot it on the outer half of the plate. I feel like this pitch is average right now, but needs to be better commanded. It has the potential for much more, especially when it can play of well-located curveballs.

Curveball: Sanders features a big breaking ball in his curveball. There is some impressive vertical movement where the pitch appears to start up around a hitters shoulders before dropping into the zone. This is a knee buckler at it’s best and still produces whiffs. It can be difficult to control due to it’s movement, but appears to be an above-average offering

Slider: The slider offers good movement with tight vertical break and a bit of horizontal movement off the plate to righties. This is also Sanders’ most inconsistent pitch right now. At times it will flash plus and other pitches it acts as a waste pitch. With more repetitions, the slider has the potential to be a true plus offering, playing off both his four-seam and 2-seam fastball.

2-seam fastball: The 2-seamer is where I get truly excited about Sanders’ potential. His 2-seam has excellent movement into righties and when he throws it in the top of the zone, it can absolutely eat up batters. Elevated 2-seam fastballs is a strategy employed by the Cubs at the major league level with great success. His 2-seam is a plus pitch when commanded up in the zone. Down and away it’s more above-average, but the fact that he is able to do both gives it a plus grade from me.

Changeup: I only saw a handful of changeups. But when Sanders threw them, they had good depth and solid fade away from lefties and into righties. It’d say this pitch is right now an above-average offering, but I do think it could play better down the line.

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Future Projection

Cam Sanders is on the rise. In my 2018 draft review, Sanders was majorly slept on. His report read “A guy who may surprise likely in the pen. He keeps making adjustments (that curve could be something special) as he climbs the ladder.”. Sanders is far outpacing those projections. He is showcasing 5 pitches and flashes enough command to dominate AA hitters at times. Sanders has frontline starter potential. That’s an overused term as there are very few starters in the major leagues with that level of consistent performance. His command (and as always health) will be crucial as he continues to navigate advanced AA lineups, but if it comes together consistently this summer, Cam Sanders is an arm that should be ranked comfortably within the Cubs top prospects.

Prospect Report: Michael McAvene

Former college closer turned pro starter with plus-plus fastball and above-average breaking ball is set to debut 2021 with five pitches

Michael McAvene via Rich Biesterfeld (@Biest22)

A special thanks to Michael McAvene for providing insights into the progress he’s made over the offseason

How acquired: MLB Draft, 3rd Round, 2019

Flash forward from a time before 2018, and you’d be shocked at the selection of Michael McAvene. Not only was McAvene a former Tommy John survivor, but he was a college reliever. Both demographics, which historically the Cubs to shied away from. However, McAvene has a special arm, and the time was right to take more chances to find a higher ceiling of talent. So far, Michael has made right on that chance. In the limited opportunity he’s been able to play in-game, McAvene has shown off the triple digits (plus-plus) fastball and the above-average slider. Those tools alone give him an excellent opportunity to develop as a dominant reliever. The Cubs and Michael are hoping for more, and they’re both about to see it. Michael McAvene is excited to start 2021 with a total of five pitches.

Mechanics and Control

Unlike most relievers, McAvene utilizes a windup without men on base. If he is to continue developing as a starter, using the windup should allow him to comfortably continue that in a starting role. He has a durable build, which should be capable of handling the rigors of a rotation role. The effort in the delivery is something to watch coming out of the shutdown. It was high effort with a headwhack in 2019. He utilizes a tilted delivery where he twists his body before bringing his arm through in a low 3/4 slot. The mechanics are repeatable and consistent in viewings.

When McAvene is “on”, he’ll pound the strikezone. He did an exceptional job at limiting walks in professional ball with a 5:1 K:BB ratio (small sample size of 12 2/3 innings). It’s still control over command at this point, but I like Michael’s chances for average control and average command. That will be more than enough to succeed at higher levels if he continues to build out his repertoire as planned.

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Pitching Arsenal

Fourseam Fastball: This is one of the best pitches in the entire organization. It runs in the upper 90s and touches 100, but it’s far more than just velocity. It is an explosive pitch with exceptional ride up in the zone. He often will pepper the lower part of the strikezone and I think that’s something that should be fixed. McAvene can succeed when he’s off-target. However, since he was primarily throwing two pitches in his debut if he missed both location and hitters were sitting on the pitch, it did find some barrels. The addition of other pitches will only help to improve the fastball since hitters should no longer be able to sit on it. All told, this pitch rivals any fastball in the system. This is a plus-plus pitch (one of the rare plus-plus grades in the organization).

Slider: The slider is above average. Its current iteration plays up better in more limited outings (1-2 innings), but that may change with an increased repertoire. It has good vertical movement and does have some horizontal movement away from righties (two-plane break).

Curveball: McAvene did throw some curveballs during his brief debut, but this pitch has now been morphed into a spike-curve. No grade on this pitch

Changeup: I only saw a handful of changeups. They were below average from 2019. He did use one to steal a strike. There was a velocity separation, but lacked strong “fade” seen in more developed offerings. McAvene has rarely had to throw one in college so the development of this pitch was pretty basic.

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Future Projection

The full repertoire in 2021

According to McAvene, he now has added a 2-seam fastball and a spike-curve. Additionally he’s worked to get his changeup in a “pretty good spot”. You can see the pitching infrastructure’s plan during the shutdown: use this opportunity to build out robust arsenals. McAvene joins Ryan Jensen, DJ Herz, and Riley Thompson (among many others) as a spike-curve adopter. Bryan Smith of Bleacher Nation previously noted the spike-curve and developing changeup. The Cubs are clear believers in the 2-seam, which McAvene is also now employing.

Overall report

Michael McAvene is a pitcher who began in the Cubs system with two main pitches. He now enters 2021 ready to break out five. Until we see the new pitches in-game it’s hard to judge them. The optimism is that Michael’s curve come out above-average and plays off that plus-plus fastball. Throw in an above-average slider and an average pitch between the changeup and 2-seam and the recipe is there for a legitimate starting pitching prospect. In 2021, fans should pay attention less to the amount of innings McAvene throws, but rather on the quality of his new offerings. While the pandemic robbed both fans and players of minor league baseball in 2020, there are still some encouraging development signs from Cubs prospects. Michael McAvene is ready to show off far more than his elite fastball when baseball resumes this summer.

Prospect Report: Riley Thompson

Starter with strong spin rate fastball is set to debut a new “spike-curve”. He may have more velocity in the tank and looks the part of a starter with “Vulcan changeup”.

Riley Thompson via Clinton Cole (@cdcole55)

A special thanks to Riley Thompson for providing some insight into his development

How acquired: MLB Draft, 11th Round, 2018

Riley Thompson was an above slot signing ($200k) by the Cubs in their impactful 2018 draft. His time at the University of Louisville wasn’t marked by success on the statline (6.82 ERA in 33 innings during his draft year), but the Cubs saw the foundation for a pitcher with strong pitching metrics coming from a college team known for developing successful pitchers.

Though he boasted excellent spin rates, a riding fastball, new changeup, and an excellent curveball, development never ends for a player who dreams of impacting a major league ballclub. According to Thompson, he’s working on his fastball development and incorporation of a new curveball leading into 2021.

Mechanics and Control

Thompson is an athletic pitcher who works with a quick tempo. He uses an over-the-top delivery, which at times could be described as “aggressive”. It has some effort to it including a pronounced headwhack, but it seems fairly repeatable. He comes with a prior injury history (Tommy John surgery 2015), but a solid durable frame. He has a pretty decent chance to start.

For as “aggressive” as I described Riley’s mechanics, he has average control. He’ll usually be around the strikezone, which allows his stuff to play up. Thompson’s command of his pitches lags a bit behind, but it’s more fringe-average than below average. A player with his profile could still succeed even with the command as it is, but he has a good chance to improve. When Thompson is on (like in his 9/14/19 5 inning, 10 K, no hit masterpiece in the MWL playoffs), you can see what he can do when he’s clicking with three pitches and average or above-average command

Pitching Arsenal

Fastball: Thompson will throw low-to-mid 90s with impressive raw spin numbers. The fastball generally sets up his offspeed pitches, but it can sit on it’s own when he’s commanding it well. He struggles a bit to get it on the inside corner to righthanders (where it really plays off his changeup). It’s a successful offering when he goes up in the zone. In isolation, the fastball is an average pitch with average command, but it really truly can’t be viewed in that way. I’d say it’s an above-average offering when played off his secondaries.
Riley described his improving fastball traits during shutdown. Considering he already boasted excellent raw spin, this pitch will be one to watch in 2021.

2019 Curveball: Thompson’s traditional grip curveball is still a dynamic pitch (especially when locating the fastball). It’s a true power curve with high spin, however the shape of the pitch has more horizontal movement than a 12-6 direction (mirroring the directions on a clock; pure vertical drop). A modification in shape could allow it to tunnel with a riding fastball up in the zone.

2021 Curveball: According to Riley, he’s worked hard to develop a new “spike-curve”. Spike-curves or knuckle-curves are immensely popular pitches recommended often by the Chicago Cubs Research & Development (R&D) gurus. Thompson says it has a true 12-6 shape now and plays off his new fastball traits. It takes a lot of trust in R&D and the player to move on from a plus pitch, but if the pitch is as promising as advertised then this curveball will be an electric offering.

Changeup: Riley adopted a different grip for his changeup nicknamed a “Vulcan-change”, resembling the Vulcan greeting from Star Trek. This new grip has shone to be a successful adoption with a penchant for fading into righthanders. Batters won’t live long and prosper when this pitch is clicking (I will not apologize). There’s a significant velocity deviation from the fastball. I don’t have the numbers on it, but it appears to “kill spin”. A changeup with low spin is a challenge for hitters facing high-spin pitchers like Thompson. I find it’s an above-average pitch.

Future Projection

Scouts even outside the organization believe that Riley Thompson has a chance to be a long-term starter. According to Matt Dorey, Thompson has made strong progress during the shutdown (likely related to his fastball and curveball development) and should get a chance to start at AA in 2021. If he succeeds, Riley may see innings in Iowa or even Chicago later in the season. It’s not impossible to see him moved to the pen later in the year to manage innings. Thompson represented a high-ceiling selection out of the 2018 draft. Thus far, Riley Thompson is making good on that decision.

Prospect Report: Cole Roederer

Young outfielder sells out for power more than he should. A solid year in A+ would do wonders for his future projection.

Cole Roederer via Clinton Cole (@cdcole55)

How acquired: MLB Draft 2nd round 2018

The Cubs draft class in 2018 is loaded with talent that could define the next wave of talent to make Wrigley. The class features the first draftee to make it to the majors, the top prospect in the system, and a pitcher with “some of the highest upside in the system”, but sweet-swinging Cole Roederer has as much talent as anyone in the class. Cole was a surprising selection in the draft as he was coming off an injury to his non-throwing shoulder and had a strong commitment to UCLA to play baseball. A few weeks after the Cubs inked Roederer to an above-slot, $1.2 million offer, Cole scratched “hit a home run in pro ball” off his bucket list.

Hit

Roederer has one of the purest swings in the organization. He starts in a good balanced position and brings the barrel through the zone in an efficient manner. He can go the other way and drive the ball into the gap, but in 2019 he sold out for power form his pull-side. This definitely led to more swing and miss. He sported a K% of 25% in with a Midwest League (MWL) league-average 101 wRC+ in 2019. Based on 2019 game action, it’s a below-average hit tool, but a reinvigorated effort to use an all-fields approach this offseason would help the hit tool improve as he climbs the minor league ladder. I ultimately think Cole demonstrates at least an average hit tool in 2021. The foundation is there for an above-average hit grade, but I’ll refrain from that proclamation until 2021 games start up.

Cole Roederer Spray Chart from Baseball Savant

Power

Cole has some juice in the bat, but it’s all to his pull-side at present (see spray chart above). His bad habits to sell out for power held him back from more success in the MWL, but it’s area that both Cole and the Cubs player development staff are keenly aware of. Still, you can’t discount the excellent power to rightfield. As one of the youngest players (19-year-old) in the MWL, he crushed 9 home runs, which would have been good for 33rd in the league. Above-average power is 19-22 home runs a year according to Fangraphs and I believe Roederer can get there. Cubs officials spoke about Roederer’s experience during the 2020 instructional league. While providing an updated on added strength, Cubs VP of Player Development, Matt Dorey, also added that the Cubs are working with Cole to go towards the middle of the field.

“The big thing for Cole is not selling out for power to his pull side,” Dorey said. “He hit a long home run at our big league park the other day, and he has enough power to get himself in trouble. He is making better decisions on changeups and offspeed pitches. That’s really been the focus, working more to the middle of the field. His power will happen organically and he doesn’t have to manufacture it.”

Chicago Cubs VP of Player Development Matt Dorey via Jim Callis of MLB Pipeline
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Field/Arm

Cole has such strong instincts that his skills in CF play up considerably. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him eventually land in LF, but he has the chops to stay in CF for a few years. What I have been most impressed with is Roederer’s ability to move laterally into the gaps as well as come in on a sinking liners to make the catch. Widely regarded as one of the most difficult plays, outfields coming in to catch a ball hit right at them represents a true test of his ability in the field. His arm may hold him back from being a plus defensive CF.

The arm was barely average in 2019, although I only got a handful of looks on it. The Cubs have had some success with arm-strengthening programs, so it’ll be a wait-and-see approach on final grades here. If he doesn’t make improvements, his arm strength may precipitate a move to LF down the line.

Speed

Roederer moves gracefully out in the field and on the bases. He’s picked up double-digit steals each year, but steals aren’t the most critical factor for long-term success. The speed in concert with his instincts allows Cole to play a very solid defensive CF. Like all players, this grade may drop as he adds more muscle, but he starts with a good foundation.

Ethan Hearn and Cole Roederer from Instructs by Rich Biesterfeld (@biest22)

Future Projection

Cole Roederer has been overshadowed by the success of his draft-mates, but it’d be foolish to sleep on the young outfielder. There’s a reason he was comped to Red Sox LF, Andrew Benintendi, in draft reports. He still displays the same tool-kit as the Boston outfielder. Roederer’s .224/.319/.365 may not seem overly exciting, but at the same age, Benintendi slashed a similar .276/.368/.333 line in college. The age 21 season approaching should be a strong marker for Cole’s future projection. Using improved strength and a commitment to drive the ball to all-fields, Roederer should get a chance to compete against strong competition at High-A South Bend. He has as much talent as almost anyone in the organization and the Cubs are committed to helping him put all the tools together.

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wRC+Weighted runs created plusAttempts to quantify total offensive value and extrapolate the data into total runs. It takes park effects into account. 100 wRC+ is average.See specific calculation at Fangraphs

Cubs Land Three Prospects on MLB’s Top 100 Ranking

An emerging Chicago Cubs farm system continues to gain national notoriety. Brailyn Marquez, Brennen Davis have been consensus Top 100 prospects in the majority of publications (Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic), but they are also joined with Miguel Amaya on MLB Pipeline’s ranking. Landing squarely in the middle of farm systems with three Top 100 prospects may not seem like an accomplishment, but it’s a strong statement for a system that recently was ranked near the bottom tier of organizations.

Brailyn Marquez

MLB Pipeline #60

Brailyn Marquez via Clinton Cole (@cdcole55)

Ivy Futures Rank #4: Marquez carries significant reliever risk, but lefty arms who throw over 100 mph routinely and have a chance to be a starter aren’t easy to find. Fans saw the development necessary for Brailyn to succeed during his brief callup in 2020. He needs to ensure his mechanics (especially keeping his upper and lower halves in sync) are in line to produce his best results. He is prone to getting mechanically out of whack leaving pitches drifting to his arm-side (away from righties). While that all sounds like a negative, it also offers Marquez and the Cubs staff a clear development target. Brailyn’s also working to improve his 2-seam fastball and his “spike-slider”. Marquez will likely start at AA per Chicago Cubs VP of Player Development, Matt Dorey meaning he’s only a phone call away. He will have a strong chance to log big league innings in 2021, whether in the rotation or relief.

Brennen Davis

MLB Pipeline #61
Brennen Davis via Clinton Cole (@cdcole55)

Ivy Futures Rank #1: We’re entering the stage of his development where Brennen Davis ranked at #61 feels low. He has absolute all-start potential and should be able to succeed at CF in the big leagues before moving to RF. His adjustment to full-season ball was impressive, but his success at the South Bend Alternate Site in 2020 was met with praise throughout the Cubs organization. Davis is no longer the raw, toolsy prospect he was coming out of high school as a multi-sport athlete in 2018. He now represents a top prospect who is putting it all together and should impact Wrigley Field soon.

Miguel Amaya

MLB Pipeline #89
Miguel Amaya in Eugene

Ivy Futures Rank #3: Miguel Amaya is still a defense-first catching prospect, but that shouldn’t sell him short. The bat is improving, capped off by an outstanding .261/.553(!)/.609 slash line in the Puerto Rican Winter Leagues this winter. Amaya is lauded for his work with the pitching staff and he’s more than willing to show off a plus arm. He spent all of the 2020 summer at the South Bend Alternate Site working with more experienced pitchers, including many big leaguers. This valuable opportunity should give him a leg up in his final development time before making the major leagues.

Going Forward

You may have noticed that Ivy Futures #2 prospect, Adbert Alzolay, is not represented on MLB’s Top 100 prospects. That’s unsurprising for two reasons. First, Adbert is 1 inning away from losing his rookie eligibility so some publications don’t include him at all (MLB Pipeline does, for the record). The second reason is with his age and experience in the big leagues, Alzolay is often listed after the top prospects (usually #4-5) because he doesn’t “feel” like a prospect. People are sleeping on the changes he’s made to his repertoire. The addition of his slider and 2-seamer provide legitimate upside as a MLB ready mid-rotation starter or better. Alzolay won’t be on next years list, but his ranking is irrespective of his value to the organization.

Next year the Chicago Cubs have a very strong chance to feature more than the three players in 2021. Prime breakout candidates like Ed Howard, Reginald Preciado, Kohl Franklin, Ryan Jensen, and even Cristian Hernandez and Cole Roederer have an outside shot of making the list in 2022. This doesn’t take into account the Cubs 21st overall draft pick. For reference 2020’s #22nd overall draft pick, Cade Cavalli, ranked #99 on MLB Pipeline’s ranking

The “win-now” trades supplemented the big league team and were the right mentality in a contention window, but these trades did contribute to the need for a transition period for the organization. The Cubs are starting to see the impact of the organizational philosophy changes first started in 2018, which were then implemented in full force the year after. In 2021, Cubs fans should start to hear about real growth in the farm system. The real question will be “how long until we see the success effect at Wrigley Field?”.

Prospect Report: Christopher Morel

Tooled out player with electric skills is starting to take the next steps

Chris Morel by Clinton Cole (@CDCole55)

How acquired: International Free Agency 2015

Christopher (Chris) Morel is an electric player who flashes unbelievable tools. With certain mannerisms reminiscent to Javier Baez (not comparing the two), Morel can bring fans to their feet with plays at the plate or in the field. There were positive reports of Chris’s progress at the Alternate Site in 2020. Consistency and health are the main factors holding him back from ranking higher. Strong results this year in AA might answer the question of who will be starting the majority of games for the Chicago Cubs in 2022.

Hit

Chris Morel has experimented with hand and bat placement through his pro career. Prior to his time in South Bend, Morel would lay the bat on his shoulder before bringing it through the zone. It was very unrefined. Early in 2019, Chris Morel started with his hands close to the center of his chest. As the summer moved along, he brought his hands up closer to a set hitting position. Morel has a wide stance with a lot of moving parts with his hands and leg kick. That appears to have been quieted down a bit with more experience, but it’s not a quiet swing. Quick-twitch athletes can make that work with strong, quick, hands. Morel definitely falls into that category. It’s unknown what that swing will look like in 2021, but there’s progress being made. The best way to describe approach is that Morel attacks pitches. He’s a hunter and aggressor. Sometimes that will lead to a lack of plate discipline, but he puts the ball in play and has speed to beat it out. It’s below-average hit right now based on my 2019 viewings, but I’d expect hit to sit with an average hit tool next year.

Power

It’s not the top power in the organization, but Morel can definitely flash plus raw power. He uses his line-drive swing to drive the ball to all fields, but most of his home-run power is to his pull side. The Cubs are working on that according to Chicago Cubs VP of Player Development, Matt Dorey.

There were some mechanical tweaks — staying shorter and staying through the ball — and using the big part of the field was a really big focus for him. Really driving to the right-center field gap because we knew he has a ton of power to the pull side.

Matt Dorey via Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic (subscription required and encouraged)

At present, I’d put this closer to average power, but 2021 against AA pitchers will provide context on the progress Morel has made with his swing.

Chris Morel Spray Chart (2017-2019) from Baseball Savant

Field/Arm

Chris Morel is absolutely electric. Unlike Andy Weber, who just makes all the plays look routine, Morel has some serious fun out there on the dirt. At this stage, I’d say his SS days are behind him, but at 3B or 2B, he could be very exciting. He’s more successful at 3B than anywhere else in the infield due to his strong arm. The Cubs have also discussed getting him out in CF more often.

The arm is plus as well. He’s dynamic from the 3B position. The arm has serious carry and it’d allow him to succeed in the outfield if he moves to CF.

Speed

Morel is high energy with a motor that feels like it’s missing an off-switch. When he drives a ball in the gap, he’s thinking triple. He has above-average speed which helps balls where he misses the barrel turn into infield singles.

Future Projection

Christopher Morel is your classic boom or bust prospect. He’s quick-twitch, but still refining parts of his game. The Cubs are very high on Morel and that should inspire confidence in him ironing out certain aspects of his game. This isn’t a player that you want to remove his aggressiveness since it does suit him well, but providing him the tools to improve on selective-aggression will help him thrive against more upper level pitching in AA. He’s slated to open the season in AA Tennessee alongside other exciting prospects like Brailyn Marquez and Brennen Davis.