Cubs Early Season Prospect Highlights

Matt Mervis, Arizona Fall League Fall Stars Game, November 6, 2002. Photo credit Scott Greene.

Welcome to the 2023 season, folks! We are officially playing meaningful games, with the Cubs coming out the gate playing .500 ball. This is likely still something of a transition year, but it’s an improved team that should be competitive, at minimum.

On the farm, there is reason for optimism at every level. Seriously, each affiliate is loaded with talent. Principal Park in Des Moines is going to see so many home runs, with a lineup including Matt Mervis, Brennen Davis, Nelson Velazquez, and (eventually) Alexander Canario. The pitching staff in Tennessee is dynamite, with Ben Brown, Jordan Wicks, Daniel Palencia, and Porter Hodge (among others) all toeing the rubber for the Smokies. Oh, and they also happen to have one of the best outfields in AA with Pete Crow-Armstrong and Owen Caissie making up 2/3 of that unit.

The A-ball teams are very promising, as well. If you live in South Bend, go see Kevin Alcántara while you can. He may not be there long. And in Myrtle Beach, the #7 overall pick from last year’s draft, Cade Horton, will make his professional debut, joining a team flush with international talent. It should be a very fun year up and down the system.

With Spring Training now several weeks behind us and the minor league seasons officially underway, let’s take a look at some notable spring stats and early season performances.

Pete Crow-Armstrong only received 20 PA this spring, and he managed just two hits, but one of those was a 105.1 mph bullet off a LHP on a slider up and away. It’s just a single batted ball event, but it’s notable that a 21 year old is hitting the ball this hard at all, much less in a lefty-lefty matchup on a 3-2 breaking ball. This kid can hit. He continues to show no platoon split whatsoever, coming off a 2022 season where he hit .435/.513/.667 in 80 PA against LHP.

There’s no question about his defense (see Exhibit A below). He’d be an elite major league defender in CF right now. But can he improve on the poor 4.9% BB rate he posted in A+ last year? Tennessee is an aggressive assignment, and he’ll spend the year facing almost exclusively older, more experienced pitching. Granted, that’s been the case his entire professional career so far (approximately 95% of his total PA have come against older pitchers), but more advanced pitching at the AA level may exploit some of his aggressive tendencies. That’s something to monitor in the early going.

Matt Mervis had a disappointing spring, hitting just .179/.294/.250 after struggling in a handful of at-bats during the WBC. The Cubs didn’t have much of an investment in Eric Hosmer, so I really thought Mervis would have a chance to win a job out of camp with a good spring. Hosmer didn’t have a strong spring either, but with Mervis struggling, it was an easy decision to send him to AAA to get back on track.

He’s off to a good start in Iowa, though, with two HR on the board already through Saturday’s games. We have Statcast data for the AAA level this year, and the early returns for Mervis are very encouraging. Over 20 batted ball events so far, he’s recorded a max exit velo of 112.6 mph with a 45% hard hit rate. Those are big boy numbers. He’s also recorded a minuscule 18.7% o-swing% so far. He’s going to be just fine.

Jeremiah Estrada belongs in the Cubs bullpen. I definitely understand the team wanting to maintain veteran depth, and outside of one Julian Merryweather blow-up, the bullpen has largely been fine, but Estrada really has nothing left to prove in the minors. Hitters at this level just can’t hit his fastball. He’s thrown 26 heaters so far in Iowa, and he’s carrying a 42.3% called strikes + whiffs rate (CSW%) on the pitch. For context, in the majors last year, among pitchers that threw at least 50 innings, the highest CSW% belonged to Edwin Diaz at 42.1%. I’m not saying Estrada is going to be Edwin Diaz, but he belongs in the majors.

Brody McCullough had a very impressive first outing for Myrtle Beach. He went 3.2 IP with just 1 hit, 1 BB, and 5 Ks against a talented Charleston lineup featuring 2022 Rays draftees Chandler Simpson, Xavier Isaac, and Ryan Cermak, along with 2B prospect Cooper Kinney. I think the Cubs might have something here. McCullough, an athletic 6’4 righty, was a 10th round pick last year out of Wingate where he posted cartoonish strikeout rates, and watching his first start, it’s easy to see why. Take a look at this pitch combo:

According to the broadcast, his fastball was sitting 92-93, touching 94, but it consistently showed that wicked arm-side run you see in the clip. He combined that with a sharp breaking ball and changeup. The broadcast reported his changeup at 80 mph, which would be serious velo separation from his fastball if that’s accurate.

Really impressive stuff from McCullough, who didn’t make our pre-season top 50, but also impressed in a short 7-inning sample last year. This is another arm to watch in Myrtle Beach, joining Horton, Drew Gray, Kevin Valdez, and Michael Arias as guys I’m very excited to see this year.

Valdez also pitched in this game and was impressive in his own right. He tossed 3 shutout innings with 1 hit, 3 BB, and 2 Ks, relying primarily on a heavy sinking fastball that the Charleston lineup struggled to square up. There are some live arms in this rotation. They’re going to be a ton of fun to watch this year.

Daniel is a longtime baseball fanatic, born and raised in North Carolina on a sports diet of Tar Heels basketball and Braves baseball. He has lived in the Austin area since 2006 and now resides just a few miles from the Dell Diamond where the Texas Rangers AAA affiliate Round Rock Express play their home games. He has been playing fantasy baseball for more than 20 years, and over the past 5 years has developed a potentially unhealthy relationship with dynasty baseball. His deepest league is a mostly offline 20 team contracts league with 130-man rosters, and he enters 2023 looking to defend his first league title.

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