Loaded Cubs farm has new director, similar vibe to past glory

March 11th, 2024

MESA, Ariz. -- For the past few years, Jason Kanzler’s world of baseball instruction was much smaller. Working for the Astros, he had moved from Minor League hitting coordinator to being on the Major League staff, helping that Houston lineup win the 2022 World Series.

When he took the gig as the Cubs' new farm director this offseason, he knew his world would grow exponentially. Getting to Spring Training in Mesa, he’s been able to immerse himself in the new culture and new personnel. And names. So many more names.

“Last year, I probably had to know maybe 30 hitters at most, a couple of other dozen through the farm,” Kanzler said. “Right now, I really need to know over 300 people, staff, players. The learning curve is steep. But we’re getting there.”

It’s not a bad problem to have, taking over this farm system, which was recently ranked by MLB Pipeline as the second-best in all of baseball. If you’re going to have to learn about a lot of players, having a lot of good ones must make it go that much more smoothly.

“It’s a good situation,” Kanzler said. “I’m a bit lucky.”

There’s a certain vibe on the Minor League side these days, one that’s reminiscent of a previous era of player development. The 2015 Cubs made it to the National League Championship Series; the 2016 edition, of course, ended the franchise's long drought with a World Series title. It was driven largely by young hitters who came up through the system, a group led by Kris Bryant, who won Rookie of the Year honors in ’15 and the NL MVP a year later, and included 2014 first-rounder Kyle Schwarber. Javier Báez established himself in 2016; Addison Russell made his lone All-Star appearance in that World Series season as well.

Now the names include Pete Crow-Armstrong (Cubs' No. 1 prospect), Owen Caissie (No. 3), Michael Busch (No. 4), Matt Shaw (No. 5) and Kevin Alcántara (No. 6), among a very deep cadre of bats making their way up. And one can’t help but think about how well things went, though Kanzler only likes the comp to an extent.

“I’ve heard that sentiment,” he said. “I think the only thing that I would want is -- yes, we want to win another World Series. But I want this club to be a perennial contender, so I don't want it to be exactly how it went almost a decade ago.”

That team did make the playoffs four years in a row, but only made it to the Fall Classic the one time. Perhaps one thing that might help Kanzler’s wishes come true is that while that last group of young talent could be found only in the lineup, this crop includes a very good blend of pitching, starting with Cade Horton (No. 2) and Jordan Wicks (No. 9), both of whom could impact the big league staff this year.

“I think the whole pitching side has done a phenomenal job of really bolstering our system internally, with the quality and the depth of the pitching talent we have in the farm,” Kanzler said.

Camp standout: Owen Caissie

Caissie might have as much raw power as just about any prospect in the game currently. And in 2023, he started getting to it more consistently, hitting 22 homers and 31 doubles with Double-A Tennessee while turning just 21 years old midseason. His .519 slugging percentage seems like just the beginning, and though some might be concerned with his 31.1 percent strikeout rate last year, he offset it with a robust 14.4 percent walk rate.

It's a mistake to read too much into Spring Training stats, but in his first longer look in front of the big league staff, the outfielder slashed .440/.517/.680 with four extra-base hits in his first 12 games. Even if you don’t want to seem like you’re playing favorites, it’s hard not to be impressed.

“I don't think any of us can ignore what he is doing in big league camp,” Kanzler said “He's definitely opening some eyes. We're all very excited for what he's doing; it’s very promising.

“It seems like he has a little bit better ability to stay on the ball, so he’s using the whole field a little bit more and he’s not as exposed to certain pitch types. The quality of work and reports that we're getting from the Major League staff has been really good to hear.”

Breakout candidate: Jefferson Rojas

When the Cubs signed Rojas at the start of the 2022 international signing period, they felt he was one of the more advanced hitters available. The young shortstop, at least in the early going, has proven those early evaluations to be on the money as he hit .303 with a .391 on-base percentage in his pro debut in the Dominican Summer League, then quickly advanced to full-season ball during his United States debut in 2023, more than holding his own as one of the youngest regulars in the league (.268/.345/.404). His combination of pitch recognition, contact skills and power potential makes him an easy one to circle as someone who could become a much better-known prospect. More than anything, he just needs more professional at-bats for him to start reaching that ceiling.

“I think it's just reps,” Kanzler said. “He is mature beyond his years. He handles himself like a pro despite how young he is. He handled the level and age discrepancy better than most do. So really, it's just letting him accumulate some time and some reps and really get comfortable in the pro game.

“He’s a special one. I think he could do some things this year and be in the conversation for a Top 100 spot.”

Something to prove: Brennen Davis

A second-round pick in 2018 out of the Arizona high school ranks, Davis quickly soared up prospect rankings, landing on MLB Pipeline preseason Top 100 lists four years in a row from 2020 through 2023. He was the 2021 Futures Game MVP and appeared on the cusp of stardom.

Since then, however, he played in only 53 games in 2022 and 71 last year, posting an OPS of just .597 in ’22 and .604 in '23. Injuries have proven to be a huge impediment as he’s dealt with a right index finger injury in 2019, a concussion in '21 and most impactfully, a back issue that required surgery to correct a nest of blood vessels pushing against a nerve and core muscle surgery in '22 and '23. Now completely off the Cubs’ Top 30 entirely, the 24-year-old outfielder needs to stay on the field more than anything else to see if he can recapture any of the momentum from his early pro career. He did go 3-for-7 with a double and home run in his first four games at big league camp this year, hopefully, a sign of things to come.

“It’s always hard when you miss time; any delay in the development process is costly,” Kanzler said. “This could be a big year for him.”