'It's an exciting time': Cubs' top prospects on display

February 27th, 2022

MESA, Ariz. -- Kevin Alcantara jogged in from the outfield and threw a few faux jabs into the sides of a Cubs staffer. Over by the batting cage, outfielder Owen Caissie remarked on shortstop Cristian Hernandez's bat choice ahead of their round of batting practice.

On the backfields of the Cubs' complex in Arizona, grounders were gloved, pitches were thrown and big swings were taken on Saturday morning. In short: things felt normal on this side of the complex. After two seasons of pandemic-related disruptions, the Minor League side is rolling again.

"It's great," Jared Banner, the Cubs vice president of player development, said. "There's a lot of young talented players on the field right now, just putting in a ton of great work every day. I know the staff's happy to be here out on the field again. It's an exciting time."

The Cubs' annual prospect minicamp is in full swing after it opened earlier this week. Around 70 non-rostered players, including more than 20 from MLB Pipeline's Top 30 Cubs prospects list, have been participating in the camp, which will run up to the official start of Minor League Spring Training.

Chicago's Cactus League opener was originally scheduled for Saturday, but the ongoing lockout and negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement mean MLB spring games will not begin until March 8 at the earliest. So instead of hosting the Dodgers at Sloan Park, the focus at the Cubs' camp was shifted down the block to four practice diamonds.

The minicamp also follows an offseason program that Chicago held for select prospects at their Arizona site. The Cubs funded housing and nutrition for many of the players who are in camp together now, while providing the resources for training together.

"It was great," Caissie said. "We trained every Monday to Friday. And it was really good bonding time, because we all got to know each other in like a friendship kind of way, not just as teammates, deepening that bond. And we also got to work, so it was really good."

That element of camaraderie comes with added importance, given the volume of prospects who have recently joined the Cubs' system. The offseason program and minicamp are full of players acquired across 2020-21 via international signings and the MLB Draft, but also through a wave of franchise-altering trades.

Caissie (No. 9 on the Cubs' Top 30 list) and infielder Reginald Preciado (No. 8) -- both acquired in the Yu Darvish trade prior to last season -- are in Mesa. The cast on hand also includes outfielders Pete Crow-Armstrong (No. 5) and Alcantara (No. 16), along with righty Caleb Kilian (No. 14), each of whom came over in blockbuster Trade Deadline deals last July.

"I've really felt comfortable, [that's] the word I would say, since I got here," Alcantara said via team translator Will Nadal. "I feel like it's been really good to come over here and show some of the new guys that I've met what I've learned from the other organization, and learn what they do here."

The Cubs' top Draft pick from 2020, shortstop Ed Howard (No. 7), along with their top choice in '21, lefty Jordan Wicks (No. 6), are among the other prospects in camp. Also on hand are the Cubs' 2021 pitcher of the year, DJ Herz (No. 13), and infielder James Triantos (No. 11), who turned heads with his production (a .970 OPS in 25 games) in the Arizona Complex League last year after being drafted in the second round.

The recent surge in prospect talent has the Cubs excited about what is happening on the Minor League front. Jed Hoyer, Chicago's president of baseball operations, is trying to strike a balance of remaining competitive in the big leagues while building what he has dubbed "the next great Cubs team" at the same time.

The addition of so many young, high-upside players is part of why Hoyer and his reorganized front office are optimistic about the organization's long-term picture. And it is easy to scan the fields right now in Mesa and see players the team can dream on.

"Our main focus," Banner said, "is to just make sure we have a specific, individualized plan in place for each guy and chase after those goals on a daily basis, and be vigilant about it."