Cubs' talented teenagers poised to keep improving

March 25th, 2022

MESA, Ariz. -- The Cubs began retooling their big league roster by trading Yu Darvish and Victor Caratini to the Padres for Zach Davies and four young position players in December 2020. Then they spent much of last year collecting more talented teenaged hitters.

Chicago signed Dominican shortstop Cristian Hernandez for $3 million in January 2021. It selected Virginia prep infielder James Triantos in the second round in July and paid him $2.1 million. When the Cubs auctioned off their free-agents-to-be late that month, they landed Pete Crow-Armstrong in the Javier Báez trade with the Mets and fellow outfielder Kevin Alcantara in the Anthony Rizzo deal with the Yankees.

SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game MVP Brennen Davis remains the organization's top position prospect, but Hernandez, Triantos, Crow-Armstrong and Alcantara slot in right behind him on MLB Pipeline's new Cubs Top 30. Next in line are outfielder Owen Caissie and third baseman/shortstop Reginald Preciado, the keys to the Darvish trade.

None of those six players are older than 19. They're going to need time to get to Wrigley Field but should be worth the wait.

The highest ceiling among them belongs to Hernandez, the lone Top 100 prospect in the group. He drew repeated physical comparisons to Alex Rodriguez and Manny Machado as an amateur and has the potential for solid or better tools across the board. After batting .285/.398/.424 with five homers and 21 steals in 47 games in his pro debut in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League, he'll make his U.S. debut this year at age 18.

"Cristian's swing looks great and his defense is impressive," Cubs farm director Jared Banner said. "A lot of what he needs is physical development. We're looking to get him stronger. We just need to give him time to develop."

Triantos, Alcantara, Caissie and Preciado all played together last summer and drove the Rookie-level Arizona Complex League's second-highest scoring offense. Alcantara is extremely athletic and graceful for a 6-foot-6 teenager, and he too could have solid or better all-around tools.

"Kevin is a shooting guard in a baseball uniform," Banner said. "He's a really impressive athlete who can run, throw, has a ton of power, shows great feel to hit. He does a great job of controlling his body and slowing the game down.

"He also has a real infectious personality. He's very funny and a great teammate. He brings great energy to the ballpark every day."

Banner was the Mets' farm director when the club selected Crow-Armstrong 20th overall in 2020, and now they're reunited with Chicago. An outstanding center fielder with good bat-to-ball skills and plus speed, he played just six games in his pro debut before tearing the labrum in his non-throwing shoulder and requiring season-ending surgery in May. He's healthy again and added some needed muscle during his layoff.

"Pete does a different thing every day to impress you," Banner said. "He's a very natural center fielder. We just need to get him out on the field. We're excited about how much he has gotten stronger. His exit velocities have gone up tremendously."

Camp standout: Kohl Franklin

The Cubs have had high hopes for Franklin since they made the Oklahoma high schooler a sixth-round pick in 2018 and he responded with a strong first full pro season in 2019. But the nephew of former All-Star closer Ryan Franklin didn't pitch in a game the last two years because of the pandemic shutdown in 2020 and oblique and minor shoulder issues last season. The first two times he faced live hitters this spring, he worked at 97-99 mph with his fastball.

"Kohl put in a lot of hard work in the last year to get his body prepared and he's seeing the fruits of that labor," Banner said. "It was a lot of hard work by Kohl and a lot of hard work by our pitching department. He's spinning the ball really well and his changeup looks good too."

Breakout potential: Pedro Ramirez

As if Chicago weren't already loaded with young middle infielders, it has another headed to the United States this summer in Ramirez. Signed for $75,000 out of Venezuela in January 2021, he batted .359/.417/.503 with 18 extra-base hits and nine steals in his 50-game debut in the DSL, topping the league with 70 hits and 98 total bases.

"Pedro is a switch-hitter with feel to hit from both sides and he can really play defense," Banner said. "When you put up numbers like that, you've got to put yourself on the radar. Second base is probably his best fit. He's an above-average runner, more hit over power right now, but he should come into more power as he gets older."

Something to prove: Ed Howard

Just the third Chicago-area product ever taken by the Cubs in the first round, Howard went four picks ahead of Crow-Armstrong in 2020. He established himself as one of the best defensive shortstops in the Minors last season but he looked overmatched at the plate at times as a 19-year-old in Single-A. He batted .225/.277/.315 in 80 games and will have to improve his plate discipline and pitch recognition.

"Ed is definitely showing signs of improvement," Banner said. "He's always been a great athlete and he's getting stronger. He's a physical specimen with exciting makeup. He withstood the storm and learned from it. I think he's ready to have a good year."