For good reason there was a lot of buzz about the Cubs 1st round pick Jordan Wicks and his South Bend Cubs debut. However, seven other draft picks made their full season debuts in 2021. Let’s break them down:
Christian Franklin OF
Drafted: 123 overall
Christian Franklin is ranked 21st on the Cubs MLB Pipeline’s Prospect Rankings and was rated 52 on the best available draft prospects also according to MLB Pipeline. He failed to make my Cubs top 25 prospect list, but he could find his way in there next year. Franklin is a toolsy type player, he has the glove (his best tool), the speed, the power, and the arm, but he struggles to make contact. For Myrtle Beach he took 65 AB’s and struck out in 23 of them, but Christian Franklin has shown an incredibly high walk rate both in college and his time in Myrtle Beach so he can still get on base often. During an interview with Lance Brozdowski, Franklin acknowledged he didn’t make contact as often as he would have liked, and there are plans to work on his swing to cut down on the strikeouts. If Christian Franklin can do that, the Cubs could have gotten a steal in the 4th round. Franklin is on my early list of guys to look out for during the 2022 season. He could make a lot of organizational lists after next year.
Liam Spence 2B/SS
Drafted: 154 overall
Liam Spence got the aggressive push to start his minor league career in South Bend where he struggled. Luckily for Spence, the system was a little thin after a COVID exposure in AA Tennessee and Spence had the chance to get some innings in at Iowa. In Iowa, granted it was a much smaller sample size, Spence seemed to rise to the occasion. In 12 AB’s in Iowa Spence had 5 base hits, a walk, a stolen base, and only struck out twice. There are a lot of things to like about Spence. He is a JUCO Bandit who transferred to Tennessee where he had a good 2021 season for the Vols. At the plate, he is a tough out. Both in the shortened 2020 Covid season and in the 2021 season Spence walked more than he struck out. Add that to his defensive flexibility (he’s already played 2B, SS, and 3B in the system), and the Cubs could have a good system type utility infielder in Spence. With his maturity, the Cubs could push him aggressively through the system, and we might even see him get most of his innings in Tennessee in 2022. Spence won’t be a guy that will be high on a lot of people’s radars, but I could see him stringing some good seasons together in the organization and become an Andy Weber type player.
Riley Martin LHP
Drafted: 184 overall
Riley Martin had one of the craziest seasons as a starter in the D-II Great Lakes Valley conference with a SO9 of 17.4, meaning he nearly averaged two strikeouts per inning. In total, Martin logged 78.2 innings in college, so he only pitched in relief in Myrtle Beach with some success. At Myrtle Beach Martin logged 14.2 innings with an ERA of 5.52, but he did have a SO9 of 12.9. I would like to see Martin continue to be stretched out as a starter. South Bend in 2022 will have a thin rotation, and even if Riley Martin can’t start right away there is a shot he does later down the road. Martin’s best pitch is his 12-6 curveball that he pairs with a good elevated fastball that can sit in the mid-90’s. Also it’s been reported he has a solid changeup, but he didn’t throw it often for Quincy in the spring or Myrtle Beach in the summer. If Martin doesn’t work out in the rotation, if the Cubs even decide to keep him there, the curveball and fastball will play well in the bullpen. You also can’t deliver a thorough scouting report without mentioning Riley Martin’s 80-grade flow. There are a lot of good things to like about Martin going into the 2022 season.
Casey Opitz C
Drafted: 244 overall
Defensively, besides a healthy Miguel Amaya, Casey Opitz is the best catcher in the system. Opitz was loved by teammates behind the plate in college, where he was an integral part of Arkansas’s team since he was recruited. The bat isn’t terrible either, but don’t expect him to hit for power. Opitz isn’t going to be a 20 home run kind of guy, but he has a good command of the strike zone and will put the ball in play. Opitz was another player who got an aggressive push to Iowa with a thinned Cubs system where he had the opportunity to catch in a couple games. He hit .250 with an OBP of .400 in his first taste of minor league ball, but he also only slugged for .268. In a full season of baseball his stats won’t be that drastic, but I don’t expect him to slug very much either. His ceiling is a backup defense first type backstop, and he could shoot through the system quickly because his defense is already that good.
Drafted: 304 overall
I watched Peter Matt play for Iowa and Myrtle beach toward the end of 2021, and while he didn’t perform well in limited action in the Cubs system, it’s hard to deny his potential power bat. After playing most of collegiate career at Penn where he only homered 4 times, Matt transferred to Duke and hit 15 dingers in 2021. Admittedly, I did not watch Matt play for Penn or Duke, but his stats tell a story in the way his approach changed at Duke. At Penn, Matt struckout less often, but his SLG was much lower than at Duke where his strikeouts were higher. Yes, Duke was a higher level of competition, so that plays a factor in his strikeout numbers increasing, but the 15 homers while slugging .566 shows a better approach geared toward putting the ball in the gap rather than just simply making contact. For the Cubs, Matt DH’d, played first, and played some RF, but for the long term I expect he transitions to 1B full time. His arm is average, and I don’t know if he has a position in the outfield other than LF as he moves through the system. Matt is another guy that could explode in the system if he can harness his power and cut down on the strikeouts.
Drafted: 424 overall
Off the field, Frankie Scalzo vaulted ahead of Peyton Remy with the best mustache in the system. On the field, Scalzo has a fastball that will sit in the 94-96 range, and a good spiked curveball. At Grand Canyon University, Scalzo closed for the Antelopes, and I would expect his future in the Cubs organization is entirely as a reliever. At Myrtle Beach, Scalzo threw 8 innings, striking out 7, walking 1 batter, giving up one run on a solo homer. The fastball curveball combo I watched when he threw for Myrtle Beach is definitely effective, and I think it’s only going to get better with the Cubs pitching infrastructure that’s shown they can produce quality relief arms. Even though Scalzo was drafted as a senior, he could still add a little bit to his frame and get another tick or two on his fastball. Eventually, Scalzo could be a high 90’s back end of the bullpen arm with a hammer curve. I’d expect him to get some time in South Bend and Tennessee next year in 2022.
Drafted: 484 overall
For the Cubs, Zach Leigh skipped Myrtle Beach entirely after a game in the ACL and made three appearances in South Bend where he pitched pretty well in limited action. In 5 innings Leigh struck out 8, walked 3, and gave up one run all in relief. However, Leigh started for the majority of his time at Texas State and didn’t put up spectacular numbers in 2021 as a senior. This caused Leigh to fall pretty far in the draft, but I like the stuff he showed during his time in South Bend. His fastball hit 98 in relief and he has an above average slider (see the video below) that got swings and misses in high-A. With his age and lack of success in college as a starter, I think Leigh will move to a full time bullpen role in the Cubs organization. Similarly to Scalzo, I think Leigh will improve a lot from the Cubs pitching infrastructure, and he could be a high 90’s bullpen arm with a plus slider. Leigh is another guy that I think will surprise a lot of people in 2022. Keep an eye out for him.
Feature photo of Liam Spence by Rich Biesterfeld (@biest22)