2021 Chicago Cubs Diamonds in the Rough

by Matt Wiener
2021 Chicago Cubs Diamonds in the Rough

Welcome to the fifth installment of my series 2021 Diamonds in the Rough. In this article, I will breakdown two hitting and two pitching prospects from the Chicago Cubs farm system.

Last time out, I took a look at some of the Boston Red Sox prospects.

In deep dynasty leagues, the ability to spot high-upside lower-ranked prospects before they become household names in the fantasy baseball community can make a big difference to the long-term success of your team.

To qualify as a diamond in the rough for this series, a player must be currently ranked lower than No. 15 on their team's latest MLB.com Prospect Rankings.

Check out our 2021 Fantasy Baseball Dynasty Rankings to help you dominate your leagues.

2021 Chicago Cubs Diamonds in the Rough


Jordan Nwogu, OF (#23)

Bats: R | Throws: R
Tools: 45 Hit | 55 Power | 60 Run | 45 Field | 45 Arm
Age: 21
Highest Level: College
ETA: 2023

The Cubs drafted Jordan Nwogu out of the University of Michigan in the 3rd round (88 overall) of the 2020 MLB draft.

Per Baseball America, "[a] straight-A student in high school, Nwogu had Division I offers as a defensive end/linebacker, but he opted to go to Michigan on an academic scholarship to study computer engineering and play baseball."

While Nwogu chose baseball, standing at an imposing six-foot-three and 235 pounds, he still looks like a football player. Nwogu channels his strength and physicality into solid bat speed and above-average power. Moreover, Nwogu generates incredible exit velocities, reaching as high as 110 MPH at Michigan.

During his college tenure, Nwogu compiled an impressive .334/.430/.545 slash with 20 HR, 79 RBI, 97 R, and 30 SB over 440 at-bats. Nwogu also demonstrated advanced plate discipline with a solid 62/96 walk-to-strikeout rate (BB/K).

Despite the high AVG/OBP at Michigan, many scouts have referred to Nwogu's swing as short and quick but unorthodox. However, scouts have also praised Nwogu's hand-eye coordination and athleticism in making his swing work. In addition, while Nwogu shows good patience and plate vision, he will need to improve his pitch recognition and ability to hit off-speed pitches.

Though Nwogu has plus speed and good arm strength, he struggles with reads and route efficiency, which minimizes his speed in the outfield. Nwogu primarily played LF at Michigan and the Cubs will likely look for him to settle there to mitigate his below-average defense.

The most intriguing aspect of Nwogu's fantasy profile is his above-average power/speed combination. When you consider that Nwogu racked up 20 HR and 30 SB during just 125 games at Michigan, it is easy to dream of what he can do at the major league level with more seasoning. You simply do not see players with Nwogu's size and speed come around often.

Nwogu has the potential to be fantasy gold. Despite concerns regarding his swing and defense, Nwogu has remarkably high upside thanks to his plate discipline and power/speed combination. On top of his natural talent, Nwogu is a high-character kid with an outstanding work ethic. However, Nwogu's future role may depend on whether he can solidify his hit tool and ability to hit off-speed pitches.

In any given year, only a handful of players produce 20 HR/20 SB seasons. Over time, Nwogu has a very real chance to be one of those players on a regular basis. I expect Nwogu to make a big splash and rocket up prospect rankings in his 2021 minor league debut. In the words of the great Tony Soprano, "[i]t's good to be in something from the ground floor."

Rafael Morel, SS (#29)

Bats: R | Throws: R
Tools: 50 Hit | 45 Power | 55 Run | 55 Field | 60 Arm
Age: 19
Highest Level: Dominican Summer League
ETA: 2024

After signing Dominican shortstop Christopher Morel for $800,000 in 2015, the Cubs signed his younger brother Rafael Morel for $850,000 during the 2018-2019 international signing period. The Morel brothers have athletic bloodlines, as their father was a professional basketball player in the Dominic Republic.

Though Morel has a smaller frame, standing at five-foot-11 and 165 pounds, his smooth right-handed stroke consistently generates hard contact.

During Morel's 2019 debut in the Dominican Summer League, Morel slashed an impressive .283/.373/.448 with four HR, 32 RBI, 50 RBI over 230 at-bats. In addition, Morel displayed plus speed and premier baserunning instincts, compiling 23 steals in only 60 games. Further, Morel demonstrated advanced plate discipline, with an excellent 26/38 walk-to-strikeout ratio and an above-average 9.7% walk-percentage (BB%).

Though Morel only managed four HR over 230 at-bats, he used his plus speed to rack up 25 extra-base hits, including five triples. Morel also posted a .395 wOBA, which rates near "Excellent" (the highest rating), per Fangraphs Sabermetrics Library. Moreover, Morel had an above-average 60.8% pull rate (Pull%). Each of these underlying metrics bode well for Morel's power potential and ability to develop into a run-producing force.

In the field, Morel is an athletic shortstop with a strong arm. Morel has shown plus defensive abilities and the ability to play shortstop, second, third or center field. However, some scouts project him to stay at shortstop because of his smaller frame.

Given the Cubs organizational depth, to avoid becoming a future utility player, Morel will need to develop his hit tool. However, at just 19 years old, Morel displayed excellent patience and good pop in his debut. Morel has the potential for an intriguing power-speed combination if he can solidify his hit tool and add some power by filling out his frame.

If Morel excels again in his 2021 stateside debut, he will be a quick riser on prospect lists. With only 60 games to Morel's name and a 2024 ETA, this is also very much a ground-floor situation. Keep an eye on Morel, who has the tools to be a real difference-maker in fantasy down the road.


Luke Little, LHP  (Unranked)

Bats: L | Throws: L
Tools: 70 FB | 45 CH | 55 SL | 50 CB | 45 CNTRL
Age: 20
Highest Level: College
ETA: 2023

The Cubs drafted Luke Little, a South Carolina recruit, out of San Jacinto College (Texas) in the 4th round (88 overall) of the 2020 MLB draft. Standing at a towering six-foot-eight and 225 pounds, in short, there is nothing Little about Luke.

Though many know Little for a viral video he posted in June 2020, in which he hit 105 MPH on the radar gun, Little has not always been the velocity threat he is today. In Little's first known velocity reading during his sophomore year of high school, his fastball hit just 79 MPH. The report indicated that Little struggled to wrangle his size and long arms in his mechanics and thus, his velocity suffered. During Little's senior year, his fastball sat at just 87-90 MPH.

However, after Little did not get drafted out of high school in the 2018 MLB draft, he went the JUCO route, joining San Jacinto College. Per Prep Baseball Report, at San Jacinto coaches "did a tremendous job teaching [Little] how to pitch and use his lower half down the slope. He was all arm. Once he becomes repetitious in that, his velocity jumped." By the time the Cubs drafted Little in 2020, his fastball sat at 96-98 MPH (up to 100 MPH).  Per TrackMan Baseball, Little had the fourth highest-graded fastball out of all 2020 college draftees.

Of note, per Trackman Baseball, fellow Cubs 2020 draftee and the No. 12 ranked prospect per MLB.com, Burl Carraway had the highest graded fastball out of all 2020 college draftees.

As a freshman at San Jacinto, Little compiled a neat 2.04 ERA with 69 strikeouts and 36 walks, and held opposing hitters to a measly .159 BA, over 35 innings as a starter and reliever. During his COVID-shortened sophomore year, Little posted a 2.00 ERA with a whopping 17 strikeouts and just three walks over nine innings.

Little demonstrated elite strikeout stuff in college. In college, Little averaged an eye-popping 17.58 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) as a freshman and a 17 K/9 as a junior. However, Little also displayed significant control issues, issuing 39 free passes in only 44.1 innings in college.

In addition to his fiery fastball, Little's arsenal consists of a low-80s MPH slider, an upper-70s curveball and a developing mid-80s changeup. At this point, the slider is Little's best off-speed pitch and the offering generates a high-percentage of swings and misses. According to Baseball America, "[Little] also showed a much better feel for locating his above-average 80-83 MPH slider. It has less power than may be expected, but it has solid bite, although its spin rates are not exceptional."

Little has a legendary heater and elite strikeout stuff. However, Little will need to improve his command and secondary pitches to stick in the rotation. Many scouts believe that Little is destined to for a bullpen role. As a bullpen arm, Little can max out his fastball and more quickly ascend through the minors. In addition, Little missed some time in 2019 with a back injury, which is particularly concerning given his size and emphasis on velocity.

However, it is obvious that pitchers with Little's stuff do not come around often. Whether it is in the starting rotation or the bullpen, Little's electric stuff will play. In the bullpen, Little could develop into an elite closer.  Think Aroldis Chapman, with a similar fastball-slider combination. I am interested to see how the Cubs use Little in his debut. But in either case, Little will be worth monitoring closely based on upside alone.

Yovanny Cruz, RHP  (#20)

Bats: R | Throws: R
Tools: 60 FB | 50 CH | 55 SL | 50 CNTRL
Age: 20
Highest Level: A-
ETA: 2023

After overspending during the 2015 international signing period on free agents such as Miguel Amaya, Christopher Morel (brother of Rafael), and Brailyn Marquez, the Cubs were prohibited from giving out signing bonuses more than $300,000 for the 2016 and 2017 periods.

Yet, during the 2016 international signing period, the Cubs signed Yovanny Cruz out of the Dominican Republic for just $60,000. Cruz is a lanky 6-foot-1, 190 pound right-hander with room to grow.

During his 2017 professional debut in the Dominican Summer League, Cruz compiled a 3.51 ERA and 1.14 WHIP with 54 strikeouts and 14 walks over 56.1 innings.  In 2018, he followed up his debut by posting an even better 2.57 ERA and 1.08 WHIP with 55 strikeouts and 13 walks over 49 innings.

In an injury-shortened 2019, Cruz took a step backward with an unsightly 6.46 ERA and 1.65 with 28 strikeouts and 19 walks over 23.2 innings. Further, Cruz gave up 3 HR in just 23.2 innings.  However, most concerning during 2019 was Cruz' inability to find the strike zone. Though Cruz totaled over seven walks per nine innings in 2019, he had not totaled over three walks per nine innings in either of his first two professional seasons.

Cruz possesses an electric sinking fastball that sits at 92-96 MPH and tops out at 99 MPH.  The pitch is a truly impressive offering and both misses bats and generates elite ground ball rates. In addition, Cruz has shown flashes of a plus slider with good spin and a developing changeup. Scouts have indicated that Cruz has a clean, repeatable delivery that is conducive to durability and should facilitate strike-throwing.

Over his first three professional campaigns, Cruz posted a solid 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings.  In addition, Cruz has posted a ground ball percentage (GB%) well above 55%. For reference, per Fangraphs Sabermetrics Library, the MLB league average GB% is 44% and "ground ball pitchers" generally have grounder rates over 50%.

With his dynamic sinking fastball-slider combination, Cruz has advanced pitchability for a young pitcher. If Cruz can show that his poor control in 2019 was an outlier, he will have mid-rotation potential.

Though Cruz is still a few years away from his debut, after an injury-marred 2019, I think he is on the cusp of truly breaking out.  I would not be surprised if Cruz is a consensus top 10 Cubs prospect before his debut.

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