Scouting the Cubs Return for Yu Darvish

In roughly 24 hours, the San Diego Padres traded away a total of six players who, were they dropped into the amateur draft tomorrow, would come off the board somewhere in the top 50 picks. It’s the kind of talent few orgs have in their systems at all, never mind in such excess that they can ship it away without totally nuking the farm. Rumors that the Padres were in pursuit of Yu Darvish spread through the industry a few days before Christmas, but it’s taken years of focused rebuilding through the draft, international signings, and trades for pro prospects, and the GM himself sometimes roaming the backfields looking at raw, young players, to build toward a week like the one the Padres and their fans have had. On Monday, the rumors became an in-principle agreement to swap Darvish and C/1B Victor Caratini for several exciting young players most recently scouted on the Peoria, Arizona backfields: Reginald Preciado, Ismael Mena, Yeison Santana, and Owen Caissie. I was lucky enough to see more Padres instructs action than any other club’s, and other than Caissie, I’ve had year-over-year looks at all of them.

You can see where I had all the prospects involved evaluated before my Instructional League looks for some context to the movement I’m about to describe, because two of the traded prospects have moved up quite a bit, and a third might still. Let’s start with Panamanian infielder Reggie Preciado, who is the best prospect in the trade and will be on this offseason’s top 100 prospect list as a 50 FV player. Preciado has the overt physical traits that teams have traditionally coveted in the international market. He’s a big-framed (about 6-foot-4) switch-hitter who is athletic enough to stay on the infield. Players like this have a wide range of potential outcomes, and one is for their body to develop in the Goldilocks Zone where they remain agile enough to stay at shortstop, but become big and strong enough to hit for impact power. Though some teams have shown evidence of a philosophical shift in this area, prospects like Preciado are the ones who typically get paid the most money on the international market, and indeed Preciado received $1.3 million, a record for a player from Panama.

When Preciado came to the States for 2019 instructs, he looked like you’d expect a 16-year-old his size to look: raw and uncoordinated. He still had not gained athletic dominion over his frame, and he looked much more like a third base defender than a shortstop. Fast forward a year (because there was no minor league season) to the Fall of 2020 and Preciado now has a batting stance and swing that look an awful lot like Corey Seager’s. It allows him to be relatively short to the baseball despite his lever length, and whether it had to do with the swing change or not, he looked much more comfortable in the box this Fall than he did last year. Because of the missing minor league season, most teams in Arizona brought an older contingent of player to instructs than they usually would, and still Preciado (who is just 17) was striking the ball with consistency and power from both sides of the plate. I still think he ends up at third, but there’s rare hit/power combination potential here and it just takes confidence in one’s eyes to see it might already have arrived. I now have him rated ahead of Cubs first rounder Ed Howard and, barring any more deals, Preciado is likely to rank third or fourth on the Cubs list this offseason.

Next is Yeison Santana, whose evaluation will remain the same. Santana, who is nearly 20, took a huge leap throughout 2019, when his shoulders broadened and he began rotating more explosively while retaining most of the bat control that made him an interesting, contact-oriented shortstop prospect. Santana is only 5-foot-11, so the risk that he outgrows shortstop is remote, and he became the best infield defender in the Padres system once Gabriel Arias was traded to Cleveland as part of the Mike Clevinger deal before the deadline. He had not taken another step forward physically in a way I felt was noticeable in the Fall. He’ll remain a 45 FV prospect, commensurate with the grades I typically have on players picked toward the back of a draft’s first round.

What is Chicago going to do with all of their shortstops? In addition to acquiring Preciado (who will be 18 for most of 2021) and Santana (20), they also just drafted Howard (19), and 2019 signee Kevin Made (pronounced MAH-day) looked very good in the Fall. Presumably at least two of these players will need to go to full-season ball next year. I think the relatively polished Howard and Santana, by virtue of his age, are the likely two.

On to Ismael Mena, who appeared to have grown a couple of inches since I last saw him in 2019. Mena’s swing is still kind of awkward. He can be very bent at the waist throughout his swing, which is very bottom-hand heavy, sort of like a lefty version of Todd Frazier’s swing. But like Frazier, Mena was getting the bat head on the ball during instructs and hitting it with surprising power. The presence of Robert Hassell, San Diego’s 2020 first rounder, and Hudson Head (a 2019 overslot high schooler) pushed Mena to a corner in my looks at him but there’s less competition for center field reps in the lowest levels of the Cubs farm. He’s a long-striding outfielder who, based on how big he’s gotten in the last year and how clownish his feet are, I expect will one day end up in right field, but Mena runs well enough to continue playing center for now. Mena is currently on the 40+/45 FV line for me and as I continue to source on the Cubs list, he’ll tip into one of the two based on where scouts think he can fit defensively.

Finally, there is Owen Caissie, who I did not run into this Fall. He was the first Canadian picked in the 2020 Draft, the Padres’ second rounder who they signed for $1.2 million. As I mentioned in yesterday’s Blake Snell prospect package write-up, San Diego typically takes a shot on at least one underscouted high schooler in every draft. Caissie is a big-framed Canadian corner outfielder (6-foot-4, 190 pounds) who wasn’t part of the traditional summer circuit the year before his draft, and instead took high-profile at-bats during the Canadian Junior National Team’s annual trip to Spring Training in Florida, during which they play the Blue Jays and minor leaguers in the Tampa area. Caissie looked pretty good during the club’s early-March trip and buoyed his draft stock. His swing is a little long because of his lever length but he is very strong, and hit better against advanced pitching than most long, cold-weather high school hitters should be able to. I’m skeptical of the bat-to-ball future here, which is damning considering Caissie is destined for a corner, but cold weather and bigger-framed hitters deserve extra time to develop, and Caissie is both. He’s a 35+ FV on The Board right now (basically a low probability player with notable physical ability), but could move up a tier as I continue to source on the Cubs list. Again, of everyone in this deal, he’s the one with whom I have the least in-person background.

It’s been quite a while since the Cubs had to “rebuild” via trades for pro prospects, so it will be interesting to see where their proclivities lie as they continue to (I assume) ship off pieces. This first prospect piñata includes very young, mostly up-the-middle players with little statistical track record, which might be more a result of the lack of 2020 season or is perhaps an indication that a Cubs rebuild will be done via eyeball reports rather than on-field performance.





Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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Cave Dameron
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Cave Dameron

Thank you Eric, very cool!