Before we can dive deeply into a discussion about the Cubs triple-digit southpaw, Brailyn Marquez, there are a few baseline considerations we must all understand: 1) Marquez is the Cubs’ best pitching prospect in at least a decade, 2) Because of the pandemic, he had never pitched above High-A before his why-the-heck-not debut at the end of the 2020 season, 3) League rules would’ve forced the Cubs to add the 21-year-old to the 40-man roster this offseason anyway – lest they risk losing him in the Rule 5 Draft, and 4) Development of Marquez’s secondary offerings has been a focus of the Cubs, who hope to spit out a *starting* pitcher, not a reliever, when all is said and done.
Don’t get me wrong, in the modern MLB, a left-handed reliever with two plus pitches (one of which is a 100 MPH fastball) would be a hugely valuable addition to any franchise. And given Marquez’s chance to be in that elite tier of disproportionately impactful relievers, that would be a perfectly fine outcome.
But before you start thinking about that road, the Cubs are clearly doing all they can to get him into their future rotation. And I really mean all they can.
In a year without a minor-league season, the Cubs were still able to help some prospects make real strides. While his big-league debut was forgettable, Brailyn Marquez made significant progress in South Bend tweaking his mechanics and adding new pitches. https://t.co/l7VSudfUkd
— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) October 12, 2020
Before Sahadev Sharma delivered this excellent and informative update on the plan for Marquez at The Athletic, our understanding was pretty straight-forward: Marquez already had a 97-100 MPH four-seam fastball and a really solid slurvy breaking pitch that could eventually carry him to the big leagues as a reliever. His arrival as a starter, then, was often tied to the development of his changeup, which had apparently been identified as that much-needed third pitch.
NOTE: While plenty of relievers get by with just two pitches, almost no starters have the same luck. So if you’re a rotation hopeful, the development of a third big league pitch is a must (among many other obvious things).
But according to Sharma, the Cubs did a lot more than have Marquez work on a third pitch at South Bend this year.
For one thing, the Cubs claim to have already made significant improvements to Marquez’s changeup, which began with the introduction of a new pitch grip at the end of the 2019 season and continued with “pressure and placement of his fingers on the ball” this summer in South Bend. We simply weren’t able to enjoy the effects of those changes without having any eyes on him until his cup of coffee in September.
For another thing, the Cubs are apparently working to add depth to Marquez’s curveball without sacrificing velocity, likely because that pitch is often confused with a slider – which isn’t, itself, a bad thing, unless the Cubs feel a power curve (with more depth) is a better pairing.
But the biggest, most exciting, and most *telling* reveal from Sharma’s exploration is the development of a fourth pitch, the sinker:
“When he threw his first sinker, we realized that it could make sense to accelerate its development, given just how unique a profile it was,” [Cubs Director of Pitching Craig] Breslow said. “We still controlled the volume, wanting to focus on the development of the four-seam, until a few weeks ago, where we asked him to gain some additional comfort deploying what we believe can serve as a plus big league pitch.”
The Cubs apparently believe Marquez can not only add a sinker, but also that he can make it a “plus” big league pitch that perfectly complements the cutting action of his four-seamer. According to Breslow, the sinker is just a tick slower than his four-seamer (which … yooooo if that’s true), and has a “very distinct shape with heavy depth and run.”
I don’t want to take too much more from Sharma’s post, so please be sure to go check out how many people and resources the Cubs threw at this project, because it is truly impressive. And, again, very telling.
Because the Cubs were forced to add Marquez to the 40-man roster this offseason, a perfectly legitimate plan for 2021 could have included the possibility of Marquez contributing out of the big league bullpen for part of the year, and where he might stay until he was deemed ready to join the rotation. But armed with the information that they recently altered the grip of his changeup, are tweaking his breaking ball, and are adding a fourth pitch to his repertoire, I’m getting the sense that the Cubs envision a full Minor League season in 2021 and that they fully project him as a starter there, even if it means eating up one of his option years to get no “big league” production out of him.
If they didn’t, they’d probably continue to tighten up the 2-3 pitches he does have to maximize his potential effectiveness as soon as next season. But they’re not. They’re in this for the long haul and I think that’s very good news for Cubs fans. This guy might really be something we haven’t seen from the Cubs in a long, long time. And you don’t have to listen to what the Cubs say on that fact, you just have to acknowledge what they’ve done.
And it’s likely what you’ll continue to see them do with him for several more years before they’d even think about going the relief route.