As Jed Hoyer continues to preach the Cubs keeping one eye on the future, it’s clear the development of the farm system will be more important organizationally in 2021 than it’s been in a half-decade. This comes at a time where we have less information than ever in how prospects have developed over the last calendar year, as most have been confined to local parks and workout gyms. This minor league season, in whatever form it takes, is going to be information overload as we really begin to contextualize how this organization is posed to handle its next era.
With all that in mind, I thought I would use today to make some predictions on things we’ll see in 2021 …
At least one of these three offensive prospects really taps into his power: Brennen Davis, Miguel Amaya, Chase Strumpf.
These are the three best advanced offensive prospects in the Cubs system, particularly because their raw power offers hope of a future above-average regular. All three received real developmental attention in 2021, and my bet is this work is going to have significant on-field benefits for at least one of them in 2021. While Davis is (spoiler alert) my top prospect, he might be the one I’d bet least on here, as I do expect the jump to Double-A to be a significant hurdle. I’d be impressed if he can merely hold serve. The Cubs have worked with Amaya on his contact point, and we’ve seen the fruits of that labor in a brief Puerto Rican Winter League sample. But the sleeper to pop here is Chase Strumpf, the star of the Cubs Instructional League, who would become a really nice prospect if we see 20 home run MLB potential.
An upper-level Cubs pitching prospect pitches well enough in the minors to bust into the Wrigley rotation by the summer.
The hope here is clearly Brailyn Marquez, who will be in big league camp, and clearly has the stuff to prove better than Double-A quickly. The key will be avoiding the slow start that has plagued him each of the last three years. Craig Breslow and the Cubs pitching infrastructure worked with Marquez behind the scenes to implement a sinker into his arsenal, so I’m excited if that fourth pitch really provides the polish to make him Major League ready.
If it’s not Marquez to pop to the Majors, the next best bet would be Cory Abbott, who was added to the 40-man roster in November. The Cubs had Abbott both in South Bend and Arizona this year as they ensured his arm was ready for a full-season of work in 2021: there’s hope that ends on the North Side. Abbott looks to be in phenomenal shape, and it will be interesting if he’s living at the top end of his velocity range more often next season. Lastly, don’t forget about Keegan Thompson. You can bet the decision to add him to the 40-man roster signals the Cubs know something we don’t.
Kohl Franklin or Ryan Jensen prove prospects worthy of overall top 100 consideration.
I’m quite bullish about both these right-handers, but projecting both to break out in 2021 seems a bit optimistic. So I’ll hedge my bet and merely say that one of them does. Franklin seems the industry consensus, and others have heard the same as I have: that Franklin has added a good deal of muscle and is more comfortable than ever with his curveball. That’s really good news as he begins to turn that projectability into performance.
But I remain among the highest around on Ryan Jensen, the Cubs 2019 first round pick, who I think has a combination of talent and uniqueness that will be a real problem for hitters. If he can stay healthy and command his one-seam sinker, I don’t see minor league hitters as advanced enough to square up his fastball/slider mix.
One of those Padres prospects make us start to feel (slightly) better about the trade, jumping up as a consensus top four dude in the org.
In the days following the trade, those with first-hand looks or sources from the Instructional League have really signaled the Cubs got a special player in Reggie Preciado. I got a tip that Ismael Mena also looked really good in Arizona, and to not sleep on him; the best athlete the Cubs acquired in the deal. Or you could have Owen Caissie prove there’s not as much swing-and-miss as some have worried about, which would boost his status quite a bit. Last, if Yeison Santana has another big production season, he’s going to have believers every which way. Based on what I heard, I’ll bet on Mena to pop as a near-top prospect in the AZL next summer that finishes the season in the club’s top 10 prospects.
A high-pedigree lefty with starter history goes to the bullpen and pops.
The Cubs have been so slow to move minor leaguers from starter to reliever in the minors, but I’m hoping the loss of an affiliate creates a logjam to starting pitching that helps the Cubs make the right decision for a few guys’ careers. When I say that, I’m thinking first of Bryan Hudson, whose stuff and durability are both not quite there to make it as a big league starter, but who I think could be a force as a weird look out of the bullpen. I still have some hope for Justin Steele as a starter, but I also think he could be the Cubs current best left-handed relief option, as (like Adbert Alzolay) he’s added a slider that’s jumped up to be his best pitch. Brendon Little is a guy with a solid three pitch mix, but it just hasn’t translated to success at the beginning of games. I could see it playing much better out of the pen. Or what about Jack Patterson? Or, if I dig even deeper, Adam Laskey? Or, if I dig as far as I can dig, Joel Machado?
One of the undrafted pitchers the Cubs signed looks to have Major League upside.
We previously talked about how excited the Cubs were about Ben Leeper in the Instructional League, so he’s the obvious candidate here. In Arizona, Leeper was throwing 95-97 with good extension, a wipeout slider, the ability to go two innings, and plus command. Another option would be Joe Nahas, whom the Cubs signed in 2019 out of the Cape Cod League with the leftover money from their draft pool. Nahas has quite a bit of funk, showed a solid fastball-slider combination in Eugene in 2019, and has been working on adding a curveball and changeup to the mix since we last saw him. Brett mentioned Max Bain the other day, touted by many prospects I’ve spoken to as the smartest player in the organization at taking Rapsodo/Trackman/Lab data and translating it to the field. Last, I’ll mention Bailey Reid as another guy the Cubs signed as an undrafted free agent in 2020 that they were quite pleased with in Arizona.
Alright, we’ll close things out with four quick ones…
• Matt Mervis will be the Cubs first offensive prospect to be promoted from one level to another in 2021. I have Mervis, another 2020 undrafted free agent, to be the Low-A Myrtle Beach first baseman this coming season. My bet is he quickly proves too advanced for the level and is found a home in High-A by May. A former two-way player, Mervis has now had a long offseason to focus just on his swing, and his power really impressed in Arizona. Nice sleeper prospect.
• Cubs begin talking about a more Rays approach to starting pitching for their future. All the sudden, the Cubs have about a half-dozen guys that have great arms they’re considering as starters, but don’t seem nearly durable enough to be 150-inning guys in the Major Leagues. I’m thinking Luke Little, Michael McAvene, Chris Clarke, Yovanny Cruz, Cam Sanders, maybe even Ryan Jensen. Perhaps we hear the Cubs are thinking about a Tampa Bay approach, with a starter merely handling one-to-two times through the order before turning it to the bullpen?
• Jordan Nwogu finishes the season as a top 10 prospect. More on this soon, but I think the video does the talking.
• Brett mentions like seven more times how much he likes Yohendrick Pinango’s name. And by predicting that, I’m predicting that Pinango does enough to get written about like seven more times in 2021, which would be a good thing. [Brett: How could you not want a guy with that name to break out?!?!]