One thing I’ll say ahead of time: what a big season it is for the 5-9 spots on this list. When we look back on the 2021 season and discuss whether it was successful developmentally, the performance of the five guys in those spots in particular will be a real factor. Previously: the intro, 40-21 and 20-11. Enjoy, and thanks for reading. And don’t miss out on my live chat with Brennen Davis at 3:30pm CT over at the BN Instagram!
10. Cory Abbott, SP, 25, Iowa (Stats). Acquired: 2nd round, 2017.
Skill Set: Cubs love the edge he plays with, and he benefits from an attack-attack-attack mentality on the mound. I believe the slider is more plus than it gets credit for, a belief that is backed up by the results (as a reminder, hitters went 25-for-213 in his last 11 AA starts). Can pitch backwards off his two breaking balls, or pitch conventionally, as the command of his fastball is generally above-average.
Developmental Focus: Drew considerable praise from Cubs personnel for the way he’s attacked workouts this winter, as he’ll enter 2021 in the (say it with me) Best Shape of His Life. I believe this, in concert with minor mechanical adjustments from South Bend, are going to result in the best velocity of Cory’s career. He talked in the past about finding a comfortable changeup grip, and Matt Dorey recently mentioned on a podcast that he’s added a one-seam fastball, so it will be interesting to see how the Cubs integrate those into the four-seam, slider, curveball mix that earned him 2019 Pitcher of the Year honors.
Big League Projection: I see a long career starting games in the big leagues.
Congrats to Cory Abbott on winning #Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year!
His consistently dominating season-long stats:
146.2 IP – 3.01 ERA – 1.12 WHIP – 27.8% K – .207 opp AVG pic.twitter.com/PeRw05StIy
— Greg Huss (@OutOfTheVines) September 17, 2019
9. Chase Strumpf, 2B, 23, South Bend (Stats). Acquired: 2nd round, 2019.
Skill Set: I’m paraphrasing, but one source essentially told me: Chase isn’t going to meet a fastball that he can’t smack. I think he knows this, too, and takes smart, patient-but-aggressive, fastball-hunting at-bats. He was the Cubs best player at Instructs, bouncing back from injuries that plagued him since getting drafted and showing an exciting offensive ceiling. The power extends to all fields – observers were really happy about his work to right field – and has the potential to end up above-average for the keystone.
Developmental Focus: The Cubs tested him defensively in Arizona, and observers were consistent in their praise. He gave both confidence about sticking at second base as well as intrigue about how he can play above-water at other positions. If Strumpf starts in High-A South Bend as I project, I don’t think he’ll be there long, and the real key will be how he adjusts to AA-and-above breaking balls. I think he will.
Big League Projection: Above-average regular upside, and an exciting second option as an Enrique Hernandez-like tenth man.
8. Kohl Franklin, SP, 21, South Bend (Stats). Acquired: 6th round, 2018.
Skill Set: This right here is why you draft and pony up for projectability. Once it was obvious there would not be a minor league season, the Cubs had a lot of confidence they could build a plan for Kohl from afar, and that he’d be able to execute it. This happened. He has added the good weight the Cubs envisioned for him two and a half years ago, and it’s going to translate to more velocity this year. With more muscle and perhaps more velocity still be be unlocked. That’s only going to help play up his best pitch: a changeup that very few people his age have such feel for. I think we’ll even see hybrid versions of it this year.
Developmental Focus: Besides the job Kohl had to add weight, the other focus was getting the curveball to where it needed to be. The Cubs rebuilt the pitch from scratch in 2019, but it didn’t get much run due to a blister that summer. It’s progressed a bunch since then, has good depth, and most importantly, it’s ready for full integration. Another pitch will probably come down the line, but I think the plan for 2021 is to let the current arsenal eat.
Big League Projection: Built to be an innings-eating starter, let’s see where the fastball-curve combo are at on the field before we put a cap on a ceiling.
7. Cristian Hernandez, SS, 17, AZL Cubs. Acquired: IFA, 2021.
Skill Set: The conversation I had about the Cubs’ new top international signing really focused on how advanced Hernandez is from typical players his age. It’s not normal. He has good footwork at shortstop, a good understanding about what to drive and what to let pass. The body gives optimism about future power, the work ethic and instincts give optimism about reaching his ceiling.
Developmental Focus: There’s no rush to coach a ton of baseball to Hernandez early on. Acclimation to pro ball will focus on off-the-field work, and the baseball instruction will flow from the hiccups that come along the way. I’ll be fascinated to see if the Cubs keep Cristian in the Dominican academy for summer ball this year, or if they keep him in Arizona once Extended Spring Training is over. He’ll have to clear some organizational checkpoints for the latter.
Big League Projection: No one in the organization has any interest in putting the A-Rod / Machado comparisons, and the expectations that come with them, on a teenager (even though others have said it). With that being said, Cristian’s bonus is a reflection of how special the Cubs find him, and the devotion to his development will be significant over the next 3-5 years.
And yet simultaneously, there’s currently little concern he won’t stick at shortstop (I guess except if he grows significantly taller). The footwork is there, and you can see from the throws @BenBadler has captured here the flair he’s borrowed from Javy’s game. pic.twitter.com/deW03coByD
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) January 15, 2021
6. Ryan Jensen, SP, 23, South Bend (Stats). Acquired: 1st round, 2019.
Skill Set: Super athletic former shortstop with a loose, lightning-quick arm. His long arm action and short height might have once been seen as negatives, but achieving his flat vertical approach angle from that over-the-top release point is seen as a massive plus in modern pitching philosophy. Fantastic run and mid-90s-plus velocity on a one-seam sinker. Good life on high four-seam fastballs that have perceived triple digit velocities. And the swings he gets on sliders tell you everything you need to know. Three distinct, really good pitches.
Developmental Focus: We’re going to see a new spike-curve from Jensen this year, which gives him a unique breaking ball to pair with each fastball (four seam with curve, sinker with slider). It was the success Jensen was having developing the curve from afar that gave the Cubs the confidence he’d hit their internal goals without needing to be in South Bend. I’ll be interested in how often we see the changeup in 2021, it’s not bad at all, but I’m not sure the confidence is there like with the other four.
Big League Projection: As long as his control is more like it was at Fresno State and less like it was with the Eugene Emeralds (which I’ll grant you isn’t a small IF), I think people are misguided in projecting reliever. Jensen’s stamina screams starting pitcher, the pitch mix is diverse enough. If there’s one bet I want to make with the list this year – knowing that gambling on prospects is riskier than roulette – it’s that the broader prospect world is too low on Ryan Jensen.
5. Ed Howard, SS, 19, Myrtle Beach. Acquired: 1st round, 2020.
Skill Set: I asked one Cubs prospect from Instructs who caught their eye in Arizona: “Ed Howard. He makes everything look so easy.” A member of the front office told me “every ounce of [Ed’s] athleticism translates to the baseball field. That’s rare.” The Cubs brought Howard to Wrigley last January before COVID hit, and they saw the weight room work he’d put in, and how that increased the ceiling on his offensive potential. They saw the shoulder was fully healed, meaning he had all the defensive tools to be a plus shortstop for years to come. And they saw a different kind of work ethic.
Developmental Focus: Reps. Lots and lots of reps. I think in a perfect year for the Cubs, they’d see Ed have stretches with tons of success, but they also look forward to the slumps and the lessons those teach. He just needs as many games as the season will allow to build back up the muscle memory. The expectation is for a slow, steady, but non-linear development.
Big League Projection: Howard was of course a baseball savant at a young age, and his development has been hyper-focused on being a difference-making Major League shortstop. The Cubs are buying into this same vision.
4. Adbert Alzolay, SP, 26, Chicago (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2012 (!).
Skill Set: Made a leap in 2021. After some biomechanical adjustments, Alzolay was able to move more efficiently in his delivery, which opened up potential for new instruction. From there came the slider, and in a matter of weeks, Alzolay had the wipeout pitch that rounds out his arsenal. It really speaks to how coachable and how hard-working he is. The changeup continued to be a great secondary for him as well in 2020, yielding a 58.3 whiff% in the 31 times he threw it.
Developmental Focus: The Cubs believe those mechanical adjustments mentioned above (and his weight room work) will also help Alzolay stay on the field more than he’s ever been able to. Before the slider, the big new pitch for Alzolay was a two-seam sinker that he averaged 94.9 mph with. It wasn’t particularly successful at the MLB level, however, so I expect some tinkering in its usage. And I think Adbert is still working on curveball consistency, and its place within the broader arsenal will depend on his success getting proper depth and keeping it differentiated from the slider.
Big League Projection: Kudos to the Cubs for staying steadfast in their belief that Adbert could make it as a starter, even as I admittedly was wavering a year ago. The opportunity is there for him to be the homegrown starter we’ve wanted for awhile now.
Every swinging strikeout Adbert Alzolay (@adbert29) got with his new slider in 2020. 14 in all. Truly one of the most exciting and important things for the Cubs future that happened this year. Could watch this all day. pic.twitter.com/T9jzFaydOs
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) November 5, 2020
3. Miguel Amaya, C, 22, Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2015.
Skill Set: A true catcher, with the physical tools for that position as well as the leadership skills necessary to handle a pitching staff. Pitchers like playing with him. Good throwing arm. Has been very successful in Cubs weight training plan. Offensively his foundation is built on a really good batting eye and a willingness to take walks. But it’s the power that has the potential to separate him from the catching pack.
Developmental Focus: There’s a time with raw power prospects when an organization makes the decision to start encouraging the player to tap into it: for Amaya and the Cubs, this came in South Bend at the alternate site. This means hunting the pitches you can sell-out for more often, and trying to catch the ball farther out in front. He applied those lessons well in Puerto Rico this winter. The other offensive key will be more impactful contact, he’s never had an average above .256 or a BABIP of .300. Converting a certain percentage of the lazy groundouts and popouts into harder contact would pay massive dividends.
Big League Projection: Miggy’s living on the edge between first-division and second-division catcher, depending who you ask, and growing from his developmental experiences in 2020 will help determine what side of that line he ultimately falls on.
2. Brailyn Marquez, SP, 22, Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: IFA, 2015.
Skill Set: It’s the development of the changeup that I think has produced the most excitement. We know the 96-100 mph fastball is a pitch he can live on for extended stretches, and against some hitters will be the only trick he needs. But the changeup we saw in the Majors, 90 mph but with 33.4 inches of vertical drop, looked much improved from 2019. The breaking ball also got praise from South Bend staff, its consistency and its tunnel with the fastball were closely monitored in that environment.
Developmental Focus: Marquez has all the tools to be the Cubs best homegrown pitcher in twenty years. His belief and hunger to achieve this are where I’d focus his development. Both the belief that his stuff is good enough that he can challenge (and not be afraid of) Major League hitters, and the hunger to put in the work (off the field) to achieve his ceiling. Is not the problem control guy he showed in his Major League debut, has walked 3.5 per nine in the minors. It was nerves. Cubs are really hopeful they provided him with the tools this offseason to not have a slow start to 2021.
Big League Projection: It is possible Marquez ultimately goes the relief route, but I don’t think that potential outcome will be acknowledged by the Cubs this year (at least not until September). The work on his secondaries in South Bend, which included getting a two-seam fastball into the arsenal, suggested the Cubs are really hungry to make Brailyn work in a rotation.
The Brailyn Marquez arsenal told by the best 3 pitches of his MLB debut. This is the video that answers the question of why he’s a top prospect. pic.twitter.com/pk3MWu9NcF
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) September 28, 2020
1. Brennen Davis, OF, 21, Tennessee (Stats). Acquired: 2nd round, 2018.
Skill Set: Gifted natural athlete that picks up instruction far quicker than average player. Body keeps putting on more muscle (seriously, he’s a lot different than even when we saw him in a Summer Camp game at Wrigley in July) while still maintaining plus athleticism. Above-average present power, plus to the opposite field, plus-plus upside in future power. Could project to above-average in every other skill area.
Developmental focus: Selectivity. Davis’ compact swing and ability to hit to right field makes the whole plate dangerous for opposing pitchers. He must force them to throw strikes and not settle for pitcher’s pitches. (Note: this isn’t the same as strike zone judgment, where Davis shows solid ability for his age). Cubs wanted him to see Major League caliber breaking balls for a summer, and cite the improvement he showed against them from July to September. Nuanced abilities in outfield remain largely an unknown for me, despite optimism about how his raw skills project.
Big League Projection: I can’t think of Davis now without thinking of what Iowa Cubs manager Marty Pevey said during their time together at the Alternate Training Site: “I have never seen power like this kid’s going to have. I’m not talking about pull power. I’m talking about just raw, leverage power – like Dale Murphy driving the ball to right-center early in his career.” I swoon.
Please join Brennen and me on Instagram Live at 3:30pm CT today. I’ll be hopping on from the Bleacher Nation account.
It’s been nearly a month since we’ve had the pleasure of watching Brennen Davis (@BrennenDavis__) on a baseball field, so why not take a look at each of his home runs from this season? pic.twitter.com/FmzXRGJFse
— Greg Huss (@OutOfTheVines) August 23, 2019
Feel free to drop any questions about the system in the comments and I promise by the weekend I’ll reply to them all. Next week I expect to drop an encyclopedic Honorable Mention post, so prepare yourselves for that!