I love the minor league schedule this year, with 6-game series from Tuesday to Sunday, and then every Monday off. The players deserve that continuity given all the other crazy aspects of minor league life, and for us writers, the off day provides a chance to step back and look at the greater context of the season. Due to the debut of a particular prospect this week, I thought it a good chance to provide an update on our top 10 prospects from February.
One: Brennen Davis (High-A … rehab assignment?)
Just an all-around amazing Sunday from Brennen, but what I want to point out is how incredible he was with two strikes in that game. In all four plate appearances, the pitcher got to two strikes, and here’s what happened:
That’s a pretty incredible and advanced way to handle the pitcher having the advantage. I think Brennen struggled some at the Alternate Training Site last year against advanced pitching, but he’s such a quick learner that I trust his eyes picked up a good filter on what he can hit and what he can’t. Plus, you love the choke-up approach to two strikes (Cole Roederer is doing this in 2021, too).
We’ll see how quick the Cubs will be to bump him up to Double-A, which had been the plan before a hit by pitch to the head cost him the first 15 games (which is why he is technically on a rehab assignment), but I like the idea of starting his season in the familiar and comfortable grounds of Four Winds Field.
Two: Brailyn Marquez (Extended Spring Training)
Reports have him working his way back from COVID, working with the Cubs high performance team to get in-shape and game-ready. He’s currently on the “Developmental List,” which is new this year, and means he doesn’t count towards the 180-player maximum the Cubs have on stateside minor leaguers. It also means, thankfully, that Marquez is not injured. I think we’re all anxious for him to return.
Three: Miguel Amaya (Double-A)
Has been able to keep his head above water offensively, despite a .283 slugging percentage, thanks to maintaining his fantastic plate discipline. Has slumped recently, however, going just 4-for-30 in his last eight games. The groundball rate is at a career-high 51.2% right now, and when combined with a 23.1 IFFB%, it’s clear too many balls aren’t leaving the infield. I maintain a believer in the force of that bat, but I sure would like to see it show out in games occasionally. He has the contact down, but the quality of contact needs to improve.
I was asked yesterday if Amaya could be an acceptable replacement if Willson Contreras has to hit the IL after being hit on the wrist, and I’ll share my answer here. I think if Contreras was going to be literally the minimum 10-day stay, where he misses just nine games, you could probably ask Amaya to come up as P.J. Higgins back-up and get two starts. It’s the only move available that doesn’t require an additional 40-man move. However, if Contreras were set to miss more time than that (and we don’t currently have info to suggest that’s true), I think you’d probably have to find a way to get Tony Wolters – who yesterday accepted an outright assignment to Iowa – back on the 40-man roster.
Four: Adbert Alzolay (MLB)
Alzolay has graduated from the “prospect” definition, so I’ll never have a chance to rectify this too-low ranking (and, I swear, he was in contention as high as two!). We have and will continue to cover Alzolay plenty, so I won’t add much here, but I did notice something from his outing in St. Louis worth pointing out. In his career, Alzolay has thrown 24 sliders above 88 mph. Sixteen of those came on Saturday (and five of his career six above 89). Those had a slightly different shape from his usual mid 80s more-horizontal slide piece, suggesting Adbert is perhaps toying with a cutter variation. Knew those Spring Training talks with Jake Arrieta couldn’t be bad.
Five: Ed Howard (Low-A 7-day IL)
Isn’t this always the way? Player struggles out of the gate, starts to get comfortable, then gets injured. No word yet on the specific injury for Howard, though I think I found the moment it happened re-watching their game:
Went back and watched the @Pelicanbaseball May 21 game for a clue what might have caused the injury that landed Ed Howard on the IL. He came out of the game in the tenth inning. And I did notice him walking gingerly and stretching after making this catch as the relay man. pic.twitter.com/09TiHJ9zMX
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) May 24, 2021
But let’s talk about the struggles for a minute, as they were significant. Howard’s strikeout rate is 42.4% so far, the third highest in the system, albeit in a league where most pitchers are three years older than him. If you’re asking “is it time to panic about Ed Howard?” you’re doing it wrong, but I think it’s fair to wonder about the hit tool grade here. I zoomed through his seven strikeouts in the Lynchburg series before the injury to see if there were any holes other teams are exploiting:
May 21, sixth inning: 3 swinging strikes, 2 low changeups, 1 high FB
May 20, seventh inning: 2 fouls and a swing-and-miss on an up-and-away FB
May 19, first inning: swing and miss on slider away after 3 fastballs
May 19, sixth inning: 8 pitch AB. Whiff on full count high-away FB
May 18, first inning: 3-pitch K, FB-CV-FB, whiff on high FB
May 18, fourth inning: 3 swinging strikes in 5 pitches on high FB, great away CV, high-away FB
May 18, seventh inning: whiff on away CV
Certainly a trend on high-away fastballs, which makes sense, as Howard’s sample with velocity in that area of the zone is surely pretty low during his lifetime. I’m kind of glad that it’s such an obvious single hole (I don’t worry about the good breaking balls away), as you can bet the Cubs hitting coaches will zero in on high fastballs with Howard, and his brain will improve on when not to swing.
One trend I like is that after not walking during his first six games, Ed drew five walks in his next eight games. Development is happening, stick with him. Remember: this young man last played a full competitive season as a junior in high school two years ago. Then he a shut-down senior season, a little bit of instructional work, and then he was asked to jump all the way to full-season A ball.
Six: Ryan Jensen (High-A)
I didn’t get a chance to write up Jensen’s Friday night start after he led Five Stars, tossing five no-hit innings with 11 groundballs versus just one in the air (credit to the South Bend infield that night, which converted outs smoother than you usually see from an A-ball team). Jensen was electric, up to 99 mph with the fastball with extreme sink and run, and let’s acknowledge that he has just TWO walks against 47 hitters this year. The interesting thing about that outing was Jensen, by my notes, threw fastball (either the sinker or four-seam) on 61 of his 62 pitches. There’s some positives and some negatives in that. The great news is that Ryan’s fastball offerings are as good as I indicated with this ranking, and his ability to get outs in the strike zone with the pitch are one of those tools I use to indicate if a pitcher is better than a particular level. However, I’d like to see the Cubs pitching team challenge him a little more with the gameplan, as the secondaries are in need of more work than the fastball anyway. But it’s early, and my instinct is that their first priority was getting him in a comfortable groove with that delivery.
The two seamer for strikeout number three pic.twitter.com/k0Z4zEWLkv
— TheBullpen🐾 (@RealCubsAnalyst) May 21, 2021
Seven: Cristian Hernandez (Extended Spring Training)
No real updates here, though I’ll say I saw Hernandez pop up on Moises Ballesteros’ Instagram feed this weekend, suggesting the shortstop is spending his Extended Spring Training in the Dominican Republic rather than in Mesa, Arizona. This suggests to me that Hernandez is most likely to begin his professional career in the DSL, rather than the AZL, this June. No word yet from Bert on my travel request for that debut.
Eight: Chase Strumpf (High-A)
Has reached base in every game he’s played this season, and scored at least one run in eight of the ten. There’s a consistency in the plate approach that jumps off the screen and certainly seems better than your average High-A hitter. The big key is finding that consistency in playing time, as Strumpf already missed a week with a ticky-tack injury. Strumpf was featured in Baseball Prospectus’ Monday Morning Ten Pack, as Nathan Graham wrote this after a live look:
Defensively, Strumpf lacks enough lateral quickness to play the six, which will limit his value. He is competent in the field with good instincts and enough physical ability to handle any other position in the infield though. Pre-draft some scouts thought that his lack of arm strength would limit him to second base. However, in my recent looks he got some time at third and the arm looked strong and accurate enough to handle the hot corner.
I’ve generally also liked what I’ve seen from Strumpf at second base (I can recall solid plays both charging and moving to his right) but he still seems uncomfortable at third base, with four errors in just 27 innings. They should stick with the experiment, though, and I’d like him tried in left field eventually, too.
Nine: Kohl Franklin (Extended Spring Training)
Debut should be coming soon, as Kohl has been getting stretched out in scrimmages in Arizona. Reports have his fastball well up from last we saw him, with a lot more confidence in the curveball. While he’s definitely added a good amount of weapon, projection still remains:
— Rich Biesterfeld (@biest22) May 24, 2021
Ten: Cory Abbott (Triple-A)
I’m seeing little hints, here and there, that make me want to be point and shout “hey there’s this new, important thing!” The start in St Paul showed a bit more velocity (especially with the cutter), another start featured more of the improved changeup, I liked the curveball during Spring Training exhibitions. But, I think it’s all a bit of a stretch just yet. Really, what we’re seeing lately is typical Abbott: low-ish 90s fastballs and gloveside slider/cutters. He’s very dangerous when ahead in the count (if you had doubts about the ability to get whiffs at upper levels, put that worry aside), but I worry about Cory throwing in-zone fastballs on fastball counts. It often yields hard-hit balls, which in the Majors is going to probably mean a higher-than-average home run rate.
Candidates to take Alzolay’s departed top 10 spot: It’s probably as simple as the #11 guy, Reggie Preciado, who is preparing to make his Cubs system debut in the AZL next month. If Preciado continues to show some swing improvements, looks a little bigger and drops a hint of power, he’s probably the guy … I like the versatility that Chris Morel has shown, and the patience that Cole Roederer has shown, but we’re going to need to see a little more bat work … I just want to mention Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson here as two guys that were once in my top 10, dropped out of it as a career in relief seemed increasingly likely, and now as relievers seem like maybe they deserved those spots all along … Finally, I haven’t yet really contemplated where the two big breakouts on the farm so far, Cam Sanders and D.J. Herz, will slot into revised prospect rankings. My instinct is Herz is probably in this mix for me, while Sanders is probably just off of it. But the specifics are changing rapidly as their sample sizes grow.