Over the last eight weeks, the Cubs have had a first-time player at Double-A find complete comfort hitting at the level, including 11 multi-hit games in the month of July.
And believe it or not, his name is not Brennen Davis!
One of my favorite pure hitters to watch in the Cubs system is Nelson Maldonado, a 21st round pick out of the University of Florida in the 2019 draft, who has hit .321 since joining the Cubs organization. Following the pandemic and a minor injury at the end of Spring Training, Maldonado came out of the gate with his aggressive Double-A assignment and struggled, going just 5-for-33 in his first two weeks.
“My mental game was the big factor those 10 games. I wasn’t really feeling my swing or feeling confident at the plate,” Maldonado told me recently on the phone. “The coaches here did a really good job of working with me and keeping my head up.”
Well you can bet he’s feeling confident now. In his last 43 games, Maldonado has been simply incredible, hitting .342/.411/.528 (159 wRC+). He’s done so with keeping his strikeout rate under 20%, which puts him well above-league average in that category. And he’s walking at the best rate (9.7%) he has since his junior season at Florida in 2017.
“Pitch selection this year has been huge for me,” Maldonado said. “It helps me stay in a good mental state. For me in the box it’s about not doing too much and taking whatever the pitcher gives you.”
There’s a simplicity in Maldonado’s approach that jumps off the screen when you watch him. He told me that his roommates in Double-A, Brennen Davis and Levi Jordan, recently got a kick over watching Maldonado’s old college tape, as his swing has stayed remarkably consistent throughout his career. He swings hard, but phenomenal hands and a good ability to get on plane gives an above-average hit tool. And while his build – 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds – isn’t one to suggest power, he’s finding enough of it to have an above-average ISO at the level.
Nelson Maldonado STAY HOT pic.twitter.com/F3FnUBtTEO
— Greg Huss (@OutOfTheVines) July 18, 2021
One thing that’s helped in that department: staying true to an all-fields approach. Maldonado is pulling the ball less than he has at any other minor league stop, and does a great job peppering the right-center gap.
“That’s the part of the field my swing will allow me to do the most damage in,” Maldonado said. “It helps keep the bat through the zone a little longer.”
— Caleb Webb (@calebgwebb) July 10, 2021
The question that remains for the Cubs organization is how to find a home defensively for Maldonado that will allow his bat to play at the highest levels. The 24-year-old has played DH more than any other position in the minors, with first base the only other spot he’s getting a look at. At Florida he played both outfield corners, and even tried third base during one summer in the Northwoods League. Trials at other positions are likely in the cards for the Cubs next season, as Maldonado has been working to regain arm strength that he lost during a surgery in college. I’d probably even give him a look at second base, where the lateral athleticism would be really tested. But aren’t experiments what the minor leagues are designed for?
The good news is the Cubs have another bat that’s proven worthy of graduation from Double-A, whether that comes down the stretch of this season or in 2022. Maldonado spent the first seven years of his life in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood before moving to Florida, I sure hope the Cubs can solve the riddle of how he could get back to living in the city. Cubs fans will like his brand of old-school hitting.
Other notes from recent minor league play, while I’ve been distracted by all-the-tradez…
- The Low-A Myrtle Beach Pelicans infield has really been challenged across-the-board offensively this season, with massive struggles from Ed Howard, Yeison Santana, Flemin Bautista, Luis Verdugo, Fabian Pertuz. And top 20 prospect Kevin Made was firmly in that group, as he started his pro career in a 10-for-57 slump with just three walks and one extra-base hit. But then the muscle memory caught up, and Made’s been a super helpful contributor in his last 14 starts: .340/.352/.453. In the Pelicans series last week in Augusta, Made had four multi-hit games, with a 10-for-20 showing overall. You don’t want to make too much of a five-game sample of course, but you’re also talking about an 18 year old that suddenly looks comfortable at the plate after an understandable adjustment period. He’ll be one of the players I watch closest in these final two months.
- Awesome news out of Arizona as it appears one of the Cubs top pitching prospects is nearing his season debut:
— Kohl Franklin (@kohlrf) August 1, 2021
- I wanted to include that second video because that’s Franklin striking out Owen Caissie with the curveball that’s been such a focus for Kohl since the 2019 season. Franklin’s prospect pedigree has been mostly built on projection – the belief that he’d add muscle and velocity, the belief the Cubs would get that curve to a plus pitch – and I think we’ll soon start to see some of those things blossom into reality. I can’t wait.
- Speaking of Caissie, he and the rest of the Arizona Complex League Cubs won a ridiculous 16-13 game last night (that somehow featured no runs in innings 7-9). Caissie hit his fifth home run of the season and his line in the ACL is at .382/.547/.709 after 18 games. Move him up, Cubs. The game also saw Ismael Mena hit his second home run in as many games, which are by the way the first two home runs he’s hit as a professional. And new friend Kevin Alcantara also got in the action with two hits of his own in his first game with the organization.
- Okay it’s not quite the same as Javy, Anthony, and Kris, but shouts to Alcantara, Alex Canario and Greg Deichmann for all getting hits in their first games with the Cubs organization. Canario especially deserves a call-out, as the Cubs decided to challenge the 21 year old with a promotion to High-A upon his acquisition. I’ll be fascinated how the strikeout rate holds up at a more advanced level, but he showed nice in-game adjustments to record two hits in his South Bend debut.
— Trevor Hooth (@HoothTrevor) August 1, 2021
- Since the calendar flipped over to July, Jordan Nwogu has been a new man at Low-A Myrtle Beach. The 22-year-old has hit .293/.414/.598 over those 28 games, and he’s closing in on the team lead in OPS after an absolutely disastrous start. This probably should be the case, as he’s the Pelican with the most high-end experience (from his time at the University of Michigan), it’s worth remembering that this guy has made some major changes since then. I recently grabbed this side-by-side of Nwogu now and at Michigan, and you can see how the Cubs have worked to relax him pre-swing, and also now he has a toe-tap and two-handed finish that are both new since college as well. It’s a pretty significant overhaul, and so let’s forgive him the initial struggles and begin to dream again on the offensive potential that his strength/athleticism combination conveys.
Nwogu, now and then, right before swing begins. So different! pic.twitter.com/7ILmBGENJd
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) July 29, 2021
- Finally, I wanted to share the news that Cubs draft pick Daniel Avitia decided to not sign and instead attend college at Grand Canyon University, while 20th round pick Wilson Cunningham inked a uniquely structured contract where he’ll attend college (at University of Chicago) with the Cubs financial help but play for the Cubs in the summers. He’s a pure projection pick as a 6-foot-8 lanky southpaw, so the Cubs are more interested in what might happen to his velocity if he adds, say, 30 pounds of muscle. In all, the Cubs signed 17 members of their draft class. Interesting note here that if the Cubs don’t actively play draftees in official games they won’t count against the 180-player limit the MLB has on domestic minor leaguers per organization now. So I would expect zero of the high school picks, and probably only a handful of the college signees, to play in 2021.