It’s easy to forget, but Cubs top prospect Brennen Davis actually began this season at High-A with the South Bend Cubs. It was somewhat rehab-assignment-y because he was delayed at the end of Spring Training after being hit by a pitch, but since he’d never otherwise played above Low-A, it still felt like a step in the ladder for him.
But after just about two weeks at High-A, he was bumped up a level, becoming one of the youngest overall players at Double-A this season. And although his overall performance at Double-A oscillated over his 76 games (316 PAs), particularly as he faced tougher strikeout stuff from more talented pitchers as the season went on, his final line with the Smokies was plenty strong: .252/.367/.474 (135 wRC+). And that was enough for the prospect ranking industry to bump him up to near-unanimous top-20 prospect status throughout the league, and for the Cubs to call him up to Triple-A Iowa, where he just passed the 50 PAs mark last night.
So how’s it going at Iowa so far? About as good as you could have ever hoped. But it’s not just the results of his performance, it’s also the shape.
Through 53 plate appearances at the Triple-A level, Brennen Davis is slashing .333/.434/.667, which is roughly 90% better than the league average hitter. And he jump-started that effort with home runs in each of his first two at-bats:
New level? No problem!
Brennen Davis homers in his first Triple-A at-bat. pic.twitter.com/mKVikg9wMV
— Iowa Cubs (@IowaCubs) September 15, 2021
No update on the fan in left field, but Brennen Davis did in fact hit his second home run of the night.
The Chicago Cubs' No. 1 prospect is now 2-for-2 with two home runs in his Triple-A debut. pic.twitter.com/HBblFMQfLB
— Iowa Cubs (@IowaCubs) September 15, 2021
Davis wound up hitting his third home run in his third game and a fourth dinger four games after that. With three doubles, eight more singles, and a .333 ISO so far, it’s pretty easy to see why evaluators are so enamored with his power + center field profile.
But we already knew he had the power. When I mention being impressed by the shape of his performance, I’m talking more about the 15.1% walk rate, which, even in a small sample is really encouraging to see for a young hitter who is at his highest level, and the 22.6% strikeout rate, which is a huge drop-off from the trend at Double-A.
Although he hit just fine at Double-A Tennessee this season – again, especially for his age – concerns over his 30.7% strikeout rate were justified. In fact, in the 20 games before his promotion to Iowa, Davis’ strikeout rate was up to 36.9%. Clearly, the more advanced pitching was exploiting some aspect of his approach and adjustments would be required.
We often talk about how adjustments – first from the league and then from a prospect/player who is dominating – are a huge part of the developmental process, and Davis has certainly adjusted in his early dose of upper-level pitching.
Davis has 12 strikeouts in 12 games, which is good for a 22.6% rate, far better than anything you’d need to see out of a prospect (1) of his age at Triple-A for the first time *and* (2) with his power profile. And more to the point, I’m particularly impressed that Davis has managed to limit his strikeouts not only by making contact (.333 AVG), but also by remaining patient (15.1 BB%, .434 OBP), and still somehow hitting for a TON of power (.667 SLG, .333 ISO).
It’s all a very small sample size – and I absolutely expect Triple-A pitchers to make an adjustment, forcing Davis to tweak his approach once again – but so far, so very, very good. With the plate discipline stats, you really start to get a good idea of how things are “truly” going at the 100 PA mark.
So what’s next for Davis? Well, considering that he’s already at Triple-A Iowa, and largely dominating, there’s really no doubt in my mind that a promotion to Chicago is on the docket for sometime in 2022. But what was once expected to be a late-season promotion, perhaps sometime in the second-half of the year, has possibly moved up a couple months.
“He’s had an incredible year,” Cubs President of Baseball Operations Jed Hoyer said recently. “Doing what he did at Double-A was really special and obviously going up this year right to Triple-A, he continues to perform well. So I think he’s already accelerated his timeline this year. ”
Based on his performance and Hoyer’s comments, we might see Davis at Wrigley sometime before July. But there’s a big but. And it could cut a couple different ways. That would be the CBA.
The Collective Bargaining Agreement is being renegotiated this offseason and that could lead to significant changes to team control. As of now, a player’s free agent clock starts ticking based on service time in the big leagues (recall the whole teams-holding-top-prospects-down-at-the-start-of-the-year thing). And if that continues to be the case, you can pretty much count on the Cubs keeping Davis down for however long it takes to secure an extra year of team control (whether it’s fair or not – and I tend to think it would be justified anyway given his limited experience and age – that’s what they’ll do).
But what if the league changes the rules? One of the floated ideas had free agency kicking in based on a player’s age, not their time spent in the big leagues. In that case, the Cubs would theoretically be incentivized to get him up as soon as possible, to maximize the amount of games he could impact with the big league Cubs before hitting free agency. Buuuuut even in that case, they may still not want to rush him. He’ll likely still have legitimate adjustments to make at Iowa, and if the Cubs are unable to improve the big league roster enough for him to make a difference, there might not be a reason to push his developmental track too aggressively anyway.
So the answer to when will he come up generally depends on three questions: (1) How well is he performing in Spring Training and at Triple-A to start the year? (2) How did the CBA rules change the promotion incentive? And (3) Did the Cubs make enough big league improvements to warrant exposing him to the big leagues – perhaps before he’s ready – to squeeze whatever production out of him they can?