CHICAGO -- Player development around baseball was put to the test due to all the pandemic-related circumstances over the last year.
The Minor League season was lost. The MLB Draft was shortened. Prospects either trained at home or in a controlled setting at their team's alternate site. The international signing period was pushed back. Scouting and evaluating and so much else had to adjust to virtual avenues.
The Cubs were proud of what they were able to accomplish
"There were a lot of positives," Cubs vice president of player development Matt Dorey said. "Even before the shutdown, we were trying to rethink our strategy in terms of like, 'How do we build in these developmental timelines in a regular Minor League season?' Where we could take a player out of day-to-day competition and do these check-ins.
"And, unfortunately, we had a full year of a check-in. But yeah, there was a lot of good work being done, which otherwise probably wouldn't have happened, or we would've had to do it in a more crazy environment, where you're dealing with a lot of other variables outside of your control."
As the Cubs plan for the 2021 season, they hope things on the developmental front will return closer to normal in the coming months. It will be a chance to see whether the work put in during the chaotic '20 campaign will pay off, and it will be an opportunity to get a better look at some prospects who are newer to the farm system.
With all that in mind, and with MLB Pipeline's 2021 Top 100 Prospects list having just dropped, here is a look at five of the Cubs' top farmhands:
Prospect: LHP Brailyn Marquez
Acquired: Signed as non-drafted free agent (Aug. 23, 2015)
Top 100 ranking: 60
Ranked by MLB Pipeline as baseball's No. 8 lefty prospect, Marquez could impact the Cubs at some point in 2021. He made his MLB debut with a brief, wild outing in September that really did not showcase all the work he put in last year. Marquez, who turns 22 on Saturday, focused on a two-seamer and improving a changeup, helping add to an arsenal that includes an overpowering four-seamer that can reach triple digits. In '19, the lefty had a 3.13 ERA, 128 strikeouts and 50 walks in 103 2/3 innings between two Class A levels.
Dorey: "He's becoming a more complete pitcher. He was amped up, jacked up and was out of the zone [in his MLB debut], which is actually pretty uncharacteristic of Brailyn. He usually throws a lot of strikes. But, big league debut, facing the White Sox, he was coming out of the delivery a little bit, trying to overthrow. I didn't really take too much stock in the lack of command. But what I saw every fifth day in South Bend, [Ind.,] when he was toeing it up, was a guy with multiple plus weapons and a repeatable delivery. And a guy that we think has a huge upside."
Prospect: OF Brennen Davis
Acquired: Second round of 2018 MLB Draft
Top 100 ranking: 61
A 6-foot-4 former basketball and baseball standout at Basha High School (Chandler, Ariz.), Davis was invited to the South Bend site in 2020 in just his third professional season. That allowed him to focus on his pitch selection, two-strike approach and swing mechanics against advanced pitching in a controlled setting. Davis hit .305 with 20 extra-base hits and a .907 OPS in 50 games for Class A South Bend in '19, and he has continued to open eyes with his rapid development as a center fielder with pop at the plate.
Dorey: "With Brennen, it was like a collaboration from Day 1. And that's a credit to him and how he was raised -- being open-minded and a growth mindset. But also, he's just a ball of clay. He's a really good listener, and he's such a good athlete, and that allows him to apply new suggestions or methods and bring them into games really quickly. And then that's just a unique trait that we don't see a lot of times with athletes, guys that can really implement change.
"That just speaks to his athleticism, and we're seeing it translate. He's playing one sport for the first time in his career. So he's trying to really focus and, at times, hyper-focus -- we have to back him off at times -- on trying to perfect his swing or perfect his move, and we have to make sure we don't coach the natural athleticism out of him."
Prospect: C Miguel Amaya
Acquired: Signed as non-drafted free agent (July 17, 2015)
Top 100 ranking: 80
Amaya, who will turn 22 on March 9, was added to the Cubs' 40-man roster ahead of the 2020 season. Currently, Amaya (the No. 8 catching prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline) is behind Willson Contreras and Austin Romine on the depth chart, and he needs more Minor League development before moving up to the Majors. Amaya posted a 1.161 OPS in 10 games for Caguas in the Puerto Rican Winter League this offseason, and had a .235/.351/.402 showing for Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach in 2019.
Dorey: "He really doubled down on his defense in South Bend [at the alternate training site in 2020]. And not just the technical aspects of it, but the game-calling, understanding and building relationships with pitchers, knowing what their strengths and weaknesses are and being a leader from that position.
"I think I might've said this earlier, after South Bend to some people, but I was just so impressed with his maturity and his growth as a teammate, as a leader in the clubhouse, and the care factor for pitchers, willingness to do all the little things that will help him contribute to a Major League team. I mean, he has tools, he has skill, but just all those other factors that help you become a winning baseball player for a contending team, he's starting to embrace that in his day-to-day work."
Prospect: SS Ed Howard
Acquired: First round (No. 16) in 2020 MLB Draft
Top 100 ranking: NR
Howard, who turned 19 on Thursday, is no stranger to the spotlight. He was a member of the Jackie Robinson West team that made it to the Little League World Series in 2014, and he is now a highly touted prospect for his hometown Cubs after starring at Mount Carmel High School. Howard did not have a Minor League season in '20, but he still opened eyes with his physical appearance and production in instructional league earlier this offseason.
Dorey: "How strong he showed up to instructional league and how the ball was coming off his bat was a little surprising. It was a lot more just power and the exit velo. We know he has a chance to be a premium defender at short, with how he moves, even carrying some extra weight and muscle. It's so natural and easy. So I thought the bat was going be like, 'OK, we're going to need to wait for him to get stronger. It might be a couple years down the road before we really see it manifest.' But how he came out of the chute offensively was probably the biggest surprise, and its just really exciting that that developmental timeline looks like it's going to be much, much shorter offensively than I probably predicted."
Prospect: SS Cristian Hernandez
Acquired: Signed as non-drafted free agent (Jan. 15, 2021)
Top 100 ranking: NR
According to MLB.com's Jesse Sanchez, the 6-foot-2, 175-pound Hernandez "resembles a young Alex Rodriguez and has a build similar to Manny Machado at the same age." Those are obviously impressive comparisons, and the Cubs are undoubtedly excited about landing the No. 6 international prospect (per MLB Pipeline) from the 2020-21 class. Hernandez, 17, is considered a five-tool shortstop with an extremely high ceiling.
Dorey: "This guy's as exciting as any international signing that we've had in a long time. I think back to when we got Eloy [Jiménez] and we got Gleyber [Torres] and like the buzz and excitement that were around those guys. We're equally or more excited about Cristian. He's so athletic. He really checks all the boxes in terms of having a really advanced approach at a young age, the power -- even the last few months -- continues to improve, because he's just getting bigger and stronger every day."