The next Cubs core? This group could be it

March 15th, 2021

MESA, Ariz. -- There has been a lot of talk this spring about the current Cubs core, which brought a World Series title to Chicago five seasons ago and is potentially experiencing its final years together.

Below the Major Leagues, the Cubs are working on constructing the next core group of impact, homegrown players.

"I mean, those are superstars," said Cubs outfield prospect Brennen Davis, referring to the likes of Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras and Anthony Rizzo. "I'm just here to help Chicago win a championship when it's my time."

Davis -- a second-round pick by the Cubs in the 2018 MLB Draft -- is ranked as the Cubs' top position-player prospect in the team's 2021 Top 30 prospect list by MLB Pipeline. He is one of nine players within that grouping to spend time in Major League camp this spring.

Here is a look at the Top 5 prospects on Pipeline's latest ranking of Chicago's farm system:

1. LHP
Top 100 ranking: 60

It was easy to dream about Marquez as a future ace when the lefty blew a 99-mph fastball by White Sox slugger José Abreu in his MLB debut last season.

During that Sept. 27 outing, Marquez not only put his promise on display but also showed why he remains an ongoing project for the Cubs. The 21-year-old lefty flashed his overpowering arsenal but battled his command (along with nerves) in a rocky five-run, three-walk appearance.

"He was amped up, jacked up and was out of the zone," Matt Dorey, the Cubs' vice president of player development, said over the offseason. "Which is actually pretty uncharacteristic of Brailyn. He usually throws a lot of strikes. But [his] 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 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."

Marquez spent most of the 2020 campaign at the South Bend, Ind., alternate training site. While there, the big lefty continued to refine a changeup and two-seamer as additional options for his arsenal, which boasts a triple-digit fastball and sharp slider.

This spring, the Cubs have had Marquez on a conservative program, following a delayed start while going through COVID-19 protocols. He may not be on the Opening Day roster, but Marquez could once again work his way into the picture at some point in '21.

"The sky's the limit for him," Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said earlier this spring. "I think a big thing for him, as he continues to grow and develop and get older, is coming up with a routine so it doesn't take a longer ramp-up every single year. I think that's just part of becoming a professional."

2. OF
Top 100 ranking: 61

Cubs manager David Ross first met Davis during the young outfielder's pre-Draft workout at Wrigley Field three years ago. This spring, when Davis arrived at MLB camp, the manager delivered a simple message to a player he has seen grow into one of the organization's highly touted prospects.

"Just soak everything in," Davis said recently.

Following a whirlwind 2020 -- a year in which Davis suited up for the Cubs during two Summer Camp games at Wrigley Field and then continued his development at the alternate training site -- the outfielder has been learning from Chicago's veterans this spring.

The 21-year-old Davis said the outfield group of Ian Happ, Jason Heyward, Cameron Maybin and Joc Pederson have been welcoming and helpful in recent weeks. He has studied their routines, learned from their cage work and picked their brains.

"I'm taking everything that I can in from this experience," Davis said. "The way that guys work. Being prepared. The preparation it takes to go be successful that I see from all the guys. I'm going to take that into my season."

3. C
Top 100 ranking: 89

Like many players, Amaya did not have a Minor League season last year, but the catching prospect did spend the year catching advanced arms at the alternate training site. While there, Amaya also worked closely with veteran catcher José Lobatón to continue his learning process.

"Him and José Lobatón hit it off," Ross said. "He was a good mentor for him."

Amaya, 22, was recently optioned to Double-A Tennessee and has a few catchers ahead of him on the path to the big leagues. Ross raved about Amaya's physical shape at the start of this spring and praised the catcher's continued offensive growth.

Dorey noted that Amaya (with Lobatón at his side) also made strides in 2020 when it came to working with pitchers.

"He really doubled down on his defense in South Bend," Dorey said. "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."

4. SS Cristian Hernandez
Top 100 ranking: NR

The Cubs reeled in Hernandez with a $3 million bonus when the international signing period opened in January. The 6-foot-2 shortstop has been compared to Alex Rodriguez and Manny Machado in terms of build at his age (17).

The ceiling is extremely high for Hernandez, who was the No. 6-ranked international prospect, per MLB Pipeline. Dorey went as far as comparing the Hernandez signing to when the Cubs signed Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jiménez as prospects.

"With Cristian," Dorey said, "I mean, 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 and we got Gleyber 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."

5. SS Ed Howard
Top 100 ranking: NR

The Cubs selected Howard -- a product of Mount Carmel High School in Chicago -- with the 16th overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft. Howard did not get to play a Minor League season last year, but he did open eyes when he attended instructional league.

"I was really pleasantly surprised at how physical he was," Dorey said. "I thought we'd be getting more lanky, loose, twitchy, but needed strength. And not to say he won't continue to evolve physically, but just 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 just really exciting that that developmental timeline looks like it's going to be much, much shorter offensively than I probably predicted."