The Cubs have a rebuilding system with many of their most talented prospects concentrated at the lower levels. Those players need at-bats and innings after losing the entire 2020 Minor League season to the coronavirus pandemic.
Ten members of on MLB Pipeline's Cubs Top 30 have yet to make their pro debuts, most notably shortstops Cristian Hernandez (signed for $3 million out of the Dominican Republic in January), Ed Howard (a local Chicago product who was the club's first-round pick in the 2020 Draft) and Reginald Preciado (the best of the four prospects acquired from the Padres in the Yu Darvish trade last December). Eight more have yet to reach full-season ball, including 2019 first-round right-hander Ryan Jensen. Two more prominent prospects, right-hander Kohl Franklin and second baseman Chase Strumpf, have topped out with a week each in Low A.
"So many guys were at a pivotal point of their development in 2020 and needed a full year to get 500 at-bats or 120-plus innings," Cubs farm director Matt Dorey said. "It's almost like we had a bunch of talented freshmen and they didn't get to play. Ultimately, it has been so rewarding to get these guys back on the field."
The logjam of young talent needing reps, not to mention the elimination of short-season leagues in the restructuring of the Minors, will give some of those players the chance to accelerate their development. For instance, Howard and fellow middle infielders Yeison Santana (another piece of the Darvish deal) and Luis Robert Verdugo have earned spots at Low A Myrtle Beach with their play in Minor League Spring Training. In turn, that pushes Strumpf to High A South Bend, where he could be joined by Jensen.
Managing pitchers will be tricky after a cancelled season, and a Cubs organization that has had great difficulty developing homegrown arms for the last decade will try to take care of its most prized mound prospects. Dorey said Chicago had its pitchers throw mock innings in 2020 by simulating starts or relief appearances throughout the summer, which hopefully will allow them to carry full workloads this year. Outside of Adbert Alzolay, who has big league experience, the system's best pitchers have low innings totals in pro ball: 257 2/3 for left-hander Brailyn Márquez, 50 2/3 for Franklin and 12 for Jensen.
"We did try to build out their innings load, but we also realize that by no means could we perfectly replicate a normal workload," Dorey said. "We'll look at the last two years of work to build out their progressions based on that. But our main goal is to try to have a normal offseason this year going into 2022 rather than trying to be super aggressive."
The only one of the four prospects in the Darvish trade who has appeared in a pro game, Santana finished fourth in the Rookie-level Arizona League batting race at .346 in 2019. The Cubs targeted him in the deal because they liked his bat-to-ball skills and high baseball IQ, and they're enthused after their first in-person experience with him.
"He's been really impressive with his approach and ability to use the whole field," Dorey said. "He also has some sneaky power to his pull side and he can definitely play shortstop."
Catchers Ed Hearn and Pablo Aliendo have impressed in Minor League camp and grabbed spots on the Myrtle Beach roster. The top-rated high school catcher in the 2019 Draft, Hearn has made some mechanical adjustments at the plate to improve his timing and stay more on plane to the ball. A 19-year-old Venezuelan who has yet to make his U.S. debut, Aliendo has attracted attention with his strength, athleticism and receiving ability.
Alternate training site
The Cubs focused heavily on college pitching in the 2016 and 2017 Drafts with little to show for it at the big league level thus far, but right-hander Keegan Thompson may be about to change that. Elbow inflammation required a platelet-rich plasma injection and limited him to three starts in 2019 before he returned to perform well in the Arizona Fall League that offseason. The 2017 third-rounder from Auburn continued to do so at Chicago's alternate training site last summer and again this spring.
Added to the 40-man roster last November, Thompson's slider, changeup and pitchabilty all rank among the best in the system. Known for working at 90-92 mph in the past, he averaged 93 mph with his fastball last summer and has thrown even harder this spring.
"Keegan was kind of the talk of big league camp when he pitched at 94-97 and touched 98," Dorey said. "A lot of these guys haven't pitched a lot for a long time and the velocities have been crazy and are starting to normalize, but he's still pitching at 92-95.
"He added a cutter that's interesting too, and he's always had plus feel and command. He could potentially help the big league club at some point this year."
Prospect we’ll be talking about in 2022
Right-hander Max Bain's road to pro ball was unusual to say the least. He spent four seasons at NCAA Division II Northwood (Mich.) without getting drafted, no surprise because he had a mid-80s fastball and weighed more than 300 pounds. After graduating in 2019, he spent time in the independent United Shore League before dedicating himself to conditioning and pitch design.
Bain dropped about 40 pounds and boosted his fastball to mid-90s, drawing interest from multiple teams before signing with the Cubs in January 2020. Now he carries 240 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame and has thrown 95-99 mph with an improved slider and strike-throwing this spring.
Something to prove
Signed for an over-slot $1.2 million as a second-round pick from a California high school in 2018, outfielder Cole Roederer hit .224/.319/.365 in his first full pro season because Low A pitchers learned they could exploit his aggressiveness with a steady diet of changeups. He made some adjustments in the second half of 2019 but couldn't build on them with no Minor League season last year.
Dorey said Roederer looks ready to take off in 2021.
"I think Cole's grown up a lot," Dorey said. "He's always been a great game player, but now he's learned how to work, learned how to practice, learned his swing, learned what kind of player he needs to be. He's using the whole field, running really well and looking very good in center field.