Prospect Davis a 'ball of clay' in tough 2020

February 5th, 2021

CHICAGO -- Brennen Davis got his work completed at the Cubs' alternate training site and was prepared to retreat to his apartment for the remainder of the day. That was when word arrived that the Cubs needed a few extra players at Wrigley Field.

It was July 15 and the game was only a Summer Camp intrasquad, but that did not mean the news did not include a shot of adrenaline. After a two-hour drive with Chris Valaika, Chicago's Minor League hitting coordinator at the time, Davis found himself in center field at the Friendly Confines, with over in right.

"Being that close to The Show," Davis said, "it just opens your eyes that you're not that far away."

Before the COVID-19 pandemic put the baseball world on hold and forced a reorganization of the 2020 season, Davis was ticketed for a Class A affiliate. With no Minor League season, the Cubs instead included the outfield prospect in their 60-man player pool, allowing for hands-on training at the South Bend, Ind., site to keep his development path intact.

Instead of four or five at-bats a game against an assortment of Class A pitchers, Davis faced an older cast of more experienced arms. He faced pitchers with Major League time and relievers with World Series credentials. There was a day he faced the same arm nine at-bats in a row. In a controlled setting, Davis could focus on his offensive tasks, watch video of his at-bats, study data and repeat the process daily.

"The Site B thing was kind of like a bummer for a lot of guys," Davis said. "But for me, it was probably the best situation developmentally that I could be in."

Davis explained that in a normal Minor League game setting, he and his teammates might be focused on getting a starting pitcher out of a game as quickly as possible. There might be pitchers he had confidence he could beat, compared to the alternate site, where the arms he encountered understood how to swiftly find his offensive weak spots.

Davis was used to a game-by-game adjustment period, but found himself suddenly dealing with learning how to adapt to a pitch-to-pitch approach.

"It was like every night," said Matt Dorey, the Cubs' vice president of player development, "you're facing a dude that can land all their secondary pitches for strikes early in counts. They can command their fastballs to all four quadrants. They know exactly where your weakness is and they're going to try to exploit it at all costs, because they're trying to get to the big leagues tomorrow."

Here was a veteran like -- who Cubs fans may recall allowed exactly zero runs in his 2016 postseason run with Cleveland -- dropping in 12-6 curveballs for strikes against a 21-year-old prospect with 276 career professional plate appearances. Here was someone like lefty with the cleanest, smoothest motion Davis had ever witnessed.

"I think that was the biggest growth point for for those young guys," said Valaika, who was promoted to the Cubs' assistant hitting coach job this offseason. "You know, closing holes, making adjustments on the fly. It took maybe longer than it would an older guy, but I think that was a huge development step for them."

The Cubs' evaluators were impressed by how Davis handled every challenge.

Davis was a two-sport star for Basha High School in Arizona, where he helped the basketball team to a 30-1 record and a 6A title in 2017. In '18, the Cubs grabbed the 6-foot-4 outfielder in the second round of the MLB Draft, taking a chance on a toolsy athlete with a high ceiling.

Right away, Davis showed the kind of mentality that played a role in deciding to bring him to the South Bend site in 2020. Not only is Davis one of Chicago's highly-touted prospects -- ranked No. 61 on MLB Pipeline's preseason Top 100 for 2021 -- but he has been open-minded throughout his development.

"I think the best way to put it is he was humbly, a ball of clay," Dorey said. "He didn't show up with a lot of preconceived bias, personal bias, about what made him good or, 'This is his swing,' or, 'This is how I run the bases. This is how I play center field.' I think he was just really eager to learn, and learn and grow with us about who he needed to be as a player long-term."

Two seasons into his time with the Cubs, Davis has logged a .303/.394/.479 slash line in 68 games. That included a spike in slugging percentage to .525 in 2019 from .333 in '18. He has increasingly focused on improving his two-strike approach, finding the right times to pull pitches in the air and just making better swing decisions. This winter, Davis said he has developed a "B swing" for two-strike counts that he is excited to test out in his 2021 season.

Davis did admit that he encountered a bit of information overload early in his career with the Cubs, but it has helped him learn how to filter suggestions sent his way. He also credited some of the veteran hitters who came through the South Bend site in '20 -- guys with big league time like , and -- for helping his learning curve.

"One thing I picked up for sure was that, don't ever let like the game change your work and your routine," Davis said. "Know what works for you and, even if you feel lost, have something to come back to in the cage every day and be able to get up every day, and be the same person. Don't let it affect how you go about your business."

In South Bend last summer, Davis found a routine at the field, but the mental challenges of the COVID-19 situation were real. To help pass the time, he played a lot of cards, watched a lot of movies and grilled out with his teammates. Davis also ordered a magic kit and a Rubik's Cube.

"I completed one and then I just hung it up," Davis said with a laugh. "That was my career."

In that July 15 Summer Camp game at Wrigley Field, Davis caught a fly ball off the bat of , who was non-tendered over the offseason. He was in the same lineup as and , who can both be free agents next winter.

Davis knows there is angst among Cubs fans who are worried about the direction of the team, especially given all the change at the big league level this offseason. Davis has also heard new president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer talk about building the next Cubs core, and the young outfielder believes he can be a key part of that future picture.

"We have a really good core coming through the system right now," Davis said. "And I know fans aren't really happy to see their guys that brought them a World Series go, but I think we have the talent and the guys that want it bad enough to bring another championship to Chicago as soon as we bridge that gap.

"So, I'm pretty excited. I'm thrilled to be in the position I am and I'm doing everything I can to make sure I'm ready when my time is called. I can't wait. It brings me goosebumps."