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Chicago Cubs 2020 Top 20 Prospects Countdown: The top 5

Some potential future stars highlight the top talent in the Cubs minor league system.

Brennen Davis
Brennen Davis
Rikk Carlson

Today we finish up my list of the top 20 Cubs prospects for 2020. As I wrote in the introduction, the system is up from this time last year and these prospects are a big reason why, especially the top three.

Also, as I wrote yesterday, I’m listing the prospects from 1 to 5 today rather than counting them down as today I figured that you’d want to read those at the top first.

  1. Nico Hoerner. SS. DOB: 5/13/97. B:R, T:R. 5’11”, 200. Drafted 1st round (2018) Stanford.

When the Cubs had a late-season crisis last year after pretty much every single available shortstop was injured, they made Hoerner the first draft pick from 2018 to make the majors. In a 20-game emergency tryout, Hoerner acquitted himself well, hitting .282/.305/.436 with a double, a triple and three home runs. He was also steady but unspectacular on defense playing shortstop, which is pretty much all anyone can hope for in an emergency situation like that one.

When the Cubs took Hoerner out of Stanford, they were impressed mostly by his ability to make contact. It’s been a running theme over the past few years that the Cubs swing and miss too often and that they’ve been disadvantaged by a juiced baseball that rewards contact. Hoerner wasn’t expected to hit for much power, but the Cubs made a few adjustments to his swing. That Hoerner made the adjustments so quickly and that he was able to do so without losing his ability to make contact just speaks to how mature a player he is already.

Hoerner’s 2018 season was cut short in mid-July because of an elbow injury in South Bend. He did tear up the Arizona Fall League, which gave him some momentum heading into 2019. The team had enough confidence in Hoerner’s ability that they had him skip High-A Myrtle Beach and go straight to Double-A Tennessee.

Hoerner quickly showed his unique combination of strong hitting skills and bad luck in Double-A. Hoerner was hitting .300/.391/.500 after 18 games last year when he got hit in the hand with a fastball.

Hoerner was out with a broken hand until July and he struggled to get the feel for hitting when he returned. But he finished with a terrific August, hitting .333/.391/.390 in 26 games in August. He was getting ready to return to the AFL in September when he got the emergency call.

The biggest strength of Hoerner is his ability to get the bat on the ball and to drive it hard to all fields. Hoerner is a tough guy to strike out, fanning in only about 10% of his plate appearances throughout his minor league career. Even in the majors, he only struck out at a 13% rate. He’ll draw a walk if a pitcher refuses to give in, but he’s looking to get on base with a hit rather than four balls.

While he’s never going to be a pure power hitter, the small adjustments that the Cubs made in Hoerner’s swing means that he’s going to be able to drive mistakes over the fence. He only hit three home runs in the minors last year, but that can be attributed in part to the hand injury, which often saps a player’s power for a while. Hoerner hit three home runs in just 20 games in the majors and he could regularly contribute 20 home runs a season in the majors.

On defense, Hoerner is steady but unspectacular at shortstop. But since he’s never going to move Javier Baez off of shortstop, second base is his likely position in the majors. He should be above-average at second. Moving him to center field is also a possibility, but I don’t believe he has the raw speed to be anything more than average there. He’s not slow, however, and he did steal nine bases in his half-season in Double-A.

The Cubs have a vacancy at second base at the moment and Hoerner is going to enter Spring Training trying to win that job. He’s shown the ability to make adjustments quickly, so I don’t think he’ll be overmatched in the majors in 2019, despite having played just 89 minor league games so far (not counting the AFL). He’s been compared to Ian Kinsler and that might be his ceiling, although he should strike out and walk less than Kinsler. He’d probably hit for a slightly higher average if everything breaks right for him.

In case you’ve forgotten, here are some highlights of Hoerner’s time in Chicago:

2. Brennen Davis. OF. DOB: 11/2/99. 6’4”, 175. B:R, T:R. Drafted 2nd round-compensation (2018), Basha HS (AZ).

No one in the Cubs system has more upside than Brennen Davis. Because he spent most of his time in high school playing basketball rather than baseball, he was considered a long-term project who would move through the system slowly. In their pre-draft writeup of Davis in 2018, Baseball America wrote that Davis would probably have to spend two years in rookie ball before he was ready to play at a higher level.

Yeah, about that. Davis did play 18 games in Mesa in 2018 and the plan in 2019 was for him to spend the time in Extended Spring Training until June when Eugene started playing. But after six weeks, it became clear that EXST wasn’t challenging Davis at all and the Cubs decided to send him to South Bend in late-May. His regular season ended on August 1 after he suffered a broken finger when he was hit by a pitch. In between those events, he destroyed the Midwest League to a tune of .305/.381/.525 with eight home runs and four steals in 50 games. Davis did return in time for the playoffs and he went 9 for 29 with three doubles as South Bend went 7-0 on their way to the Midwest League title.

Davis is a big, quick center fielder who uses his big frame and long arms to generate power as his bat moves through the zone. (By the way, his listed weight is from when he was drafted. He’s probably added at least 15 pounds of muscle since then and his frame could probably still support more.) He has a surprisingly mature approach at the plate considering how little experience he has. Davis doesn’t chase a lot of bad balls and he struck out just 38 times in 204 plate appearances in South Bend. On defense, he has all the tools to be an above-average center fielder. He’s even got the arm strength to play right field if he loses some speed as he puts on more muscle.

Even though he has just turned 20, Davis gets praised for his maturity. Like Hoerner, he also draws raves for his intelligence and work ethic.

The only downside on Davis is his inexperience. He’s still only played 68 games in the minor league and while those 68 games have been terrific, he really hasn’t faced any adversity yet (except getting injured). We don’t know how he’s going to react once he starts to struggle. I have no doubt he’ll handle the emotional aspect of that, but he’s going to have to be able to make adjustments to his game as he moves up the ladder and he becomes more well-known.

I don’t want to guess what Davis is capable of as a major leaguer. Just dream on the guy for now. Of course, Davis is a long way away from the majors and a lot could still go wrong. There’s no guarantee that he’ll even make the majors. But for now, just imagine what you want him to be. I’m not going to say you’re wrong.

Here are some highlights of Davis batting:

3. Brailyn Marquez. LHP. DOB: 1/30/99. 6’4”, 185. B:L, T:L. International Free Agent (2015), Dominican Republic.

If you want to rank Marquez as the Cubs’ number two prospect or Davis and Marquez as 2A and 2B, I won’t argue with you. I get a little queasy around young pitchers who throw really hard with maximum effort. I’m also no bio-mechanical expert, but I have read some observers mentioning some doubts that Marquez’s pitching motion can withstand throwing 160 innings a year as a starter. I have no idea whether or not they’re right, but the risk of injury is the biggest reason that I don’t have Marquez as number one or two on this list.

Marquez was a well-regarded prospect coming into 2019 with a fastball in the 94-97 mph range and a promising but inconsistent slider. But he made a new commitment to conditioning and the Cubs managed to clean up his delivery over the offseason and it added 2-3 mph on to his fastball. He now throws 97-99 and regularly hits triple digits on radar guns. He was clocked as high 102 mph 24 times.

Beyond Marquez’s fastball, he has a slider with a lot of promise, but he has trouble throwing it for strikes at times. His changeup needs work, but it’s hard to find a 21-year-old pitcher who doesn’t need to work on his change. There’s no reason it can’t become a good pitch with experience, especially working off that 100 mph fastball.

The Cubs were cautious with Marquez, leaving him in South Bend most of the year. He made 17 starts for the Cubs, going 5-4 with a 3.61 ERA. In 77⅓ Midwest League innings, Marquez struck out 102 and held opposing hitters to a .228 average. His biggest weakness is control as he walked 43 batters in South Bend. When Marquez struggles to repeat his delivery, the walks can come in big bunches.

Marquez got better as the season went on. He received a late-season promotion to Advanced-A Myrtle Beach and made five starts. He went 4-1 with a 1.71 ERA. He pitched 26⅓ innings and struck out 26 and walked just seven. It’s a small sample, but it was a promising debut at a higher level.

I expect the Cubs will continue to be cautious with Marquez and let him pitch most of the season with the Pelicans. He doesn’t turn 21 until later this month and he really does need to learn how to use all of his pitches and not just blow batters away with heat to be an effective major league starter. There’s a top-of-the-rotation pitcher in here if the Cubs don’t collapse the soufflé by taking it out of the oven early.

Watch the video highlights of this game when Marquez struck out a team-record 14 batters for South Bend this past July. This game shows what Marquez is capable of when he can control his slider and changeup, both of which are on display here. I believe all 14 strikeouts are shown in this video.

4. Miguel Amaya. C. DOB: 3/9/99. 6’1, 185. B:R, T:R. Int’l FA (2015) Panama.

Amaya is a “tortoise” prospect, as opposed to a “hare” prospect. He doesn’t have any eye-popping skills nor has he put up any gaudy stat lines at any level of the minors. What he does do is perform well despite being young for every level that he’s played at. He also earns respect through his hard work and leadership skills. Even off the field, that dedication is represented by how quickly Amaya mastered English, or at least enough English to communicate with his teammates and handle a postgame interview.

Amaya started the 2019 season as the youngest player in the Advanced-A Carolina League. He spent the whole season there, playing in 99 game and going .235/.351/.402 with 24 doubles and 11 home runs in what is a pretty difficult hitting environment in Myrtle Beach. The better sign is that he actually improved as the year went on, posting a .217 batting average in the first half and a .251 average in the second half.

On defense, Amaya has a strong arm and threw out about 35% of baserunners trying to steal. He does need to work on his receiving skills and especially on blocking pitches in the dirt. But catching is not something that most players learn overnight. He’s made steady progress in that area every year and there is no reason to believe he won’t continue to do so.

Amaya projects out to be a solid major league catcher who does lots of things well and nothing outstanding. He has above-average power, but he’s not the kind of guy who is likely to hit 30 home runs in the majors. Amaya is unlikely to hit for a high average, but he shows a good eye and patience and should have a solid on-base percentage. He does run like a tortoise, so that earlier analogy works here too.

Amaya has been moving up the ladder one year at a time and I don’t expect that to change in 2020. He should find the Southern League and Smokies Park to be a much-friendlier hitting environment than the Carolina League, so we may see a career-high in home runs. He still doesn’t turn 21 until March, so the Cubs can be patient with him.

Here’s Amaya hitting an opposite field home run [VIDEO].

5. Adbert Alzolay. RHP. DOB: 3/1/95. 6’0”, 179. B:R, T:R. Int’l FA (2013), Venezuela.

I remain Adbert Alzolay’s biggest fan. I really love to watch him pitch. Last year I wrote that “he works fast, attacks hitters and lets the chips fall where they may.” You saw that attitude on display at Wrigley Field last June. That approach also got him into a little trouble as he gave up a lot of home runs.

As all of you saw when he made his major league debut in June, Alzolay works quickly and keeps hitters off-balance by mixing up his mid-90s fastball with his curve and his changeup, both of which improved last season. But he’s going to have to stay healthy and seize any opportunity that comes his way if he wants to be a major league pitcher in 2020.

Alzolay got a late start to the 2019 season after suffering an injury to his side in Spring Training. He didn’t make his season debut until May 12 struggled in his first two starts with Triple-A Iowa. But after that, he took off and was dominating over his next six starts. Alzolay pitched 28 innings in those six starts and allowed just three runs for a 1.93 ERA. He struck out 40 batters in those 28 innings and walked just three, one intentionally. That performance earned Alzolay his major league debut where he allowed just one hit (a home run, unfortunately) in four innings of relief against the Mets. He struck out two and walked five on the way to his first major league win in his first major league game.

Alzolay got his first major league start five days later and while he could only go 4⅔ innings, he once again allowed just one hit and once again it was a home run against the Braves. But the Pirates hammered him in his third start and he got sent back down to the minors after that. Alzolay struggled in his return to Triple-A and it was eventually revealed that he was dealing with elbow inflammation. The injury didn’t turn out to be anything serious, but he missed a couple of weeks. He came back strong in August for Iowa and got one relief appearance in September with the major league club before the Cubs shut him down for the season.

For the record, Alzolay went 2-4 with a 4.41 ERA in Triple-A Iowa, which wasn’t bad for the PCL in 2019. It would have been a lot better if we took out his poor July when he was dealing with the elbow issues. Alzolay pitched 65⅓ innings overall in Triple-A and struck out 91 and walked 31. In the majors, he had a 7.30 ERA over 12⅓ innings, most of which came in that awful start against the Pirates.

Alzolay has never had any major injury, such as one that would require Tommy John surgery, but he has certainly picked up a lot of lesser ones that has cost him a lot of time over the course of his career. If he’s healthy, he’s got a starter’s three-pitch repertoire and a starter’s mentality. His ceiling is a #3 starter. But he has to demonstrate that he can handle the high pitch load that comes with being a starter. Otherwise, he could settle into the bullpen where he might add a mile per hour or two on to his fastball.

If you want to relive Alzolay’s major league debut, here’s it is. (The video is queued to start at the 3:42 mark when Alzolay enters the game.)

Thanks for reading! Let’s hope we get to do this again next year!