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Chicago Cubs Top 20 Prospects Countdown: The top 5

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There’s a lot of promise in the top 5 prospects in the Cubs system.

Brennen Davis
Brennen Davis
Clinton Cole

Welcome to the final day of my countdown of the Cubs top prospects for 2021. I’m very excited about all five of the players listed here. While there are no guarantees of course, I believe that all five have a chance to be impact major league ballplayers.

A quick repeat of my daily disclaimer: The prospect list this year was hard. There was no minor league baseball and I wasn’t really following baseball as closely in 2020 as I had in past years. I didn’t even know I was doing a list this year until early January. There is always a lot of guesswork in these rankings, but this year I’m really having to rely on my gut instincts and what other people are saying more than usual. As always, all errors are my fault.

Having said that, enjoy!

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

Brennen Davis is a five-tool center fielder. He’s got a strong arm, good range and plus speed. He should be able to hit for average and he’s demonstrated a good eye at the plate. He already has good pull power and he’s starting to show the ability to hit the ball with authority to the opposite field. Baseball America ranked him as the best power hitter in the Cubs minor leagues. At the alternate site this summer, Davis showed that he’s good at taking instructions and making modifications when necessary. He’s also considered hard-working and mature for someone who is still just 21 years old. For all these reasons, Brennen Davis is the top prospect in the Cubs system.

Davis was projected out to be a long-term project when the Cubs took him in the 2018 draft. He split his time between basketball and baseball in high school and didn’t decide to focus on baseball until his senior year. Even then, a hamstring problem caused him to miss much of the baseball season. In their pre-draft evaluation of Davis, Baseball America predicted he’d need two years in rookie ball before he was ready to be promoted.

He only needed 18 games in rookie ball. In 2019, Davis was ticketed for short-season Eugene, but after a month and a half of Extended Spring Training, the Cubs felt he was advanced enough to handle Low-A South Bend. He only managed to play 50 regular season games in 2019 because of two finger injuries — he got hit with pitches in almost the same place twice. But in those 50 games, Davis hit .305/.381/.525 with eight home runs and four steals. He returned in time for the playoffs where he hit .310/.394/.414 in seven games.

Davis was assigned to the alternate site in 2020. Even he admitted that he struggled at first against major league-quality breaking pitches. But Davis made the necessary adjustments. He learned to recognize spin and lay off of pitches out of the zone or drive the ones in the zone. He also reportedly improved his defensive routes in center field.

Davis has always been a patient hitter who gets into good counts and looks for pitches to drive. He has good bat-to-ball skills and he should draw a fair number of walks along with a fair number of strikeouts.

Davis is a potential 30/30 hitter and a good defensive center fielder with a strong arm. That’s an All-Star player. He’s not a sure thing—he’s only played 68 official minor league games and that he got hit in the hand at almost the same place twice in one season is a little worrisome, although he’s said he’s worked on avoiding that.

The Cubs plan for Davis is for him to play at Double-A Tennessee, although I can see him starting the season at Triple-A Iowa, depending on how long the start of the Double-A season is delayed. Assuming he succeeds there, a 2022 major league debut seems inevitable. If Davis continues on the course he’s on, several All-Star Game appearances should follow that.

Here’s a collection of Davis highlights from 2019. It’s really good to see him hit an opposite field home run near the end of the view.

There are several good interviews with Davis available on-line. He’s very generous with his time and he’s a pretty gregarious person. Here’s a video chat with MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis that will give you some insight into the (hopefully) future Cubs star.

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

Brailyn Marquez is the kind of power pitcher that Cubs fans haven’t seen since a young Kerry Wood. Marquez has the best left-handed fastball in the minor leagues according to Baseball America. It averages 97 miles per hout and was clocked as high as 102. He’s also able to maintain that velocity for several innings. His changeup is about 90, which is faster than Kyle Hendrick’s fastball.

Marquez was at the alternate site this past summer and the Cubs worked hard with him on his breaking pitches. They separated out his former “slurve” into a high-80s slider and a low-80s curve. Both pitches are still works in progress, but they’re promising pitches. The Cubs also worked on refining his changeup, which is a pitch he’s going to need to retire right-handed batters.

As you can imagine from someone who throws that hard, Marquez isn’t afraid to challenge hitters.

Marquez has tremendous upside — that fastball makes him a possible future number one starter. But there is a lot of risk there as well. All you have to do is watch Marquez’s major league debut last season. Marquez gave up five runs on two hits, three walks and two wild pitches in only two-thirds of an inning. His pitching motion was all out of sync that day, which happened to him early in his time at the alternate site as well. The Cubs spent the summer working on cleaning up his pitching motion and getting him to repeat it every time, but as you saw, old habits sometimes sneak back in.

The problems that Marquez suffers with his delivery (and the subsequent control issues) is the reason I have him as the second-best Cubs prospect rather than the in the top spot. There is also the chance that he is forced to go to the bullpen, although he’d probably be an Aroldis Chapman-quality closer there.

Marquez is probably in the same boat as Davis as far as his 2021 plans go. The Cubs would probably like to start him in Double-A, but the delay in their season might force a Triple-A debut.

Here’s some video from 2019 in South Bend when Marquez struck out 14 batters.

And here’s video from his major league debut. While overall it didn’t go well, Marquez did strike out José Abreu on a 99 mile per hour fastball.

3. Miguel Amaya. C. DOB: 3/9/99. 6’1, 185. B:R, T:R. International Free Agent (2015) Panama.

I know some people don’t want to hear this, but Miguel Amaya is likely the Cubs catcher of the future. Amaya spent the summer at the alternate site in South Bend and he drew raves for his defensive work and the way he worked with the pitching staff. The Cubs front office decided to challenge him by giving him detailed major league scouting reports to work with, and he was able to quickly master them and work them into a game plan. He’s had some problems with his footwork on defense in the past, but reports out of the South Bend say that he’s made good progress in that area. His ability to block pitches in the dirt took a step forward, according to reports. He’s also learned to frame pitches better in South Bend.

Amaya’s offense is a bit behind his defense. He has plus power potential, but he was still working on his swing the last I saw. He could be driving the ball in the air more often to tap into that power. Supposedly he made progress on that last summer. And while it’s good that he’s a patient hitter who will draw a walk, he does get into bad counts and then pitchers can exploit his tendency to swing hard at anything. But it’s not unusual for offensive development to lag behind for catchers. They have so many things they have to learn on defense and about managing a pitching staff that it’s not always easy to get the work in to improve their hitting.

Amaya hit .235/.351/.402 with 24 doubles and 11 home runs in 99 games at High-A Myrtle Beach in 2019. He was named to the Futures Game in both 2018 and 2019.

Amaya has a lot of things that you look for in a starting MLB catcher. He has good size to handle the rigors of the position. He has an average-plus arm that could be improved with more experience. He can provide some right-handed power.

But above all, Amaya is a leader. Even though he’s still only 21, Amaya isn’t afraid to take charge of a game. As Cubs VP Matt Dorey told Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic (sub. req.) last fall:

Miguel openly challenged himself to become a more consistent receiver and game caller entering camp and left having made significant improvements in both of these areas. He has always had plus natural instincts, tools and skill for the position but took impressive strides in all of the finer points and nuances that the position demands — communication, leadership and ultimately prioritizing winning each pitch with his focus and intent for whoever was on the mound that day. . . All credit goes to him, he took on every challenge the staff threw at him and was relentless with his daily work on the field, in the weight room and is becoming a leader in the clubhouse with his maturity and professionalism.

That Amaya is bilingual helps a lot too.

Amaya isn’t ready for the majors yet. As I noted, he needs to work on his hitting. The plan is for Amaya to start the season out in Iowa. He’s likely to make his major league debut sometime in 2021. Obviously if the hitting never comes around, he’ll probably only be a major league backup. But even if that’s all he is, his defensive skills and his ability to manage a pitching staff should keep him employed for many years.

Here is some video highlights of Amaya hitting in Myrtle Beach in 2019. You can see his big power potential here.

4. Adbert Alzolay. RHP. DOB: 3/1/95. 6’0”, 179. B:R, T:R. IFA (2013), Venezuela.

I am still Adbert Alzolay’s biggest fan. I just love to watch him pitch. Most of you got a good look at him in the majors last season and I hope you agree with me. He works fast (although the Cubs are trying to slow him down just a little), throws strikes, mixes up his pitches and just dares hitters to beat him. His stuff isn’t so good that he doesn’t get beat from time to time, but I expect that he’ll end up on top more often than not throughout the course of his major league career.

This should be Alzolay’s last year on this list as he now has 33⅔ major league innings and will probably pass the 50-inning rookie limit very early in 2020. Last year, Alzolay threw 21⅓ innings with the Cubs over four starts and two relief appearances. He posted a 2.95 ERA and struck out 29 batters in that time. Walking 13 batters wasn’t good, but holding opposing hitters to a .169 batting average was very good.

The Cubs re-tooled his slider at the alternate site last fall. Giving him a different grip, the pitch now moves more like a cutter. It’s a nasty pitch and the Cubs said he mastered it in just two weeks. (The Athletic sub. req.) He’s also added a two-seam fastball last year to give him a five-pitch arsenal. His four-seam fastball sits in the 93-96 mile per hour range and can touch 98 mph. His fading changeup gives him an effective weapon against left-handers. His curve has a nice bite to it and is at least an average pitch now with the potential to get even better.

Things are not all roses for Alzolay. His tendency to challenge hitters up in the zone leads to more home runs than you’d like. Like many young pitchers, he can get his delivery messed up and start walking (or hitting) too many batters. But he’s worked hard on improving that.

Alzolay is also a workout monster. If you follow him on Twitter, you know he loves to post videos of himself working out. When researching fellow pitcher Justin Steele, I found an interview with Steele where he said that no one on the team works harder than Alzolay.

I expect that Alzolay will start the season in the Cubs major league rotation. His upside is a number three starter, although if he keeps discovering new pitches, who knows what his upside is?

Here are highlights of Alzolay’s last appearance of 2020 when he struck out eight in five innings in a win over the White Sox.

5. Ed Howard. SS. DOB: 1/29/2002. B:R, T:R. 6’2”, 185. Drafted 1st round (2020), Mt Carmel HS (IL).

The Cubs took the local high school player in the first round last season in a draft unlike any other. Howard didn’t even play in his senior season because of the pandemic. But Howard’s play in previous years and in private workouts convinced the Cubs that he’s a future major league starting shortstop.

Howard’s biggest asset his his defense. He’s a no-doubt shortstop with smooth footwork, sure hands and a strong, accurate arm. His offense is behind his defense. His hitting was inconsistent on the showcase circuit, but there is potential there to improve. His swing is quick, clean and geared towards contact and hitting the ball gap-to-gap rather than power. But since he just turned 19 his body could still add a lot of muscle and he could still change his swing to increase the launch angle off his bat. Whether that tradeoff would be worth it, I don’t know.

Howard’s speed is just average. That doesn’t hurt him on defense because he plays the position so instinctively that he gets good jumps and has good range, but it does mean that he’s not likely to be a double-digit base stealer.

Obviously Howard didn’t play any official games in 2020, but of course he’s been working closely with the Cubs coaching staff on what they want him to work on. He did get to participate in fall instructs. He’s also been picking Jason Heyward’s brain for how a ballplayer can improve both on- and off-the-field.

Howard’s all potential right now. He’s got the athleticism and the skills to be an impact major leaguer, especially on defense. How he develops will be one of the more interesting stories of 2021. I expect that Howard will play most of the season in rookie ball, but I do think he’s likely to get an opportunity at Myrtle Beach sometime this year.

Here’s some video of Howard’s career. Some of it is from his time on the 2014 Little League World Series team, which is interesting but not terribly relevant to the kind of player he is today. The rest of it is a few at-bats, batting practice and some fielding drills.

Thanks for reading. Last year I finished up this series saying I hoped we could do it again next year and now that I’m done with it, I’m not sure I should have wished that. But let’s do it again next season but under different circumstances, OK?