Welcome to day three of our tour of the BCB Top 20 Cubs prospects!
I wanted to say something today that I think needed to be said. I am cheering for each and every one of these kids to become major leaguers. Nothing makes me happier than seeing a young man reach his dream of playing with a major league uniform on. Whether it’s with the Cubs or another team, it’s always a great story. I know that not all of these guys are going to make it. I know that probably fewer than half of these guys will have significant major league careers. But I still wish them the very best.
But I also feel that I owe it to you, my readers, to be as truthful about these players as I can be. I’m not the greatest minor league analyst, but I’ve never tried to make out a player to be more than he is. I feel it’s my duty to give you the system, warts and all.
I try to avoid reading what other Cubs blogs write about minor league players. I don’t want to subconsciously steal what they wrote, for one reason. But sometimes I feel I need to double-check something on some other site and I’m shocked at how pollyanna-ish they can be sometimes. I’m not mentioning any names and there are some good writers out there that aren’t like that, but not every minor league prospect is going to be a major league All-Star. Some of these guys have real weaknesses and it does no one any good to wave those problems away, make excuses or just ignore them. Today we have some really talented young ballplayers with some really big problems they have to overcome. I want you to be excited about these players, but I also want you to be realistic in your expectations.
Today’s entry was the hardest to write with the hardest players to evaluate. These players jumped up and down my rankings the entire time I’ve been working on this.
As always, this list is purely my own and any mistakes or screwups are my fault. I base this list on what I’ve seen watching games and video, as well as what I’ve read online and from discussions with other people.
So here are my Cubs prospects number 11 through 15.
11. Brailyn Márquez. LHP. DOB: 1/30/99. 6’4”, 185. B:L, T:L. International Free Agent (2015), Dominican Republic.
There is no more frustrating prospect in the Cubs system than Brailyn Márquez at the moment. Márquez has arguably the best fastball from the left side that the Cubs farm system has ever produced. It’s easy gas that sits at the 97 to 99 mile per hour and has hit 101 on more than one occasion. He’s also got a nasty slider and a solid changeup that has more velocity than a Kyle Hendricks fastball, coming in between 89 to 91. Supposedly Márquez also developed a curve during his time at the alternate site in 2020, although we really haven’t seen it yet. Even with average command and control, that’s a number two starter. With better control, he’s an ace. On pure upside alone, you could make the case that Márquez should be the Cubs’ number one prospect, not number 11.
But other than one MLB game in 2020, Márquez hasn’t pitched in a game since 2019. He was stationed at the alternate site in South Bend during the pandemic in 2020 until the final game of the season, when he made his major league debut against the White Sox. Other than hitting triple digits on the radar gun, it did not go well. Márquez got knocked around for five runs in two-thirds of an inning, primarily because he walked three batters and uncorked two wild pitches.
One bad outing for a pumped-up rookie would not be much cause for concern, except that control has always been the biggest problem for Márquez. His pitching motion gets out of sync and then he has no idea where the ball is going. When he’s on and repeating his motion, he can be close to unhittable. But he loses control too often to count on him every fifth day in the majors at the moment.
The 2021 season was the perfect opportunity for Márquez to straighten things out and get another chance at major league hitters, but Márquez missed the entire season. He missed the start of the season with a case of COVID. After he recovered, he strained his shoulder as he worked to get back into game shape. The Cubs insist that there was no structural damage to his shoulder and that they ran every test they could to make sure of that. But it was slow to heal and the Cubs did not want to risk further injuring it by pushing him back on the mound too soon. By the time he was throwing again, the season was almost over and it was decided to just write 2021 off and work on getting him ready for Spring Training. There was some talk of sending him to the Arizona Fall League, but the team thought better of that and kept him off the roster.
The good news here is that the Cubs insist that Márquez is ready to go for 2022. Team president Jed Hoyer and farm director Matt Dorey said that Márquez will be a “pitching weapon” for the major league club in 2022. Left unsaid is what exactly that means, but it sounds like the Cubs are planning for him to be a part of the bullpen in 2022. After basically missing two seasons, building up arm strength and stamina as a reliever makes a lot of sense.
Unfortunately, it’s a real possibility that the bullpen is where Márquez stays. Many scouts think that his control issues and injury history will mean that Márquez’s major league future is out of the pen. That’s not a terrible thing — Márquez could end up as a dominating, late-inning closer — but quality starters who give a team 140 innings are always going to be more valuable than relievers who throw 60. I don’t think the Cubs have given up on the dream of Márquez as a starter, but I do think they’re going to defer that dream for at least another year.
2022 Team: Like everyone on the 40-man roster, we’re going to have to wait to see what happens with Márquez. On the one hand, he’s thrown 27 innings above Low-A in his career and that counts the two-thirds of an inning against the White Sox. He’s never pitched in Double-A or Triple-A. But the Cubs do seem to be considering the year at the alternate site as the equivalent of time at Triple-A and his fastball could help the team right away. The Cubs will likely start Márquez in Iowa after the lockout ends, but if things go well there, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the Cubs bullpen soon thereafter. And the Cubs still hope he’ll be in the starting rotation by 2023.
12. Yohendrick Pinango. OF. DOB: 5/7/02. 5’11”, 170. B:L, T:L. International Free Agent (2018) Venezuela.
Here’s a philosophical question for you. The Cubs have a few outfield sluggers listed yesterday who have four tools. They hit for power, they run, they can field and they can throw, but they’re missing that critical hit tool at the moment. Would you prefer that, or would you rather have a player who has the hit tool and not much else?
That’s a bit of an unfair description of Yohendrick Pinango, because he does have good-but-not-great speed and he’s a solid defensive left fielder. (Then again, it’s left field.) But Pinango has the kind of bat-to-ball skills that’s rare in a 19-year-old. He’s got a clean, direct swing that is designed for contact. Pinango does not often get fooled by a pitch so badly that he can’t at least foul it off. He’s a real pest at the plate. When Pinango does make contact, he usually hits the ball pretty hard. Pinango can spray the ball to all fields and is as likely to get a double down the left field line as he is down the right.
Unfortunately, his swing path generally means he’s going to hit the ball down into the ground. Around 55 percent of his balls in play last season were on the ground and less than 25 percent were fly balls. That’s not a recipe for much power and it’s hard to be a corner outfielder in the major leagues without power or at least blinding speed and a strong on-base percentage.
Last season, Pinango skipped Rookie ball and went straight to Low-A Myrtle Beach, where he was consistently the biggest threat in the Pelicans lineup. He hit .272/.322/.370 with four home runs and eight steals in 84 games. He struck out 57 times and collected 24 walks in 357 plate appearance. Pinango hit even better when he got away from pitcher-friendly TicketReturn.com Field. On the road, Pinango hit .290/.343/.415 with three of his four home runs.
Those numbers got Pinango a late promotion to High-A South Bend and he wasn’t outclassed there at all. In 24 games at South Bend, Pinango hit .289/.343/.381 with one home run. For a 19-year-old in High-A, that’s impressive, even if it’s a small-sample-size.
The lack of power is going to be a big issue for Pinango going forward. It’s tough to be a starting left fielder in the major leagues without some. Pinango could maybe add a few more pounds of muscle to add some more power, but he’s not a big man and there really isn’t a lot of room to grow there. You also have to be pretty hesitant to interfere with a swing that produces as much contact as his does.
I really hate comps because I think they set false expectations more often than not, but Pinango really seems like a Melky Cabrera-type player, and Cabrera is probably the best-case scenario for him. Pinango only hits from he left side instead of switch-hitting and Cabrera was thicker, so to speak, but that’s the type of career Pinango should hope for.
2022 Team: Pinango only played 24 games in South Bend last year, so it seems likely that he’ll start the season there again. Pinango also doesn’t turn 20 until May, so a Double-A debut would be aggressive. But if he continues to hit the way he had in 2021, then a mid-season promotion to Double-A Tennessee would be likely.
Here’s some video of Pinango from a game in South Bend in September.
13. Ryan Jensen. RHP. DOB: 11/23/97. 6’0”, 190. Drafted 1st round (2019), Fresno State.
I’m still quite a believer in Ryan Jensen, but I admit there are more questions than there are answers about him at this point. His fastball is plus, sitting in the 94 to 96 mile per hour range and can touch 99. It’s got good movement and is a tough pitch to hit.
The knock on Jensen, other than just the industry prejudice against shorter right-handed pitchers, is that he didn’t have a good collection of secondary pitches to go with that plus fastball. I had always thought that was unfair, as I’ve seen Jensen throw some nasty sliders and a pretty decent curve that at least gives the hitter a different look. He’s also developed a change to give himself a fourth pitch. It’s a work-in-progress, but it’s something that could improve.
And when he’s at his best, that is what Jensen looks like. But I’ve now seen him pitch often enough to realize what the scouts were saying — he really has no consistency when it comes to those secondary pitches. There are days when Jensen has three pitches clicking and he looks like he’s ready to step into a major league rotation and become a number-three starter. But those days are outnumbered by days where he just has no idea where his pitches are going.
That’s why a lot of people think that Jensen is destined for the bullpen. Out of the pen, that plus fastball might add another two or three miles per hour and then it really wouldn’t matter how consistently he can locate that slider. Just having it to keep batters from sitting on the fastball would be enough. There’s a potential closer in Jensen, but obviously the Cubs would prefer that he starts.
Jensen started the 2021 season at High-A South Bend and went 2-7 with a 4.50 ERA over 16 starts and 62 innings. He struck out 75 batters, which is good, and walked 24, which isn’t terrible. The bigger issue is that he gave up eight home runs, which happens when those secondary pitches catch too much of the plate. He had some high points, like when he struck out eight and walked just one over six innings against Cedar Rapids. He allowed just one run on two hits in that game as well. Then there were the low-lights such as when he got hammered for five runs on three hits and three walks in two-thirds of an inning against Wisconsin.
Jensen was promoted to Tennessee in August. He made four starts in Double-A and went 1-0 with a 3.00 ERA in 18 innings. He struck out 15 and walked seven.
Jensen also was assigned to the Arizona Fall League and probably the less said about that experience the better. He had a 9.64 ERA over 18⅔ innings, striking out 20 and walking 12.
I’m pretty confident that Jensen is going to be a major league pitcher. I’m just not confident how good he’s going to be. On the days that he’s on, I think he can be a number-three starter. Other days, I think he’s heading to middle relief. It’s Jensen’s task in 2022 to give me more of those good days and fewer of those bad one.
2022 Team: I think it’s a safe bet that Jensen will start 2022 back with Tennessee. If he pitches well and stays healthy, a promotion to Iowa could come in July or August. That would put Jensen in position for a major league debut in 2023.
Here’s a collection of Jensen highlights in South Bend this past summer. If you just watch this, you’d be convinced he can be an All-Star.
14. Ed Howard. SS. DOB: 1/29/2002. 6’2”, 185. B:R, T:R. Drafted 1st round (2020), Mt. Carmel HS (IL).
That was an ugly professional debut for Howard, and I’m being charitable by ranking him this high. Watching Howard play, you get glimpses of the upside that the Cubs saw when they made him their first-round draft pick in 2020. He’s got a tall, athletic body. He’s added some weight since he was drafted and he seems like he could even add a little more without losing much quickness. On defense, he flashes superior skills. He usually reads the ball well off the bat and while he’s not super quick, he does get good jumps and his hands are sure and steady. Sure, he makes mistakes, but fewer than most shortstops at this level. His arm isn’t a cannon, but it’s easily strong enough to stay at shortstop.
I don’t want to be cruel, but I’ve never seen a Cubs first-round pick look as bad at the plate in his professional debut as Howard did. I thought his bat speed was slow and his swing was long without generating much power. His pitch-recognition skills were poor and he was constantly getting fooled by breaking pitches. The game just seemed too fast for him. He struck out in over 30 percent of his plate appearances, which is abysmal for someone without plus power. Worse, I thought he lost confidence. He started swinging hard and early in counts, hoping that something good would happen. Usually it didn’t and that also meant that he only walked in 5.5 percent of his trips to the plate.
For the 2021 season at Low-A Myrtle Beach, Howard hit .220/.277/.315 with four home runs in 80 games. He struck out 98 times in 326 trips to the plate while walking just 18 times. At least he didn’t take his struggles at the plate out to the field with him.
The Cubs, for their part, have put a happy face on these struggles, insisting that they knew that Howard would be a long-term project and that they trust his athleticism, work ethic and baseball intelligence to overcome all this. Officially, they’re not worried. But neutral observers aren’t quite as sanguine.
Now, you can make a lot of excuses for Howard’s poor 2021 season and believe me, I’ve heard them all from Cubs fans. For one, he missed all of the 2020 season because of COVID — both his high school season and the minor league season. He’s a cold-weather high school draftee, which means he just didn’t get as many games in as other amateur prospects and the quality of the competition he faced just wasn’t as good. He also missed a month of the 2021 season from mid-May to mid-June with a hamstring injury. I’m not saying those excuses don’t have any validity, but you draft a guy in the first round because you think he’s good enough to overcome those kinds of issues.
One excuse I’ll make for Howard is that he really seemed to be hurt by the elimination of short-season baseball. Sending him at 19 to Myrtle Beach and that pitcher’s park seem as his first professional stop seems almost cruel. I think he would have done much better if he could have stayed in extended Spring Training until Eugene started in June, which is what he would have done if there had been a 2020 season.
But if I thought Howard was a lost cause, I wouldn’t rank him here. He did improve somewhat as the season went on—he hit .263/.308/.376 in 37 games after August 1. (He still struck out a lot, though.) He had some very weird reverse-platoon splits on the season, hitting just .161/.244/.198 against left-handed pitching. You’ve got to think that was either a fluke or something that he’ll correct with more experience facing lefties.
Players who project out to be plus-level defensive shortstops also don’t grow on trees. Howard still needs lots of reps on defensive to gain consistency, but I do believe there’s a potential Gold Glove in there.
Howard also passes the eye test of what a shortstop should look like. He’s athletic without being bulky. He combines above-average speed with quick reaction skills. His arm isn’t the strongest, but it is strong enough and he makes easy, accurate throws.
I’m pulling for Ed Howard. I think we all want the local kid to succeed. There’s enough there to make me think that he can. He’s still young and he has the time and the skills to improve. But he has to show those skills in games. If Howard has another season like he did in 2021, he is in danger of falling off this list entirely.
2022 Team: I think after last year, Howard is going to have to repeat Low-A Myrtle Beach. Moving him up to South Bend to get him away from that ballpark wouldn’t work as Four Winds Field isn’t that much better a hitting environment. But hopefully Howard sees South Bend before the end of the year.
Ed Howard’s one home run at home in Myrtle Beach:
And this is why I love his glove. I don’t even think he reacts to the ball off the bat all that well and he still manages to recover in a split-second and make a terrific play.
15. Kevin Made. SS. DOB: 9/10/02. 5’10”, 160. B:R, T:R. International free agent (2019), Dominican Republic.
I debated long and hard about whether to rank Made ahead of Howard or Howard ahead of Made and I can’t say that I made the right decision. The two of them have a lot in common as they’re both young shortstops who project out to be plus defenders. They both struggled at the plate in 2021, although Made not nearly as much as Howard. Made is even eight months younger than Howard is.
In the end, I felt that Howard just had a lot more upside, for reasons I mentioned above. Howard has a much better chance to be a starting shortstop in the majors. I wouldn’t rule out Made achieving that, but he’s much more likely to settle into a utility role if he makes The Show.
Like Howard, Made has some serious defensive skills. He’s especially good getting ground balls up the middle and making the toss to second for a double play, but he covers a fair amount of ground both ways. Like Howard, Made needs more experience reading the ball off the bat, but he’s a little more advanced in that respect than Howard. (He’s got more experience, so that shouldn’t surprise anyone.)
At the plate, I like Made’s swing better than Howard’s. Made can hit the ball to all fields and has some pretty good bat-to-ball skills for someone so young. But that’s almost a negative in Made’s case.
You see, Made has no problem with confidence in the batter’s box. Just the opposite, in fact, because it seems like he feels he can hit every pitch. He certainly tries to hit every pitch. That’s Made’s problem. He swings at pretty much everything. In the dirt, a foot outside, above his head or in the strike zone, it’s all the same to him. To be fair, he does make more contact that he really has any right to, but he’s not the kind of hitter who can drive any pitch with authority. More often than not, he’s just going to make weak contact on those pitches out of the zone.
In 58 games for Low-A Myrtle Beach last season, Made hit .272/.296/.366 with one home run and two steals. In 243 plate appearances, he managed just six walks. He struck out 57 times. That batting average is nice for someone so young. The rest of his line, not so much.
Made’s value is that he’s such a good defensive shortstop that he forced Howard to second base more often than Howard forced Made to play third. And he certainly has a hit tool that is good enough to get him to the majors. Made even has some room to add some weight and at least some power. But he’s got to learn to stop swinging at everything and draw walk or two.
If Made can be just a bit more selective at the plate, he could have a future as a quality utility infielder. If he adds power, then starting isn’t out of the question
2022 Team: You could make the case that Made should repeat Myrtle Beach as well, but I strongly suspect that he starts the year in High-A South Bend.
Here’s Made’s only home run of 2021. It’s a grand slam. I like the swing.
And here’s a double.
Cubs Kevin Made is continuing to impress. Takes this elevated pitch and drives it for a ground rule double. pic.twitter.com/cCLTMNwGuA— Trevor Hooth (@HoothTrevor) August 16, 2021
Tomorrow: Prospects 6 through 10.