Starting in October and running through the end of the year, MiLB.com's State of the System series will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each Major League organization, highlights prospects who've made the biggest strides in 2020 and offers a peek at 2021.
The Chicago Cubs are at a crossroads following the 2020 season. Winning the NL Central but exiting early after a two-game sweep at the hands of the Marlins, the club has already seen the resignation of president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, the non-tendering of fan-favorite Kyle Schwarber and trade rumors around 2016 NL MVP Kris Bryant .
Essentially, the Cubs must figure out whether they can continue to compete for a championship with the core of players that helped them win a World Series four years ago or if a rebuild is in order.
If they decide to go the latter route, the farm system has quite a number of stars in-waiting who could become regular contributors at Wrigley Field with Brailyn Marquez (No. 63), Brennen Davis (No. 72) and Miguel Amaya (No. 91) all ranked among MLB.com’s top 100 prospects.
Of those three, only Marquez has appeared in the Majors, and that came in the form of just 2/3 of an inning in which he allowed five runs on two hits and three walks on Sept. 27 against the White Sox. While the system isn’t as stacked as it was a few years ago, the future is bright with depth on the mound and a slew of high-ceiling sluggers.
System strengths: It's never a bad thing to have a lot of good arms in your system. Half of the Cubs' top 10 prospects are hurlers, including top-ranked Marquez. Matt Dorey, the club’s senior director for player development, likes the track that the 6-foot-4 lefty is on to become a perennial starter in the Majors.
“I think he had a really successful site B and then obviously a little taste of the big leagues and then added to the 40-man,” Dorey told MiLB.com. “I think ultimately his repertoire needs to continue to evolve and develop in terms of pitchability. He has those components with the breaking ball and a changeup that showed plus at the alt site. And so it's a consistent evolution, maturation of his secondary weapons, being able to throw them for strikes and really commanding the fastball more consistently.”
The 21-year-old had a consistent 2019 at two different levels, posting a 3.13 ERA with 128 strikeouts over 103 2/3 innings. He was especially effective after being promoted to Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach, allowing just five earned runs in 26 1/3 frames, good for a 1.71 ERA.
In his debut with South Bend, Marquez was near perfect in six innings, yielding one walk while fanning eight. He followed that up with a career-high 14 K's, giving up just a lone hit in six innings. His success earned him a spot as a MiLB.com Organization All-Star.
Kohl Franklin, the No. 7 prospect and sixth-round pick in 2018, is a big righty who just needs more experience as a professional. In two seasons, he has only had 16 appearances and thrown 50 2/3 innings but has already seen improvement, especially with his velocity. The 6-foot-4 hurler has added 7 to 8 mph on his fastball and has shown a knucklecurve that has proven effective.
The No. 27 overall pick in the 2019 Draft, Ryan Jensen (No. 8) is another young arm that is still green but with a lot of potential. His fastball is electric, reaching 98 mph at times, and he can throw both the two and four-seamer at the same speed. That is complemented by an improved slider and changeup for the six-foot right-hander.
“I think our depth is as good as it's ever been,” Dorey said. “The pitching that's coming is really exciting with a combination of pretty good velocity from several guys and athleticism in that group.”
Areas of growth: While Dorey is overall happy with where the Cubs stand as a farm system, he says there's always room to grow.
“I think our goal is to try to get as athletic from a position player side with up-to-middle, high-upside guys,” he said.
One of the more athletic players currently is the second-ranked Davis, a speedy 6-foot-4 outfielder who also has some pop at the plate. The 2018 second-round pick had an excellent first full season in 2019 for Class A South Bend, putting together a .305/.381/.525 slash line with eight dingers in 50 games en route to his own Organization All-Star nod.
“He is such an interesting and athletic guy that just refining his approach, making sure he's swinging at all the right pitches, and really allow his athletics to take over in the box and out of the field,” Dorey said. “He made a lot of good improvements at our alternate site facing much more advanced pitching than he was used to. He was using the whole field and making sure that he does damage. He impacts the baseball on pitches in the zone and doesn't chase.”
What changed in 2020: Nothing much changed with the system outside of the Draft, but the Cubs made quite a splash with their first-round pick (16th overall) Ed Howard. Already the team's fourth-ranked prospect, Howard, a Chicagoland native, was considered one of, if not the best, shortstop in this year’s class.
"He's probably one of the elite defenders in the Draft," Lukas McKnight, assistant director of amateur scouting, told MiLB.com in June. "It's a guy we've just known a long time. We've seen him develop as a hitter and have always seen an elite defensive glove at shortstop."
Howard should add some power to his swing as he gains muscle to his 19-year-old body and got in his introductions at this fall's instructs.
"When I got the call and heard it was going to be the Cubs at 16, I just remember thinking how special that was," Howard said on this week's episode of The Show Before the Show podcast. "Afterwards when I was relaxing with my friends and family, that's when it really started to hit me of what happened. Being a hometown kid, I've got such a great opportunity here with the Cubs, and I'm super excited and thrilled to get going. It's special. I feel like a lot of people dream about moments like these and opportunities like this."
The Cubs’ second-round pick, Burl Carraway (No. 10), may feature in the Majors as a reliever in the not-too-distant future. Out of Dallas Baptist University, he dominated the Missouri Valley Conference, posting a 0.96 ERA in 9 1/3 innings, fanning 17 in the shortened 2020 season.
“We think he's got just an elite fastball that plays great to go along with a pair of secondary breaking balls that we think are just going to continue to get better and continue to develop and just give him the chance to be a late-inning impact reliever for us in Chicago,” McKnight said.
Alternate site standout: While Marquez and company were impressive at the alternate site in South Bend, Dorey dropped one name that came along the most during the summer: Christopher Morel.
“He's as athletic and tooled-up as any guy in our system,” he said. “He has the ability to play multiple spots on the field, including center field. He can stand at shortstop, third, second. So a really versatile defender, and he has huge raw power. He had a really exciting site B for a guy that had never played above [Class A].”
The 21-year-old third baseman was right at home after playing for the South Bend Cubs in 2019. In 73 games at Class A, Morel hit .284 with six homers before injuring his knee in early July, forcing him to miss the rest of the season.
Impact rookies: Sixth-ranked Adbert Alzolay has also spent some time with the Cubs, making 10 appearances with six starts over the past two seasons. He was much better this year, recording a 2.95 ERA over 21 1/3 innings in the Majors. Dorey had nothing but praise for the 25-year-old Venezuela native.
“He's a tireless worker. He's super competitive, really athletic, and honestly, just healthy,” he said. “He's battled a couple of minor injuries that have kind of slowed his developmental curve, and he stayed healthy this past season. Then the introduction of the slider that he kind of developed at site B has given him a true swing-and-miss weapon to go along with the two versions of his fastball, an evolving changeup and his curveball that he can throw for strikes. So it's just tidying up the package, really learning to control his delivery a little more consistently because he'll get outside of himself at times.”
Alzolay was especially good in his first start with the Cubs in 2020, allowing one unearned run on two hits and a walk while fanning six in five innings.
Next big thing: If anyone is close to being a major producer for the Cubs, it is catcher Miguel Amaya. Despite playing only as high as Class A Advanced, Dorey sees him making the jump to the Majors soon.
“He's taken a lot of strides with his receiving, and he's always been a really accurate thrower,” he said. “I think with the catching position, it's evolved and it's so nuanced now with having to interpret advanced scouting reports, build relationship with pitchers. So that for me is going to be the next developmental hurdle that we tackle is just really exposing him to that process so that when he does get to the big leagues, he'll have a complete understanding of the expectations for that position defensively.”
For Myrtle Beach in 2019, the 21-year-old Panama native put together a .235/.351/.402 slash line while showing some pop, swatting 11 homers and 24 doubles.
“Offensively he's always had a really advanced feel for the strike zone,” Dorey said. “He can manage an at-bat. I think the biggest thing offensively is just doing more damage in the air early in hitter's counts. He has a tendency at times to be a little bit careful because he has such an advanced approach. So I just want him to take some more chances early and the impact of ball, and he showed signs of that this past summer.”
Injuries have gotten in the way for Justin Steele’s path to the Majors but for Dorey, but he is quickly working his way toward the Friendly Confines.
“I feel like Justin is right on the brink of becoming a really successful Major Leaguer,” Dorey said.
Steele actually got the call this past season but did not get the chance to make his MLB debut. It came after a 2019 when he hit the injured list twice and struggled, going 0-6 with a 5.59 ERA over 38 2/3 innings in 11 starts at Double-A. His fastball remains his strength, as it touches 97 mph, and he has a slider that is considered one of the best in the system.