MiLB Predictions for 2021
The 2021 minor league season is going to be a whirlwind. With no minor league games for 595 days, there is no precedent for how players will respond to such a significant lapse in playing time. Right or wrong, let’s throw out some bold and some not-so-bold predictions about the Cubs 2021 minor league season.
- The A-ball Breakouts
Ethan Hearn (Myrtle Beach) and Cole Roederer have already received praise for their adjustments in spring camp. DJ Herz (Myrtle Beach) is sitting with low-to-mid 90s velocity with a really sharp curveball. Max Bain (South Bend) may be the most interesting guy in the entire system; we’ll get to him in a bit. And Chase Strumpf (likely South Bend) showed off during a seriously impressive instructional league. Breakouts abound in Myrtle Beach and South Bend. The Low-A and High-A teams have the most prospect breakouts in this prediction. It should be an electric year in the lower levels of the Cubs system.
- Brailyn Marquez makes two starts for the Cubs and finishes the season in the Major League bullpen
Lefties that throw over 100 mph and who have a legitimate shot at starting are rare. Getting all of Brailyn Marquez’s long levers takes a considerable amount of maintenance. The Cubs have made a concerted effort to work with Marquez to keep his upper and lower body in sync. Last season saw the pitching development staff spend the majority of 2020 working to get Marquez’s mechanics in line. While that hard work did culminate in his debut on the last day of the season, it was clear that Marquez had additional work to do before he was ready to take on a significant role in the big leagues. That work is already continuing this spring. Marquez is slated to begin the season in AA Tennessee, where he’s one call away. With the inning limits across baseball this season, getting the young lefty a couple starts before finishing the season in the pen would allow the Cubs to have a better idea for what Marquez’s role would be in the future.
- The pitching steps up
Even when accounting for increased injury risk, pitching may just have a distinct advantage in 2021. You’d be hard pressed to justify that the organization whose 36 ⅓ homegrown innings from Duane Underwood Jr. are the most since the Theo Epstein era began, deserve the confidence in their minor league pitching infrastructure. However, the work that the pitch design team has done to prepare pitchers is exciting. Numerous pitchers are entering this season with five distinct pitches (a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, curveball, changeup, and slider or cutter). Many relievers are entering the season with three or more pitches. Combined with the fact that hitters have barely seen live pitching in a year and a half, I’ll go out on a limb and say that the pitching in the system takes a significant step forward this season.
- Max Bain has the best season of the 2019 pitchers
[Author’s edit: I had Michael McAvene here and that was fun, but let’s go real bold] OK this one is fairly bold. In a draft with Ryan Jensen, Michael McAvene, Chris Clarke, Josh Burgmann, and DJ Herz, I’ll say that Max Bain has the best season of any pitchers brought in from 2019. That’s not a knock on any of the pitchers noted (and I already said I think Herz is a breakout performer), but Cubs contacts describe Bain as “legit”. The stuff that Bain has been bringing in spring camp is the talk of camp (right along with Cam Sanders; see below). Bain is upper 90s with the fastball and his secondaries are flashing plus, including a cutter with seam-shifted wake. Max Bain is an amazing story, but there are some within the Cubs organization that believe he could be a top 10 prospect in the system. Oh my goodness. I’ll buy in and say the breakout is legit.
- Cam Sanders has the best season of the 2018 pitchers
[Author’s edit: This is another addition as well. We’re all sleeping on Cam Sanders.] I’ve gone on record saying the 2018 draft could define the next Cubs wave. That draft features standouts like Kohl Franklin and Riley Thompson. In the 12th round, the Cubs nabbed Cam Sanders, a righthander out of LSU. Here’s my quote on Sanders in the 2018 draft review, “A guy who may surprise likely in the pen. He keeps making adjustments (that curve could be something special) as he climbs the ladder.” I have no problem admitting I am wrong and let me tell you that I have been majorly sleeping on Cam Sanders. In spring camp he’s been sitting upper 90s (touched 100 mph) and holding velocity and stuff for 5 innings. The Cubs are extremely high on him and I heard similar comments to Max Bain in that he could be a top 10 prospect in the system this year. Sanders will start the season at AA and a strong season could see he him on the cusp of a Top 100 overall prospect list and a call away from Wrigley.
- Ed Howard plays the majority of the season at Low-A and is a Top 5 Prospect in his league
Howard is a dynamic player and one of the best selections the Cubs have made in the first round in years. The track record of top prep shortstop in a draft class is excellent and an organization can’t have too many of them. Howard came to the Cubs with an excellent projection to be an above-average major league shortstop, some emerging pop in his bat, and (like many prep players) a need for some minor swing changes. Those changes appear to be taking place and Howard is already showing off excellent bat speed in games. It doesn’t hurt that Howard was a top prospect, which gives a bit of a boost in rankings.
- Kohl Franklin is NOT a MLB Pipeline Top 100 prospect by the end of the season
Blasphemy! I know it sounds pessimistic, but I don’t believe it will be for a lack of success on Franklin’s part. In fact, I believe Kohl Franklin will have an excellent season. The velocity is progressing into the upper 90s, his changeup is already above-average with plus potential, and his curveball is improving as another future above-average pitch. Franklin has the makings of “at least a mid-rotation starter” and should come out firing this season for High A South Bend. Why then, does he not get the nod at the end of the season? MLB Pipeline – among other prospect ranking publications- is notorious for heavily factoring in draft or signing pedigree. Eventually talent and success weigh out in rankings, but there’s a delay. as you examine the MLB Pipeline Top 100 list, the latter 50 names are a mix of high bonus signings and selections. While that’s partially due to those players having a high talent potential and, thus, requiring higher bonuses, there’s still significant selection bias. Franklin will be on the cusp and I believe he will have a very successful season, but come December, Cubs Minor League Twitter will bring out the virtual pitchforks because Kohl Franklin got robbed.
- The Cubs finish with five Top 100 prospects by MLB Pipeline and have the 14th overall farm system
Let’s go even further and name the prospects in the system who make the Top 100: Brennen Davis, Brailyn Marquez, Miguel Amaya, Ed Howard, and… a player acquired this season. Bringing in a Top 100 prospect in a trade is no longer a forgone conclusion, but I believe it will happen for two reasons. First, an unfortunate prediction is the Cubs will make significant trades this summer and second, teams that are currently on the up-and-up include both the Mariners and Royals. Both Seattle and Kansas City employ old-school executives not afraid to make big trades when the time is right. If they stay in the race, don’t be surprised to see Jerry DiPoto and Dayton Moore take a swing, especially if the player has another year of team control.