Backfield Banter: Notes from Cubs Camp

One of the fun parts of writing prospect lists is almost immediately wanting to shred them into 1000 pieces. I felt this with the Giants list, in which I (stupidly) omitted third baseman Luis Toribio. Seeing him live in January made this patently obvious; he needed to be on there. As I watched the Cubs this spring I similarly considered whether there were rankings I would come to regret on that list. Or even worse, are there placements on the PL Cubs top 30 that already look outdated? One guy I can’t stop thinking about is Brennen Davis. 

When the list came out last December Davis was ranked seventh. All things considered it was an aggressive ranking. The system was thin with not many prospects likely to play every day or be rotation pieces at the MLB level. As a result several young, high-upside players were aggressively pushed up the rankings. Four of the top nine prospects were 2018 additions to the Cubs system; this speaks to the both the strength of last year’s crop and the weakness of the system as a whole. Having said all that, Davis has not played a single game of full season baseball. He spent 2018 in the AZL – Rookie League. There is considerable proximity risk to his profile.  

At the risk of sounding like an over-reactionary buffoon, I think you can make the case seven was too low based on what I have seen this spring. What’s changed? For one, Davis has undergone a physical metamorphosis seemingly overnight. Coming out of high school he was listed at 6’4” 175 lbs. He now looks north of 200, having added easily 25 lbs, perhaps more. Seeing him live for the first time in January Instructs, I did a double-take. The frame has filled out nicely through his torso and upper legs, which both look considerably stronger than the quickly stale images captured in 9-month-old videos. The weight gain is a testament to Davis’ work ethic. Watching his body language at the field, it is obvious he takes this job seriously and is putting in the time to improve. Phrases like “extremely coachable” and “double-plus character” have been pinned to Davis, which should not be too surprising considering he was a 4.0 student in high school. Expect him to get the most out of his ability. This type of language is normally reserved for low-upside gamer types. That is not Davis at all. He has a chance to be a star in The Show.

Davis’ swing has also improved dramatically since his high school days. Without a modicum of hyperbole, I feel comfortable saying just about everything with the swing is better now. For me the biggest change is his use of lower half. The front foot was down too early in the old swing, which sapped kinetic energy transfer from his legs to upper body. Davis now keeps his weight back much better. You can see how the back leg stays strong and his hands slot before front foot strike. In his old swing the front foot was already planted at slot. Davis also stayed more upright in the old swing; there was little engagement through the core and hips. His new swing fully-utilizes the lower half through the hips and back leg. Davis’ hands also remain closer to his body in the new swing, reducing its length. This makes for a more clean and efficient path to the ball. The bat path is now geared for elevating and doing damage. The overall improvements are stark; big kudos to the Cubs player development staff in helping to implement these changes. While it remains to be seen how his “new body” and swing will take to full season ball, the leading indicators are extremely promising; do not sleep on this kid. It should not surprise anyone if Nico Hoerner exhausts prospect eligibility in 2019 and Davis becomes the Cubs #1 prospect at this point next year. I would not rule him out as a 2020 top 100 prospect either.

Big thanks to Steve Fiorindo (@SoCalSteve9) for the use of his Brennen Davis video in the above clip/tweet. Steve has a vast 14,000 video library of MLB Draft Prospects. He is the man behind Prospect Pipeline (@TheProsPipeline)! You can check out the Prospect Pipeline Youtube page here.

Here are some notes on other Cubs players from spring instructs and MiLB ST:

Nico Hoerner (2B) – It feels weird to say this, but Nico looked bigger than just four months ago in the AFL. He is incredibly thick, jacked, yoked, your “this guy is f******* strong” adjective of choice. Despite what I thought was some added weight, Hoerner still moved well in INF drills. I still think the arm is light for shortstop, and Hoerner probably ends up at second long-term. The bulk of his frame just makes it look increasingly likely that will his defensive home. In BP Nico’s ability to shoot lasers to all fields remained North Star reliable. Said BPs were really fun to watch, in which Hoerner barreled deep fly balls to all fields with swings that looked near 80% effort.  VIDEO

Miguel Amaya (C) – The highly-touted catching prospect was often the first to perform various drills during instructs camp, including a basic base running drill. Coaches would call out scenarios and the players would run up the line and round first with varying degrees of aggressiveness depending on what the situation dictated. It was a simple drill, and as I observed it I got the feeling Amaya went first to “show how it should be done” in a sense. He exudes a leader vibe, and it is easy to forget how young he is: Amaya just turned 20 on 3/9. Happy belated birthday big guy.  VIDEO

Brailyn Marquez ( LHP) – He threw live BP on 3/4. The delivery was easy with little effort. Marquez has strong balance, and his head remains very stable throughout the delivery. Marquez repeats his mechanics well, working from a short arm action that makes the ball difficult to pick up out of hand. There is also some deception with the ball well hidden behind his back. The low three quarters arm slot through which he operates results in a cutting action on his mid 90s fastball. It was a short stint, but the fastball was consistently 94-95 in this outing. A couple cambios in the mid 80s were flat and did not do much. It is easy to see why he is a highly-touted prospect. The body and ease of delivery look capable of a SP role. Whether or not the secondary pitches can improve enough to play against better competition will determine his fate.

Cole Roederer (OF) – #Swagger. There is a confidence to Roederer that I could sense from his body language and how he carries himself. The BP swing was fairly upright with good bat speed and good hip rotation. Video of his game swing shows a similarly upright base stance, but he gets lower as he enters the approach phase of his swing. Roederer rolls over his front foot as he follows through. The biggest takeway is that he is a “hands guy”. They power his swing, and “hands guys” are typically the type of players who can hit for power without needing to sell out for it.  VIDEO

Christopher Morel (SS?) – Some guys play the game with a reckless abandon. That term usually has a negative connotation, but it still feels like the perfect two-word phrase for Morel. He oozes athleticism and is very twitchy but also has a rawness to his game that goes hand-in-hand with this all-out approach. His swings are max effort and the ball jumps off his bat to all fields. Defensively, he manned shortstop throughout instructs camp, perhaps notable since his time was split between third and short last year. The arm is easily plus, maybe double-plus, and he releases the ball from a sidearm angle. The body whips around as if uncoiling as he releases the ball. When shagging balls in the outfield during BP he made a phenomenal catch in a shockingly nonchalant manner. If he needed to move to the OF I have no qualms he could. Morel is an elite athlete.

Luis Verdugo (SS) – Some players move with grace in everything they do, and Verdugo is one of them. His defensive actions are silky, as is his swing. He is the sort of player who does not look like he is exerting much effort; fluid is the perfect word for his movements whether on defense or at the plate. His BP swing was fairly upright with a quiet stride forward. The upright nature of his stance is bit worrisome. I have yet to see what the swing looks like in game, but if he were susceptible to swing and miss low in the zone it would not surprise me. Also, his elbow elevates above shoulder length at slot creating an uppercut path but also some length. As scouts alluded to (when I put together the Cubs top 30), flashes of raw power were palpable. VIDEO

Reivaj Garcia (2B) – He is who we thought he was? Reivaj (or Javier Backwards) made consistent low line drive contact in BP, much of which was to the opposite field. Often times in BP they will do oppo rounds, but this did not appear to be the case here. Garcia’s swing just seems to produce opposite field contact. He consistently found barrels but did not elevate much. I thought he looked better hitting left-handed. As a lefty he utilized a toe-tap for timing and had a moderate/controlled stride forward. The righty swing had a wider base, shorter approach and less lower half use. As a result it looked more contact-oriented and probably will not produce much thump. VIDEO

Yonathan Perlaza (3B) – One player I came away impressed with was Yonathan Perlaza. He is a high-energy, high-motor type of guy. I loved his approach to even the mundane drills. Observing his body language and how he carried himself, Perlaza struck me as an unflappably positive player who puts out great effort. He’s a spark plug and one of those guys who is somehow on the balls of his feet at all times. Defensively he took a lot of short, quick steps. My guess is he is not a burner, but he has pretty good quickness and lateral agility. The bat speed is plus, and he flashed some impressive raw power, but he looks like he is still be learning how to best tap into it. This is a player I will be watching intently. What is his ultimate ceiling? I would like to see him in game action before commenting on that, but I think there could be something here, and I have not heard anyone talking about Perlaza.

Riley Thompson (RHP) – He threw live BP on 3/4. It is a good pitcher body at around 6’4” 210 or thereabouts. Thompson’s fastball sat 92-94 and touched 96. There was some plane due to his high vertical release point. The pitch also had armside run. Thompson possesses plus arm speed, but there was some effort in the delivery with a cross body arm action and follow through. Thompson looked off balance at times falling off the mound toward the 1B side. His CB featured 12 to 6 shape in low 80s and flashed around 55/60. The CHG 86-87 was about average. His delivery does not look conducive to starting, but his stuff is interesting. A late inning reliever is well within the range of possible outcomes.

Fernando Kelli (OF) – Coaches worked with Kelli on incorporating his back leg into his swing. Results were mixed. Kelli has some work to do with cleaning up the consistency of his swing plane and overall swing mechanics. At times his center of mass was out on the front foot early and the swing looked disjointed. Maybe it is unfair to judge a guy too harshly from what was a BP swing in February. Even if he did not show well that day, I am reticent to give up Kelli. 70 runners with his type of bat speed do not grow on trees. (As an aside the bat speed does not look impressive from these BP swings, but if you take a look at his game swing you’ll see a difference.)  VIDEO

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