Gonzales: Cubs' bridge to future starts with strong showing of minor league pitching
The Cubs' future is now, thanks in part to the revivals of All-Stars Kris Bryant and Javier Baez that have kept the team in playoff contention while delaying large chunks of an eventual roster turnover.
But at some point in the future, the Cubs' foundation will be built around prized pitching prospect Brailyn Marquez, whose development was stunted in spring training due to COVID-19 protocols, and Double-A Tennessee outfielder Brennen Davis.
Fortunately for the organization, relievers Keegan Thompson, Justin Steele and Tommy Nance have formed a temporary but firm bridge that has aided the major league team and lessened an immediate urge to acquire help outside the organization.
"It seems like they came out of nowhere," said Matt Dorey, the Cubs' Vice President of Player Development. "But in all honesty, Justin and Keegan were at the Alternate Site last summer (at South Bend), and Tommy was on the bubble."
The threesome -- all homegrown talents -- represent a source of pride for an organization criticized legitimately for its inability to develop depth.
Just as there was hype over the highly-anticipated arrivals of former first-round picks Baez (2011), Albert Almora (2012), Bryant (2013), Kyle Schwarber (2014) and Ian Happ (2015), similar hopes surround Marquez, Davis and a few other top prospects -- albeit under different circumstances.
First, the 2020 minor league season was wiped out by the COVID pandemic. Marquez and Davis gained some experience at the alternate site, but they and other minor leaguers lost valuable game action.
Second, the start of the 2021 minor league season was delayed by one month, causing as much as a six-week gap between playing spring training games and actual minor league games.
"Now as we've gotten past this first month, what we're really looking now is more specific develop opportunities for individual guys," Dorey said.
Dorey declined to place a timeline on when Marquez, 22, could return (likely at Tennessee). "He's in a good spot, Dorey said. "We're being cautious and will take our time."
The 6-foot-4, 185-pound Marquez, whose fastball has been clocked as high as 102 mph, made his major league debut on the final day of the 2020 season despite never pitching above the Class A level. Although Marquez walked three, allowed two hits and hurled a wild pitch in two-thirds of an inning, a strong finish in the minors could provide the Cubs with a tempting option late in the season.
"Our goal all along was for our guys to be pitching through the end of the year in September, more than capture innings at the front end," Dorey said. "We want to be mindful of these guys being healthy at the end of the year and having a normal offseason into 2022."
Eventually, the Cubs must decide whether Thompson, Steele and Marquez will help more as starters -- their original roles.
Those decisions are critical, since the pitching staff currently is comprised of six potential free agents -- including three starters.
Miguel Amaya, touted as the heir apparent if All-Star catcher Willson Contreras is traded or departs via free agency after 2022, is batting only .215 in 23 games at Tennessee. But Dorey isn't discouraged because of Amaya's .406 on-base percentage and not chasing pitches out of the strike zone in a lineup marred by injuries and inexperience.
Furthermore, Amaya has maintained his sterling defensive reputation by throwing out nine runners in 20 steal attempts.
Davis, 21, is batting .175 in 40 at-bats at Tennessee after hitting .321 with two homers in eight games at Class A South Bend, but the Cubs are simply challenging Davis -- the 69th top prospect by Baseball America.
Left-handed reliever Burl Carraway, a second-round pick in 2020, was touted as a fast-track candidate because of his 98 mph fastball at Dallas Baptist. Any chance of reaching the majors last summer was stunted by a bout of acute wildness at the Alternate Site.
Nevertheless, Dorey believes Carraway will benefit from longer outings in an effort to harness his wildness and improve his secondary pitches. He is an intriguing reliever because of his 22 strikeouts and 17 walks in 13 innings at South Bend.
The major league arrival of shortstop Ed Howard IV, the Cubs' first pick last summer, is several years away. Howard was activated Thursday from the seven-day injured list at Class A Myrtle Beach.
Although the Cubs' current success has pleasantly surprised followers bracing for a midseason teardown, the progress of their top minor league players could help define their future.
• Mark Gonzales is a veteran sports writer who covered the White Sox from 2005-2012 and the Cubs from 2013-2020 for the Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @MDGonzales