MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — You know Adbert and Manny and Justin and Keegan.
(Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen?)
But do you recall the most powerful Cubs pitching prospect of all?
Wait, what? Who?
Don’t look now, but Brailyn Márquez is lighting it up again in his latest bullpen work after a season of injury, COVID-19 and setbacks. Maybe even just in time to help the Cubs during what might be a critical turning-point 2022 season — if only in a well monitored, limited-workload capacity.
With all eyes focused on what comes next for the Cubs since their trade-deadline purge and how quickly they can rebuild a competitive roster, much of the internal focus has been on the development of rookie pitchers Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson and Manny Rodríguez.
Almost forgotten has been the No. 2 prospect in the system — the only Cubs pitcher to make any of this year’s top-100 prospect rankings.
“There is definitely that opportunity,” farm director Matt Dorey said. “But it’s really going to be about how Brailyn responds this offseason and comes into camp. … He has the stuff to contribute.”
That whole “opportunity” thing might now sound like it’s not saying much for a guy who made his major-league debut in the final game of the abbreviated 2020 season.
But Márquez hasn’t pitched in a game since that 100-mph, seven-batter debut against the White Sox (in which one struck out, three walked and five scored).
“It’s been a weird year for him,” Dorey said.
In fact, it’s been a weird and daunting year across the farm system for some of the Cubs’ more promising prospects in the first season since the pandemic wiped out the 2020 minor-league season.
Márquez heads the list of four 2021 injury cases in particular to keep an eye on as the Cubs try to build their next competitive core — one of two who might have been in the big leagues at some point this year if not for the injuries:
1. Brailyn Márquez (consensus No. 2 in Cubs’ system; top-100 in MLB)
A shoulder strain, bout with COVID-19 and then a setback with the shoulder wiped out enough of the big left-hander’s season by late summer that the Cubs have taken an “absolutely zero rush” approach as he rebuilds to competitive strength.
“It was nothing structural, thankfully,” Dorey said. “We had multiple MRIs and pictures of it and ruled all that out, which was great.”
The Cubs are leaving the door open for possible games in the Arizona Fall League (Oct. 13-Nov. 13) but more focused on “checking every box on his recovery and throwing program,” with innings back home during the Dominican winter league a possibility.
Either way, as long as he stays healthy, Márquez is on the radar for the Cubs in 2022 — with the caveat of a “very conservative” approach as they plot what would be his first actual season since 2019.
Whatever the workload range the Cubs land on as a plan for a healthy, prepared Márquez, it then becomes a question of allowing him to reach his threshold earlier in the year or targeting the back end of the season.
One comp might be Michael Kopech of the White Sox, who after missing two seasons because of Tommy John surgery and a COVID opt-out returned to pitch out of the Sox bullpen this year on a carefully managed plan.
How Márquez looks in spring training might dictate a lot of the details.
“For a young guy coming in making an impression, healthy, I think that’s what we’re trying to motivate him to get to. And I hope he comes back and goes out and earns a spot,” Dorey said. “But I think we’ll be conservative.
“I think it’s more [likely] ’get on the radar and go report in the minor leagues and know that you’re only a phone call away.’"
See: Steele and Thompson, 2021.
2. Miguel Amaya (No. 4 Cubs prospect MLB Pipeline; No. 5 Baseball America)
The Cubs’ top catching prospect the last few years, who played in the 2018 and 2019 Futures Games, has been shut down twice because of an elbow strain and is with Márquez in Arizona building back up after the latest setback.
A member of the Cubs’ 40-man roster, Amaya almost certainly would have been in the big leagues this year if healthy because of a rash of injuries to the catching corps.
The good news, Dorey said, is that it’s another case of an injury that’s not considered serious enough to require surgery. But it wiped out all but 23 games of a season that began and ended at Double-A Tennessee.
“Luckily, it was relatively minor in terms of the bigger injuries that can happen to your elbow,” Dorey said. “But really just unfortunate timing because he was playing really well.”
So far so good during the strengthening portion of the latest rehab, Dorey said, giving Amaya an outside shot at getting some at-bats in winter ball.
If he gets to spring healthy and stays that way, he could see time in the big leagues by the end of next season, but figures to need at least a large part of the season to develop more at the high minor-league levels.
3. Kohl Franklin (No. 10 in system MLB; No. 15 BA)
The big Single-A right-hander drafted in the sixth round in 2018 who has some of the best velocity in the system is in the later stages of a throwing program and about to throw off a mound again after losing the season to issues surrounding a shoulder strain.
“We’ve had some unfortunate luck with his shoulder,” Dorey said. “Strains aren’t as serious in terms of intervention or surgery, but you have to be cautious with them, and they’re slow buildups.
“But he’s doing great right now. I just talked to him the other day, and he feels great. If anything, we have to pull the reins back on him. The ball’s coming out really good. He has no pain, and we should be in a good spot once he gets through his throwing program to evaluate to see if there’s any reason to try to squeeze him in the Fall League or just wait until next spring training.”
4. Pete Crow-Armstrong (No. 5 in system MLB; No. 3 BA)
Crow-Armstrong is more of a name — “PCA as we call him,” Dorey says — for the Cubs and the fan base to dream on at this point, as the Mets’ 2020 first-round draft pick acquired in the Javy Báez trade.
The left-handed, all-fields hitter tore the labrum in his non-throwing shoulder six games into his first pro season this year and is “doing really well” in continued rehab in Arizona since joining the Cubs’ organization.
He still hasn’t been cleared to swing a bat, and the plan is for him to spend the entire offseason continuing the rehab program — with an outside chance at having time for a few at-bats in winter ball.
Dorey said he’s projected to be at full health and strength for the minor-league mini-camp in January the Cubs plan to bring back next year after the pandemic protocols scuttled it this year.
“He’s raring to go. He’s really excited,” Dorey said of the outfielder the Cubs considered for their first pick last year before taking local shortstop Ed Howard three spots ahead of PCA.
They could be minor-league teammates next April.
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