KODAK, Tenn. —On a cloudy August night in New York seven years ago, the Cubs lost a tough one to the Mets, and as reporters waited anxiously outside the clubhouse for postgame access, only one question was on any of their minds:
What the heck happened to Kris Bryant in Iowa?
Vague reports out of Des Moines said the Cubs’ superstar prospect limped off the field after sliding into second base in the first inning.
“Oh, yeah, my toe,” Bryant said recently, recalling the moment in Iowa that set off a media firestorm 1,100 miles away in New York.
Bryant was back in the lineup the next day, an update duly noted by the Chicago press.
That’s where the Cubs were during the tanking-rebuild years back then.
Iowa. And Tennessee. And anywhere else the Cubs had a high-profile prospect on a fast track.
Fast-forward seven years, and it’s where they are again. The only question this time around is which prospect’s big toe is big enough to upstage one of their big-league games.
“Brennen is definitely going to be the next big thing,” Tennessee Smokies pitcher Ryan Jensen said of outfielder Brennen Davis, the Cubs’ top prospect — 14th overall in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline.
So if he bumps into somebody at Iowa chasing a fly ball?
“The Cubs fans are going to be pissed,” Jensen said.
Davis doesn’t know about that.
But the MVP of the Futures Game two months ago feels sure about at least one thing: He’ll be in the Cubs outfield the next time they’re in the playoffs, his sights set firmly on leading a core that replaces the Bryant-Javy Báez-Anthony Rizzo core that just got wiped off the roster in 24 hours of trades six weeks ago.
“I’m ready for it,” Davis said.
In fact, Davis, 21, moved one significant step closer to making that happen this week.
About 24 hours after talking at length with NBC Sports Chicago at Smokies Stadium in Tennessee, Davis got the word he’s being promoted from Double-A to spend the rest of the month with Triple-A Iowa. He joins the I-Cubs in Omaha for Tuesday’s series opener.
How much longer will it take for him to start chasing down that vision he has for himself and other top prospects in the system?
“Given the opportunity, I’ll be ready to perform if and when my name is called,” he said.
If that’s tomorrow?
“I’m never going to shy down from an opportunity,” he said.
Now he just needs to back it up. He and a handful of former Tennessee teammates and another handful of players in the system.
The Cubs are counting on it like they haven’t since Rizzo, Báez and Bryant were rising through the system — and without the number of recognizable, touted prospects the first time they blew things up and rebuilt their core.
In the year leading up to the Cubs’ competitive turnaround in 2015, Bryant, Báez and Addison Russell all were ranked among the top 5 prospects in baseball by both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus. Jorge Soler and Albert Almora made the top 25 on multiple lists in the same timeframe.
This time around, the Cubs have one in anybody’s top 30.
It’s obviously not fair to compare him to any of those other players, especially the top-5 guys who became All-Stars.
But it does put more scrutiny and a hotter spotlight on Davis at this franchise crossroads that might sink or swim competitively in the next few years based on how many impact players the system can produce — no matter how much money chairman Tom Ricketts says team president Jed Hoyer has to spend on free agents (never mind the fact they have no intention of spending on a big haul of big-ticket guys).
Whether that adds any pressure to the smooth-fielding outfielder with the fast-developing hitting skills, “I think I put enough pressure on myself,” Davis said.
“They’re not going to put me in a position not to succeed. I trust them and what their opinions are in that aspect.”
That’s the sixth tool Davis seems to have to go with the five baseball tools: a poise and thinking-man’s approach that might have something to do with Ivy League schools checking in with him as a basketball star at Basha High School in the Phoenix area, before he turned his full attention to baseball as a senior.
“He’s an incredible kid. He’s a really humble guy,” Tennessee manager Mark Johnson, the former White Sox catcher, said. “He has a lot of respect for not only the staff but his teammates and the game.”
If anything the season Davis has put together so far — despite slumping at the plate the last three weeks — could be an indicator of how quickly he might be ready to have an impact on the big-league club.
After injuries hampered his first full professional season in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the 2020 minor-league season, leaving him with just 68 pro games — and his own weeklong bout with COVID in November — entering 2021.
Then before his minor-league season started at High-A South Bend, he was hit in the head with a pitch during a spring training game, delaying his start three weeks.
“It’s been a weird season,” he said.
But once he started, he never looked back, advancing from South Bend after just eight games and earning that spot in the Futures Game, where he made a bigger name for himself nationally and climbed the prospect rankings.
Imagine if he’d actually had that 2020 season.
“You can’t change it,” he said. “Everybody lost a year unless you were in the big leagues. I was just happy to be able to get the work in that I did.”
That work, as the youngest player assigned to the Cubs’ alternate site in South Bend last year, might have been a key to this year’s rise.
“I think the alternate site was a big step in the right direction,” Davis said. “I got to break down a lot of stuff and really analyze stuff without consequences of like worrying about averages or stuff, the stuff that puts pressure on baseball.”
There were no minor-league games to play, but there were at-bats to load up on, against much higher levels of pitchers for the kid in the group.
“There was a time when they were just torching me,” he said. “It was either adapt or drown.”
That included about 40 at-bats against Adbert Alzolay — with maybe three hits to show for it, Davis said.
“At the beginning, yes, I was flipping sliders and curveballs to him,” Alzolay said. “But at the end he made a good adjustment, and he got me like three times with my fastball, opposite way, off the wall and stuff like that.
“Because that’s what he can do.”
Said Davis: “My at-bats started getting better towards the end. I built an approach.”
Jensen, the 2019 first-rounder and former roommate of Davis, said his good friend often makes the game look easy — especially considering the late start to getting serious in high school and lack of pro games.
“He’s just so athletic out on the field,” Jensen said. “Everything looks so smooth and so simple for him. It just looks like he’s gliding out there.”
Davis, who said “I feel like I’m catching on pretty quick” these days, was reminded professional baseball is not supposed to look so easy.
“It’s not, trust me,” he said before going hitless and striking out four times in his final two games at Double-A.
“There’s days when I feel like this sport is hard as crap,” he said. “And there’s days where it’s like, ‘I can do this with my eyes closed.’ “
With his eyes closed.
It makes Jensen, who developed at college before earning his first-round status, shake his head, remembering early conversations with Davis.
“He was like, man, I was playing baseball for fun. I was better at basketball,’ “ Jensen said. “I was like, ‘That’s kind of crazy.’ “
One year of baseball as a priority in high school, and Davis got drafted in the second round.
Jensen: “I was like, ‘Dude …’ “
These days when Davis, and the Cubs, close their eyes, they can dream on what might come next as he goes to Triple-A, just a phone call from a chance to make a difference for a Cubs team that could desperately use it in the coming year or two.
“I think it’s definitely in there,” Johnson said. “All the tools are there, no doubt. I don’t know exactly when that’s going to happen, as far as him being there and being impactful. I think when he does get there he will be impactful.”
Davis might have the tools to play with his eyes closed at times. But they’re wide open as he takes his next step toward that vision of roaming the Wrigley outfield in October.
“The Futures Game was pretty cool,” he said.
And he appreciates the attention he’s getting for his performance, the promotions and all those prospect rankings this year.
But he’s wary of that “fine line” between appreciating those things and getting caught up in them.
“The whole prospect thing is awesome, but it doesn’t hold a ton of weight in my eyes because at the end of the day I don’t want to be a top prospect,” he said. “I want to be a big-leaguer.
“I don’t want to chase prospect rankings. I want to chase getting to the big leagues and being everything that the Cubs want me to be.”
Davis said he believes he will be just one in a wave of players coming through the system along with him before long.
For now, all eyes are on him.
“I think the next wave is going to start with Brennen Davis,” said Jensen.