SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. — Cubs outfield prospect Nelson Velazquez didn’t know much about what the Cubs’ front office had in mind next for him or its next competitive big-league roster as he talked before the final home game of the Double-A season in Tennessee.
But after two stops in the Cubs’ system this year after the COVID-19 shutdown in 2020, he said he knows this much about the Cubs’ oft-maligned farm system:
“People outside the clubhouse don’t really know how much talent the Cubs have in the minor leagues,” he said. “They do have a lot of talent in the Show, but they have a lot in the minor leagues, too.
“Fans will be surprised when a lot of these guys get in the Show and see that they can play, too.”
Velazquez, 22, sees himself in the middle of a Cubs’ homegrown renaissance in the next two to three years — with enough talent, he said, to do the kinds of things the last homegrown core did.
You know, things like string together a whole bunch of winning seasons, make the playoffs year after year, beat a half-dozen different teams in October. Win a World Series.
“I think in the next two years we’ll be a big group in the Show that can do the same job that the other guys did,” he said.
Big talk. Easy for him to say. Just so many words, right?
Except Velazquez has done nothing but back up his words since he said them during a conversation with NBC Sports Chicago last month.
In fact, nobody has arguably done more to back up the promise of the Cubs’ farm system than Velazquez since the front office blew up the big-league core at the trade deadline in July — sending Anthony Rizzo to the Yankees, Javy Báez to the Mets, Kris Bryant to the Giants among nine veterans traded overall.
A few days after the deadline, Velazquez earned a promotion from High-A South Bend to Tennessee — and took off, earning the organization’s minor-league player of the month honors for August.
If that wasn’t enough to put him in the middle of the front office’s radar — and big-league camp next spring — get a load of what he’s doing in Mesa this month during the return of the prestigious Arizona Fall League.
Through seven games, he’s 10-for-27 (.370) with a homer, four doubles, seven walks and a 1.130 OPS — one of the AFL’s top performers and by far the Cubs’ best performer in the early going.
The walk total, which includes a four-walk game, comes in the context of the AFL’s automated strike-zone system for calling balls and strikes this fall that has been, to put it mildly, imperfect.
The rest of the performance, however, has been a lot of picking up where the former fifth-round draft pick left off in the regular season.
Velazquez, who was drafted out of Carolina, Puerto Rico, seven months after the Cubs’ won the World Series, said the key to his performance this year after COVID-19 shut down the 2020 minor-league season was the work he did with about 25 other minor-leaguers back home, three or four times a week, during the year-long shutdown.
It amounted to an extreme version of extended spring training, allowing him to regroup, “focus” on areas of his game and build up a lot of desire and appreciation to get back to playing games again.
Velazquez said he believes he can put himself in position to be in the Cubs’ lineup by sometime in 2023 — though he said he doesn’t focus on that even with the potential path cleared of long-term core big-leaguers.
“In this game you never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “Obviously, I really want the chance to be in the Show, but in this game you’ve got to be ready for everything, because you never know where you will be.”
Where he projects in the lineup, or even the outfield is fluid, as an athletic hitter with power and speed who shared time in center field with more heralded teammates Brennen Davis and Christopher Morel down the stretch at Tennessee.
“Either way, you have to do your job,” he said.
He also wound up with more home runs this season (20) with a higher average (.270) than either Davis or Morel, while also stealing 17 bases in 19 tries.
Velazquez said that neither the expectations he might be setting for himself, nor Chicago’s potential expectations for the next core adds any pressure to his process. “You just have to keep playing the game, keep playing hard,” he said.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t see what looks like a cleared-out path to the majors.
“Not only for me,” he said. “It changed a lot for everybody in the organization.
“But either way, you have to keep working hard to improve your talent,” he said, “and just be you, and have fun. And with time you will have the chance to be there.”