Before we start looking forward to the 2022 minor league season, we need to first look back at what happened in 2021. The Cubs spent the summer acquiring 31 new players through the draft, undrafted free agency, and deadline deals that broke up the major league club. That influx of young talent overshadowed a lot of what happened otherwise in the minors, but the season isn’t just what happens in June and July.
There were several other cool stories both on and off the field that captured the attention of prospect lovers as well as national publications and outlets like Cubs Insider. Here, in no particular order, are eight of the top storylines from the past year in the Cubs system.
Cristian Hernandez Signs
Hernandez’s signing on January 15 marked a bit of a rebirth for the Cubs in the international market. One of the top international free agents, he would go on to flash a little power in the Dominican Summer League. The shortstop slugged five home runs and drew praise for his extremely high walk rate en route to a 132 wRC+ on the short season.
Brennen Davis at Futures Game and Beyond
Cubs Insider’s prospect writers labeled Brennen Davis as the organization’s top prospect while many major publications clung to Brailyn Márquez. Davis showed everybody this year why he was the top dog at the Futures Game in Colorado, hitting two home runs to earn MVP honors.
Between that and hitting .301 with seven homers for Double-A Tennessee in July, Davis put himself on the national landscape and went from the 50s in most top 100 prospect lists up into the top 20. He went on to hit .268 with a .397 OPS over 15 games at Triple-A Iowa, making it look easy as he made a case that he’s ready for the bigs.
Brennen Davis just hit his second home run of the Futures Game!! pic.twitter.com/WZixDG5Q0x
— Cubs Insider (@realcubsinsider) July 11, 2021
The James Triantos Pick
Anyone following Cubs Insider’s live coverage of “The Rant” guest-hosted by The Growing Cubs podcast learned about James Triantos even if they’d never heard of him previously. Greg Zumach had been talking Triantos up for at least three weeks before and had him going to the Cubs in a mock draft for Prospects Live, so it wasn’t all that surprising when the Cubs grabbed the prep infielder with their second pick.
After striking out in his first five appearances in rookie ball, Triantos went on a tear and was named the Cubs September Minor League Player of the Month. It was a great call by Zumach and could end up being great for the Cubs as well.
On a rainy night in South Bend, the Cubs’ High-A affiliate was taking on the Fort Wayne Tin Caps in the first of six games. Some words were exchange, a pitch was thrown, and next thing you knew both teams were in an outright brawl. Delvin Zinn was one of the main attractions in the video that would go on to get over 400,000 views on social media. My initial concern was that the teams might not be able to play out the series or that tensions would lead to additional issues, but no other incidents took place over the next five games.
Holy crap! These two teams still have to play five more games against each other this week. And I only put up about half of the fight pic.twitter.com/eIpdFW5Ek8
— Todd ⚾️🐻🦌 (@CubsCentral08) May 26, 2021
The Year of the Reliever
Cubs VP of player development Matt Dorey had been talking up Ben Leeper all winter as a guy who could break out in 2021. Sure enough, the 2020 undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma State spent a whole day in South Bend before heading to Tennessee and showing how nasty he is on the mound. Flashing a fastball in the mid to upper 90s and a wicked slider, Leeper headlined a parade of relievers that took the organization by storm.
Teammate Ethan Roberts would join Leeper in Iowa by the end of the year and Cayne Ueckert, who had only pitched in rookie league in 2019, was lethal for South Bend and Tennessee. Lefty reliever and former outfielder Brandon Hughes had a great summer at South Bend and Tennessee and could be a possible 40-man roster consideration here in the next week or two.
Four Levels in One Year
Lefty reliever Scott Kobos, another 2020 undrafted free agent out of Coastal Carolina, became a CI favorite shortly after he was signed. To the best of our knowledge, his first interview as a member of the organization came on The Rant Live (watch below). Kobos had an ERA well over five in college, but was still pretty new to pitching after converting from the outfield and had dealt with an elbow fracture that slowed his development.
A physics major, Kobos embraced the science of pitching and improved greatly as a senior. His twin brother, Will, is a pitcher in the Pirates organization and the two were able to work out together at home and at X2 Baseball in the Charlotte area. Scott started near his alma mater in Myrtle Beach and moved quickly to South Bend, finally allowing his first run in late June right after coming off the injured list.
He made his way to Tennessee and was outstanding there as well before earning a two-week bump to Iowa to end the year. Kobos will probably start next year back in Tennessee, but he might not be there for long.
Major Injuries to the Biggest Prospects
Some of the Cubs’ top prospects are going to show up to camp next spring having not played a game since 2019. Pitchers Kohl Franklin, Riley Thompson, Michael McAvene, Josh Burgmann, and Jack Patterson will be working to regain their form and stay healthy after various respective setbacks. Márquez wasn’t able to throw anything other than bullpens after getting a late start last year and appearing in the Cubs’ final game of 2020.
Catcher Miguel Amaya missed all but May and outfielder Cole Roederer missed all but two weeks of the season after undergoing elbow reconstruction. When added to the lost season in 2020 it’s hard to fathom just how much time they’ve missed and how that is going to impact their development.
Nelson Velazquez Goes on a Tear
Velazquez got off to a quiet start in 2021 after a brief bout with tonsillitis in spring training that held him back early. By the end of July, he was promoted to Double-A Tennessee after hitting .261 with 12 home runs and 46 RBI in 69 games at South Bend. Velazquez obliterated the Southern League in his first month, hitting .333 with a .410 OBP to go along with six homers and 20 RBI in 21 games.
He was sent to the Arizona Fall League to make up for that lost time and has picked up where he left off in Tennessee and then some. As of Monday, he has a .423 average while leading the league with a 1.332 OPS and five homers.
Things are pretty quiet on the minor league news front these days and probably will be until November 19, which is the deadline for the Cubs to protect any players who are eligible for the Rule 5 Draft. Minor league free agency will begin five days after the World Series, and the Cubs will probably be more active there than in MLB free agency due to the uncertainty of a new collective bargaining agreement.
No matter what happens, we’ll have you covered when it comes to everything going on throughout the system.