One of the highlights of my summer was a trip to Appleton, Wisconsin to see the South Bend Cubs play the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. Looking back, the second game of the series was a transformative night for Brailyn Marquez. He threw 79 pitches and allowed just one run over five innings while striking out seven, after which things really took off.
Marquez would go on to whiff 14 batters with no walks in his next start, needing just 71 pitches over six innings to do it. He racked up eight K’s to just one walk his next time out, which would be his last before a promotion to Myrtle Beach. It was more of the same at High-A, with Marquez posting a 1.71 ERA with 26 strikeouts over five starts (26.1 IP) and firmly establishing himself as a legit fast-track possibility.
Though it seemed like everything sort of came together at once, which isn’t incorrect, the shift came when Marquez began to throw his triple-digit fastball more with two strikes. Rather than trying to get strike three via the slider, he was able to lean on that elite velocity for whiffs. In addition, Marquez’s 90 mph changeup really came around and helped to offset the hard stuff.
It’s entirely likely that he’ll open the 2020 season with Double-A Tennessee, at which point he’ll be only 21 years old. Since that’s typically the level at which the best pure talent resides, you have to wonder how close he is to getting the call to Chicago. The quick answer is pretty darn close, but the real answer is more complex than that.
Last year was Marquez’s first of full-season ball, during which he threw 103.2 innings between South Bend and Myrtle Beach. That’s nearly double the 54.2 innings he compiled between Eugene and South Bend in 28, which is a pretty good jump for a 20-year-old arm. The Cubs may just want to take the conservative route by adding another 30-40 innings to his workload and really getting him ready for the next step.
Marquez learned a lot about being a professional pitcher and not just a phenom last season, going from a kid with a golden arm to a guy who could put hitters away efficiently. Prior to that, it was often frustrating to watch Marquez pitch because he was adamant about finishing guys off with his slider. While the pitch had crazy movement, and still does, it looked at times like he had no idea where it was going in 2018.
Now, however, he’s really gotten it dialed in.
Brailyn Marquez and his slider. pic.twitter.com/7dcCILmcpI
— Eldrad (@thats_so_cub) July 25, 2019
Beyond his pure stuff, which is off the charts, a lot of the improvement came with increased maturity. He took charting pitches more seriously, along with improving his stuff in his side sessions. Those little aspects of being a pro and not simply relying on his talent helped his performance on the mound. Combined with the shift in strategy and the development of his changeup, Marquez quickly became what’s know in prospect parlance as “a dude.”
His development at Double-A is going to be the main pitching story in the Cubs’ system next summer, particularly as they look to revamp their infrastructure in that aspect of the organization. Because of his youth, there’s no need to rush him. If Marquez toys with Southern League hitters like he did with opponents in the second half this past season, however, get the plane ticket ready.
While the lack of innings might be a concern to this point, Marquez is going to be pitching every five days for the first time in 2020. How he handles that change both physical and mentally is going to tell us everything we need to know. The dream scenario is for him to start the year in Tennessee’s rotation and continue his development out of the ‘pen for Chicago late in the season. Imagine bringing 102 mph heat late in the game in the middle of a pennant race. That could really jack things up.
His arm still needs to be stretched out, but not too much. If he is ready, and that’s still up in the air, taking the bullpen route allows the Cubs to limit those innings while still helping Marquez to take aggressive developmental steps.
He still profiles as a starter long-term, which is almost too exciting to imagine actually coming to fruition. But if all goes well in 2020, he should have enough innings accumulated to break into the rotation in 2021. Yes, in Chicago.
That’s really close.