Written By: Kevin Will
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Brailyn Marquez LHP – Chicago Cubs (High A)
21 Years Old – Throw: L – Bat: L – 6’4″ 200 lbs – ETA 2021
Over the 9 years of the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer era, the Cubs have struggled to produce meaningful, homegrown pitching. They’ve made some shrewd trades acquiring Kyle Hendricks in exchange for a couple months of a 35-year-old Ryan Dempster, and Jake Arrieta along with Pedro Strop for Scott Feldman, etc. But drafting and developing from within? Not so much.
Of Cubs draftees, they’ve produced just 71.2 major league innings in a Cubs uniform almost exclusively from the bullpen. Epstein and Hoyer haven’t done any better with their IFA signings. Exactly one pitcher, Adbert Alzolay, has made it to the show. He’s thrown 12.1 innings for a grand total of… 84 IP over 9 years.
But that appears to be changing. Starting in 2018, the Cubs changed their conservative draft philosophy as it pertained to pitchers. Out went the safe, college arms with good curveballs and sound deliveries to avoid injuries, and in came a balance of prep and college arms with a greater focus on upside and velocity. In 2018, they drafted unproven power arms Kohl Franklin and Riley Thompson. The following year they added a pitch lab at their spring complex in Mesa complete with all the latest technology, and drafted 3 power arms in the first 4 rounds (Ryan Jensen, Mike McAvene and Chris Clarke) along with prep pitchers DJ Herz and Tyler Schlaffer in rounds 8 and 9. Reliever Hunter Bigge was taken in the 12th and was hitting 99 on the gun in his first pro season. This year, under new draft guru Dan Kantrovitz, the Cubs notably added power lefties Burl Carraway and Luke Little.
As a result, the Cubs now have a growing cadre of upside arms, but none has more upside than Brailyn Marquez. Signed for $600,000 as an IFA in 2015, the 16-year-old, 6’4” lefty with a then wiry frame had the potential to add velocity to a high-80s fastball. As his frame filled out, his development in that regard has been nothing short of remarkable. In the spring of 2017, he was sitting 89-92. In 2018, he had bumped that up to 93-96 and last year pitched comfortably in the upper-90s, reaching triple digits in multiple games topping out at 102. And this is easy cheese. Marquez achieves this velocity without anything close to max effort.
While that’s certainly impressive, velocity is meaningless if you can’t control it, and your secondary pitches are ineffective. Heading into 2019, this was the legitimate knock on Marquez. His FB would start in the zone but often miss with too much arm-side run. His curveball was inconsistent and his change-up was in its infancy. While his FB had jumped into the upper 90s, so had his walk rate, climbing to 15.6% in the first three months of last season while throwing just 61% of his pitches for strikes. From July 3rd on, he walked just 7.0% without losing velocity while upping his strike percentage to 69% and earning himself a promotion to High-A Myrtle Beach in the process.
So what changed? Along with taking his nutrition and workout regimen more seriously during the previous off-season, Marquez credits his work in the Cubs pitch lab, and their then minor league pitching coordinator, Brendan Sagara, credits him with his coachability and work ethic. With the use of Rapsodo and Kinotrax, Sagara adjusted his wind-up to keep him from rocking back on his heels. With the improved balance, he worked more directly to the plate versus across his body which had resulted in uncontrollable arm-side run and missing the zone with his fastball. With his improved balance, Marquez was not only able to throw his fastball for strikes more consistently but also control it down in the zone which had been a problem throughout his minor league career. Even low level minor leaguers can hit a mid to upper 90s FB if it’s thigh high. He was now also able to elevate it at the top of the zone when he wanted to, keeping hitters guessing.
The ability to more consistently throw his 97-101 FB for strikes helped, but it was also paired with a tweak to his slider grip. What had been a slightly above average curveball/sweeping slider because of a grip he didn’t have confidence in, now had solid, two plane break and tunneled well with his FB. To be clear, Marquez doesn’t have excellent command of his FB, but if you can throw it for strikes while keeping hitters off balance with a hard-breaking slider from the same release point, now you’ve got something. These two adjustments finally clicked into place at the start July of last season. But what sent Marquez into some Top 100 lists this off-season was the improvement of his change-up.
I watched every start of his last season and his change-up went from non-existent to laughable to useable to flashing excellent by mid-July. It is still a little firm, sitting mostly in the low-90s, but its run and his ability to induce swings and misses (mostly from right-handers) improved dramatically. In his final two starts for Low-A South Bend before his promotion, Marquez combined for 12 innings of 1-hit ball, walking 1 while striking out 22. South Bend pitching coach Jamie Vermilyea credited his dominant performance to his improved change.
You don’t get to see the change-up in this video, but here’s the game recap of his 6 inning, 1 hit, 0 BB, 14 K performance in late July.
At the end of June, Cubs fans who were following Marquez closely may have begun to have their doubts about him. By the end of July, they were having trouble containing their excitement. Now they needed to know if he was for real by how he pitched in High-A.
Luckily for Cubs fans, his performance didn’t drop off much when facing the improved competition of the Carolina League. While being young for his league his entire career, Marquez’s BAA dropped every season even while annually moving up a level. In rookie ball in 2017, he allowed a .275 BAA. In Short-Season Low-A the next year, that dropped to .257. While in Low-A last season, hitters batted .228. That trend continued after his promotion with High-A batters hitting just .214 off of him. With his improved control of all 3 pitches, Marquez also posted his lowest WHIP of his career at 1.06, albeit in a small sample of 26.1 IP. Batting average is a less meaningful statistic nowadays, but being increasingly difficult to hit as you move up and face better competition is notable stat. His OPS against dropped from .723 in 2018 to .655 last year and was under .600 in High-A. It’s fair to note that his BABIP did drop from .335 in South Bend (which was consistent with his career average) to .282 in High-A, but I don’t think you can attribute that entirely to luck as his line drive rate also fell from 15.2% in South Bend to just 8.9% in Myrtle Beach. In any small sample, part of any improvement can be random, but the numbers clearly show he was harder to hit from July 3rd on.
He sits 97-99 without max effort and can carry that velocity deep into games. He improved his FB control throughout last season throwing it for strikes more consistently now. But he doesn’t have command of it. Of course, most pitchers with that kind of velocity can’t command such a pitch, but then again, they don’t have to in order to be successful with it. He can dominate A-ball hitters right now. If he wants to do the same at the major league level, he’s going to have to keep it out of the middle of the zone.
The slider has good horizontal and vertical break, but it’s still a bit loopy at times. If he can throw it with a bit more velocity (the Cubs think that will come with more trust), the break will be sharper and come later. As it stands now, the fact that he can tunnel his slider with his fastball makes the effectiveness of it play up.
Marquez’s change-up was non-existent prior to last season. There were reports he was working on one with his coaches, but it wasn’t used in games. He started to throw one or two a game in 2019. Early on, he would leave them up in the zone and they didn’t move much. Very slowly though, you saw improvement in the first 3 months of last season. By July, it looked completely different. It wasn’t always thrown for strikes, but when it was right, it had the classic change-up shape starting in to right-handed batters and then tailing down and away. It was still thrown very sparingly and has a long way to go. That room for improvement is a double-edged sword, however. If it never improves and stays inconsistent, Marquez’s ceiling is late-inning reliever. If the change-up becomes consistently average or better, he’s a top-of-the-rotation starter.
Here’s the thing with Marquez. He went from 40 command early in 2019 with over a 15% walk rate to 50 command cutting his walk rate by more than half and was able to maintain that new level for the last two months of the season consistently. It was a true breakout season. But two months is not a large sample. And then there’s the enormously long off-season due to the pandemic. Can a prospect as raw as Marquez was at the beginning of last season retain the polish he worked so hard to achieve after such a long layoff? That’s why I gave him a present grade of 45 even though he was pitching with 50 command at the end of 2019. Even if he has come right back in Summer Camp with no loss of control, Marquez likely isn’t done refining his command. The fact that his velocity is so effortless, his change-up is still so raw and that he’s just 21 years old, tells me it’s possible he could wind up with plus command.
As much as Sagara and Vermilyea credited Marquez’s breakout to his improved secondaries, I think you have to credit the increased usage of his fastball along with its improved control even more. The slider and occasional change-up improved for sure, but his heater is what allowed him to dominate the lower levels. His FB is major league ready right now, and without the ability to throw it for strikes, his slider and change wouldn’t be fooling anybody. In order to reach the future values on his pitches, he needs to continue to refine his command of his FB, achieve a later break and a less loopy shape to his slider and become much more consistent with his change-up. If he were to reach his ceiling, imagine Aroldis Chapman but as a starter with a 3-pitch mix. However, he still has quite a bit of development to go to reach that ceiling. If he never completes that development, I think it’s safe to say Marquez can be a high leverage reliever by next season. That’s why, for now, I’ve graded him at 50+. He’s still got too far to go to be given anything higher right now.
Fortunately, Brailyn will have big league hitters to practice perfecting his pitches against this summer as he was named to the Cubs 60-man roster. There are currently 28 players, mostly former major leaguers, on the extended practice squad in South Bend, Indiana. Marquez is one of handful of Cubs top prospects to make the roster along with OF Brennen Davis, C Miguel Amaya, 3B Christopher Morel, RHPs Adbert Alzolay and Cory Abbott and 2020 2nd round pick LHP Burl Carraway. With some experienced major leaguers to scrimmage against, a full complement of coaches including AAA pitching coach Ron Villone and pitching performance coordinator James Ogden as well as upgraded technology in South Bend’s Four Winds Field, the Cubs hope to continue the development of their top pitching prospect despite there being no minor league season this year.
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