Sports

Cubs see flashes of youth movement with Nelson Velázquez’s debut, Pete Crow-Armstrong’s promotion

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Growing up in Puerto Rico, Nelson Velázquez wanted to hit like Manny Ramirez. Velázquez trained in the gym and on the track with such intensity that it drew the attention of Cubs area scout Edwards Guzman, who thought the teenager almost looked like a young Sammy Sosa. Velázquez’s parents, Nelson Velázquez and Luz Romero, supported their son’s drive and ambition. In the run-up to the 2017 draft, Velázquez won the MVP award at the Victor Pellot Tournament of Excellence, the showcase that once helped launch Carlos Correa’s career. Cubs officials took in the batting-practice show when Velázquez started hitting balls out toward the video board and the rooftop buildings during a pre-draft workout at Wrigley Field.

It’s never an overnight success story. Velázquez received a $ 400,000 signing bonus, which was above the slot value for the last pick in the fifth round of the 2017 draft but not the kind of commitment that would guarantee him that much in the organization. As a right-handed hitter who sometimes had trouble catching up with the fastball and recognizing breaking pitches, he wanted to be coached and applied certain suggestions to help smooth out his swing. A program for strength and conditioning helped him stay on the field to do those explosive movements. The emotions poured out when he called home to say that he would be making his major-league debut.

“It’s a dream come true,” Velázquez said Monday morning, standing at his locker inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse. “It’s everything I wished for in my life.”

Memorial Day, a traditional checkpoint in a 162-game season, showed where the Cubs (19-29) are in their rebuilding cycle, 12 games out of first place after getting swept by the Brewers in a doubleheader. Judging by the reactions on social media, the biggest news around the Cubs involved Pete Crow-Armstrong – a top prospect acquired from the Mets in last summer’s Javier Báez trade – getting promoted to High-A South Bend after hitting .354 with a 1,000 OPS in 38 games with Low-A Myrtle Beach.

Crow-Armstrong, the No. 19 pick in the 2020 draft, showed no signs of rust after missing almost all of last year’s minor-league season while recovering from surgery on his right shoulder. At the age of 20, Crow-Armstrong has an advanced approach honed through his long history with Team USA and formative experiences in Southern California, where he graduated from the same elite high school, Harvard-Westlake, that produced Lucas Giolito, Max Fried and Jack Flaherty. This doesn’t help manager David Ross and his coaching staff right now, but in Crow-Armstrong the Cubs think they might have a future Gold Glove center fielder with real offensive upside.

If this season is going to be written off for developmental purposes and financial accounting, then Cubs fans want to see more young homegrown players like Velázquez (23) and Christopher Morel (22). On May 5, Velázquez hit third in Double-A Tennessee’s lineup behind Morel. The next day, the Cubs promoted Velázquez to Triple-A Iowa, a reward for his MVP performance in last year’s Arizona Fall League and a hot start to the Double-A season (nine homers, 1,094 OPS in 22 games). On May 17, the Cubs called up Morel from Tennessee and watched him hit a home run in his first major-league at-bat, a no-doubt shot that cleared the left-field bleachers at Wrigley Field. Together, they started both games of a Memorial Day doubleheader at the Friendly Confines.

“He’s my bestie,” Velázquez said. “I’m very happy that he is here with me right now.”

“Nelson, for me, is like a brother,” More Nadal said through team interpreter / media relations staffer Will Nadal. “The only thing that’s missing is blood between us.”

In his first major-league at-bat, Velázquez chopped a ball to the right side that bounced for an infield single. Velázquez also popped out twice, leaving four runners on base, before Ross replaced him with pinch-hitter Alfonso Rivas in the seventh inning of a 7-6 Game 1 loss. Velázquez struck out twice in Game 2, hustled for an infield single and was left stranded at second base when the Cubs wasted a no-outs, bases-loaded situation in the seventh inning of a 3-1 loss. Velázquez hit a ball back to Brewers closer Josh Hader for the final out of the doubleheader. It wasn’t a dramatic debut or Morel’s made-for-Twitter moment, but the Cubs will want to see how Velázquez grows as a player this year, both in Chicago and Iowa, and executes the plan presented by the organization’s hitting department.

“There was some raw power in there that they were trying to tap into,” Ross said. “The swing adjustments that he made – and the work that he put in going into last year – kind of put it all together for him. It’s just being able to make more contact. He’s still got some of that (swing-and-miss) in his game, but he’s got real power. I’ve watched a lot of the highlights (and) he’s been on a big-time run this year. “

At the major-league level, the Cubs are dealing with a brutal stretch of 11 games in nine days against the White Sox, Brewers and Cardinals, three playoff teams from last season. Part of Monday’s roster shuffling included infielder Jonathan Villar going on the injured list after a resistance band snapped into his mouth, an accident that requires significant dental work. Between Games 1 and 2, the Cubs placed outfielder Seiya Suzuki on the injured list with a sprained left ring finger. For reference, Suzuki jammed his left hand on a slide last week in Cincinnati and landed so awkwardly that he joked he might have left that finger on second base.

With Wade Miley on the injured list resting a strained left shoulder, Matt Swarmer, 28, made his major-league debut and submitted a respectable start in Game 1, another stop on his long journey as a 19th-round pick in the 2016 draft out of Division II Kutztown University. Swarmer didn’t get much help from his defense (two errors), but he still managed to complete six innings, giving up four runs (one earned) while finishing with six strikeouts against one walk. Game 2 starter Drew Smyly threw three hitless innings before walking off the mound with right oblique soreness. The injuries, the schedule, the untested elements of the roster, it all leaves the pitching staff in rough shape right now.

The Cubs still have to get through four-plus months of the season before Jed Hoyer’s baseball operations department can begin serious planning for this winter. A rebuilding team will need energy from young players like Morel, whose clapping at first base could be heard all the way up in the press box after he hit a single in the sixth inning of Game 2. Morel – a leadoff hitter who can play all over the infield and the outfield – has started his major-league career by reaching base in each of his first 13 games and putting together a 10-game hitting streak. With his confidence and enthusiasm, Morel has already set an example for Velázquez.

“No matter where you’re at, just go out there, have fun, be you,” Velázquez said. “And you will see the success come true. That’s the way we think every time. “

(Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)

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