What if I told you the Cubs had a 22-year-old outfield prospect who looks like an offensive force and could be a candidate for the roster? Now what if I said he is not named Brennen Davis? Nelson Velazquez is really popping onto everyone’s radar recently, and for good reason.
His .270/.333/.496 slash line with 20 tanks and 17 stolen bases in the regular season was enough to get him in the conversation for a 40-man spot this offseason. Putting up a .397/.493/.741 line with five home runs so far in the AFL seems to have all but guaranteed a roster spot for him.
Ed. note: Velazquez went 1-for-4 with a walk Tuesday to drop his average to .387 with a .486 OBP, but his slugging jumped to .758 because that lone hit was a dinger.
Nelson Velazquez’s 6th @MLBazFallLeague HR.
105 mph off the bat, 395 feet to the opposite field.
— Lance Brozdowski (@LanceBroz) November 2, 2021
But to be very clear, Velazquez isn’t some deep-cut prospect that came out of nowhere. He has been in the Cubs system since 2017 and has performed admirably in that time, save for a 31-game span in 2018 when he was ultra-aggressively promoted to full-season ball as a 19-year-old.
From 2017-19, Velazquez showed plenty of potential without ever tapping into it consistently. His raw power wasn’t showing up in games and his overall athleticism wasn’t apparent enough to prove that his speed or defensive abilities in the outfield would ever stick around. That changed in 2021 as two changes led to Velazquez turning that latent potential into results.
First, the barrel-chested righty clearly hit the gym during the lost COVID season. He has always had strength, but slimmed down a bit in order to boost his natural athleticism. His movements in the batter’s box looked more fluid and the speed actually played in center field as he was able to move well enough to get into the gaps while also showing off his cannon.
Second, and most importantly, he hit the ball in the air. It seems simple, right? Velazquez was already putting up impressive exit velocities, it just didn’t do a whole lot of good when he was beating the ball into the ground at a high rate. Let’s take a look at how his groundball rates have dropped over his last few stops.
2019 in Low-A: 47.5%
2021 in High-A: 36.6%
2021 in Double-A: 30.7%
Hitting the ball hard and hitting it in the air will lead to a higher average and more slugging. Velazquez was able to do that this season due to hard work put in during the previous year. Though you won’t find anyone who’s happy about missing out on a whole season, Velazquez may have benefited as much from the time “off” as anyone.
Now it’s a matter of continuing that growth and getting ready for the next big step, which might just be to Chicago.