Young Cubs: Nelson Velazquez Makes a Surprising Debut in South Bend

In covering the minor leagues, you can usually see a promotion coming. Sometimes it is an injury that creates an opening. At other times, a prospect’s performance is just too dominant for that level. However, there is the occasional surprise that usually happens at the beginning of the year. Last week, top-10 prospect Nelson Velasquez appeared out of nowhere on the lineup card for the South Bend Cubs. So far, he’s appeared in six games and is hitting just .217 with a .250 OBP and one stolen base.

The 19-year-old outfielder caused a commotion last summer in Mesa, hitting eight home runs in the last six weeks of the regular season and postseason and leading the Cubs to an Arizona Rookie League Championship. The 2017 fifth-round draft pick out of high school in Puerto Rico dominated the Arizona Rookie League. The only concern he had coming into this year was that he did strike out a lot (39 times in 110 at-bats) while hitting .289 with a .407 OBP in August.

In spring training this year, Velasquez had a minor injury that took him out of play, and he did not return until a couple weeks ago for extended spring training. An injury to South Bend outfielder Roberto Cairo created an opening for the prodigy. In just one week of action, Velasquez has been one of the most exciting young players to watch in the Cubs organization. Even if the stats don’t reflect his talent, there’s still a lot to like.

What is Evident
1. Plate Approach
And watching him play, you can tell Velazquez has a pretty good concept of the strike zone. He can lay off pitches pretty quickly and he can take his cuts at those in the zone. He is not getting cheated on any swing he takes. Initially in South Bend, you can’t argue with his approach, just the execution. At some point, he will learn how to fight off inside pitches and foul off a down and away pitch. He tracks and recognizes every pitch well. He is just not barreling them up as of yet.

2. Athleticism
At 6’2” and near 200 pounds, he is a little bit bigger than when he was drafted. He could even grow another inch or two and add some more muscle onto an already sculpted frame. As an athlete, Velasquez comes across as very fluid running the bases and going after the baseball in the outfield. In his first game, Velazquez displayed a very strong arm trying to get a runner going to third on a fly ball to right. He did not get the runner, but it was an still impressive throw that wowed the South Bend faithful. And then, last night, he stole his first base.

3. Strike Outs
In his first six games, he’s struck out eight times in 23 at bats for 34.8% K rate. Although it’s a tiny sample, that’s unsustainable. For now, lowering that is probably going to be his number one goal in 2019 . In Monday night’s first game of a doubleheader, he went 1-for-3 with one K, and he reached on a fielder’s choice. In the nightcap, he went 2-for-4 with just one K. He will improve.

4. Permanency
In spring training, Velazquez played with the South Bend club most of the spring until he went down with an injury. As a result, it seemed as though he would start the year in Eugene. Now, Velasquez’s promotion seems to have some semblance of permanency to it. He doesn’t look out of place in the batter’s box, the basepaths, or the field. He looks like he has a few things to work on, and he is going to do them in South Bend..

There have to be some nerves playing before the large crowds in the Midwest League at just 19, 2-3 years younger than the league average. He is going to go through periods where he struggles to adapt and learn, and he’s going to have hot streaks. Unfortunately, Velazquez started off struggling at South Bend. It’s not the end of the world. Velasquez is going to have all season to make adjustments. In fact, that’s going to be his job for the rest of his career. However, even in just one week, it is quite evident that Velazquez has a lot of skills and tools to work with to adapt.

Lead Photo of Velazquez by Rikk Carlson

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