This coming season should see a few pitchers break through at the major league level, so we’re closing out our look at the system by talking about relievers. We’ve seen flashes from Dillon Maples and James Norwood in the recent past, but Adbert Alzolay figures to make a debut that was postponed by injury last season. If he does end up making it to Chicago, though, it’s going to be in the pen and not as part of the rotation.
After taking a few no-hitters deep into games at Triple-A Iowa in 2018, Alzolay appeared to be on the cusp of a major league career. Then a grade one lat strain ended his season in early June and reset the timer. The Cubs are still very high on the righty, who will turn 24 in March, and he even appeared at the Cubs Convention. As spring training approaches, Alzolay is a sure bet to see plenty of time with the big league club, probably as a starter in camp.
One thing holding Alzolay back from a starting career in the majors is he just does not have the requisite number of innings needed to stretch out his arm over a season. His career high is 120 IP, set back in 2016, and he saw action in only 39.2 innings last season. A likely scenario will see him open in Iowa as a starter and before making his way to Chicago in June to work out of the ‘pen and gain a little experience.
As for other options, righty Dakota Mekkes looks to be just about ready. His 6-foot-7 frame and deceptive delivery will be tested quite a bit this spring in Mesa. He’s dominated at each stop of his career so far, so how that deception fares against big league hitters will go a long way toward determining his path.
Norwood is nearly ready as well, considering the amount of heat he can put on a fastball. The only issue is keeping it down. We’ve seen Maples in Chicago a few times already, and he’ll be able to stay there if he can figure out how to locate the fastball for strikes.
Bailey Clark had an amazing 2018 after an offseason of weight training. He got off to a great start out of the bullpen in South Bend before transitioning to a starter and earning a promotion to Myrtle Beach. After an injury sidelined for over six weeks, he returned to the ‘pen and then held his own in the the Arizona Fall League.
Clark just needs to get healthy this year and could be back in the bullpen as the Cubs bring him along. He intimated after the AFL that he was working on something special for 2019, which could mean a third plus pitch to go along with his mid-to-upper-90’s fastball and swing-and-miss slurve.
As for the rest of the system, it’s hard to tell from year to year what any specific reliever is going to do. Some guys flash their tools and dominate at one spot and then struggle at the next. Among the prospects I’m really interested in watching are Wyatt Short at Double-A and Brian Glowicki at Myrtle Beach. Both were outstanding last year at their respective class-A affiliates.
Two more to watch are Garrett Kelly, an independent league signee from last spring, and Chad Hockin, who missed almost all of last season following elbow reconstruction. I’d like to see how Kelly grows after an offseason in the system with high-end training. If Hockin can bounce back to his college level mid-90’s velocity, he’s got all kinds of promise.
In keeping with their more aggressive philosophy of drafting and developing pitchers, the Cubs selected a lot of guys for the bullpen last year. One of those I really like is right hander Cam Sanders out of LSU. You wouldn’t be impressed whatsoever if you just looked at his stats, but the ball just explodes out of his hand and he hardly exhibits any effort throwing the ball in the mid 90’s. Riley McCauley out of Michigan State did not allow a run in his first 14 games last year at Eugene and is another one to watch at South Bend this year.
Considering the depth of starting pitching at some levels of the system, I would not be surprised to see some starters move to the bullpen. Duane Underwood looks to be headed there at Triple-A Iowa and Jason McLeod has indicated as much. Michael Rucker is another possibility based on his 70 percent strike rate. Rucker was just dominant at both South Bend and Myrtle Beach coming out of the pen in 2017, touching the mid-90’s most days.
McLeod admitted during CubsCon that they’ve been far too conservative with their young arms over the past few seasons. The Cubs have failed to adequately produce major-league pitchers and have been forced to look at what has gone wrong, which has resulted in some changes with their evaluation and development processes. So you can expect to see some of these prospects pushed more than in the past, though not to an excessive degree.
The biggest change will be in not limiting their young pitchers, but instead letting their performance determine their development paths. In trying to make that process more linear, the Cubs may have inadvertently stunted some of their prospects. So now by loosening up those directions a bit, the organization is hoping to actually create a clearer path to Chicago.
We should start seeing whether that’s truly the case pretty quickly in the 2019 season.
See below for a full breakdown of other positions: