In terms of overall depth in the minors, the Cubs have a lot of right-handed relievers with potential. The slew of arms also includes several with whom many fans are already familiar and who have just been waiting to get a chance. For instance, Dakota Mekkes and Michael Rucker spent all last summer in South Bend without getting a call to Chicago.
Considering the current financial state, the Cubs may not have many choices when it comes to bringing up relievers the next couple of years. Being in a win-now mode all the time means developing long-term assets in Chicago is not a priority, which is why James Norwood and Dillon Maples kept getting chances with very limited patience. For at least the immediate future, though, it’s going to be all about cost efficiency.
Manny Rodriguez put it all together in 2019 at the age of 22 at High-A Myrtle Beach with a fastball that tops at 100 and a killer curve. He was clearly in the Cubs’ sights after he was added to the 40-man roster in the fall of 2019, but landed on the 60-day IL in spring training and missed all of the regular season. Being back to full health makes him a legitimate option in the ‘pen this coming season.
Rule 5 selection Gray Fenter is going to head to Mesa with a mid-90’s fastball and a big breaker that gets a lot of swings and misses. The former Orioles farmhand will either break spring training with the Cubs or be sent back to the O’s, unless the Cubs work out some sort of trade as they did last year with Trevor Megill. I am excited to see if the Cubs’ Pitch Lab can coax some adjustments to Fenter’s changeup and slider.
Fenter slider pic.twitter.com/nXNs7K3pcX
— TheBullpen🐾 (@RealCubsAnalyst) December 10, 2020
Hunter Bigge was a two-way star at Harvard, but the Cubs took the stout righty in the 12th round of the 2019 draft based on his big velo numbers. Because he had thrown a full season as a starter in the spring, Bigge was on a pitch count every night and had an innings limit during his debut season. He punched out 22 batters with a 1.13 ERA and batting average against of .130 over 16 innings. His very chill personality may allow him to stay calm under pressure.
Hunter Bigge with a gas delivery. pic.twitter.com/JUzeoooxaj
— Itsacon (@thats_so_cub) August 12, 2019
Had there been a 2020 minor league season, Bigge could have started out at Myrtle Beach and made his way to Tennessee and possibly even Iowa. The 22-year-old should be at Double-A to begin his full-season career.
The Cubs signed reliever Ben Leeper out of Oklahoma State this past summer as an undrafted free agent, and he impressed the hell out of Cubs VP of Player Development Matt Dorey during fall instructs. Armed with an upper-90’s fastball and a biting slider, Leeper is one to watch for 2021. Dorey said he thought Leeper would start at High-A or even Double-A next spring.
Most Cubs fans are aware of Mekkes and his mammoth 6-foot-7 frame and unorthodox delivery. He dropped some weight and added strength last offseason, which saw his fastball tick into the mid-90’s on a consistent basis. His delivery actually gives the illusion that he could be throwing even harder and I was surprised that the Cubs never called him up at any point last season. He will be a free agent at the end of the 2021 season if he is added to the 40-man this year.
The Orioles claimed Rucker in last year’s Rule 5 Draft, but wound up not keeping him for some reason. He made his way back to the Cubs during spring training and eventually the worked out at the alternate site in South Bend. He can throw in the mid-90’s and has pretty good control, though he does give up the occasional home run.
As for Maples and Norwood, I’m not sure how much longer the Cubs are going to continue to give them chances. Their inability to command their pitches consistently has been their downfall.
Cubs Insider favorite Ethan Roberts was not at the alternate site, so his development in 2020 took place solely on his own. Roberts posted his updates on Twitter as he tried to boost his fastball velocity and overall spin rates. By the end of September, he was throwing in the mid-90’s and getting his slider around 3400 RPMs. Throw in a wicked cutter and a curve the Cubs have been working with him on the past two years, and you’ve got a reliever with a four-pitch mix. That could be dangerous at any level.
Little hard to see but this is my latest max effort bullpen! 98! Hard work pays off, remember that! Teach the body to move fast and efficient! 🔥 pic.twitter.com/1YvChMl4cP
— Ethan Roberts (@EthanXXVI) August 26, 2020
Bailey Clark is another worth watching after the Cubs totally redid his delivery in 2019 to help alleviate some of the minor injuries that he’d been having. He could still pump it up there around 97 with his shorter arc and kept getting swings and misses on his slider.
Erich Uelmen was dominant as reliever in the Arizona Fall League thanks to a big sinker that’s been getting ugly swings since he was at South Bend. Ben Hecht transformed his game in 2019 as he bought into nutrition management and weight training to maintain his strength throughout the season.
Juan Gamez was a surprise addition to the alternate site last summer and it was easy to see why as he generates serious movement on his pitches. The former Twins farmhand left baseball in the states and was reborn in Mexico, where the Cubs saw playing winter ball last year and signed him up.
Speaking of rebirths, another Cubs Insider favorite storyline over the past several months has been following the transformation of Jerrick Suiter from position player fill-in on the mound to full-time pitcher. The Cubs got him last winter in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 Draft, but he never got to pitch in a game until instructs. The Cubs have re-signed him for the next year.
Then there’s Max Bain, who was picked up as an undrafted free agent after pitching briefly in independent ball following a nondescript college career. He has worked incredibly hard on his physical fitness and headed to Driveline to work full-time on improving the velocity he’d already built up while home in Michigan. It’s unclear what role the Cubs will have him in next year, so we’ll have to wait to find out more.
The big thing to keep in mind about almost all of these pitchers is they haven’t faced live hitters in competitive situations since 2019. As confident as assistant GM Craig Breslow may be in the organization’s development programs, no one can really be sure exactly how everyone will respond after coming back from such a long layoff. How well some of these righties are able to perform once spring training opens may determine whether and how the Cubs are able to compete with a tighter budget.
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