Cubs Experiencing Reliever Renaissance in Minors

The Cubs’ pitching development drought seems to be drawing to a close due in large part to changes that began in the years from 2016-18. Particularly toward the tail end of that period, and continuing today, the Cubs began going after a different type of pitcher. Rather than focus on a player’s floor and targeting safer projections based on current results, they started getting a little riskier and looking for higher ceilings.

For the rest of this summer and all of next, that strategy is going to be paying off in spades as Craig Breslow‘s pitching infrastructure really begins to bear fruit. The Cubs are now awash with several big-armed bullpen studs that could produce a reliever renaissance, if you will.

As early as this summer, we could see a retooled Dakota Mekkes finally make it to Chicago. The only thing stopping him right now is that he’s on the IL with a little arm soreness. Cubs fans could even see righty Ben Leeper, the Cinderella story out of Oklahoma State who we’ve been talking about since a Prospect Stock Watch last fall and whom we profiled early last month.

The reliever boom also includes Manny Rodriguez, who was just promoted to Triple-A Iowa. Already on the 40-man roster, Rodriguez is armed with an upper-90s heater that has fantastic armside run and a devastating curveball. Rodriguez started the year at Tennessee and at one point had a 12-game scoreless streak for the Smokies.

Cubs Inside favorite Ethan Roberts had a fantastic June and is right at the front of the line to head to Triple-A. Double-A does not look to be much of a test to him after he posted a 0.77 ERA over 12.1 innings, don’t be surprised to see him in Des Moines before August 1. Cayne Ueckert, who is also at his second level this year, is right behind Roberts with his 97 mph fastball and wicked slider.

A few days ago, we profiled Bryan Hudson‘s return to the mound after missing the better part of two years. He’s joined at Tennessee with another lefty who also has an incredible story.

At the beginning of the 2019 season, South Bend hitting coach Paul McAnulty talked to outfielder Brandon Hughes about the possibility of converting to reliever, which he had done in college. The at-bats just were not going to be there for Hughes in South Bend and this was a way to extend and enrich his career. He debuted in the Arizona Rookie League that June, went to Eugene and carved there, then wound up helping South Bend win a championship at the end of the season.

Hughes started this season at High-A and was in Double-A the first week of June. He got roughed up a little bit in his first two outings at Tennessee, but has a 2.13 ERA and nine strikeouts in 8.1 innings over his last five appearances. When you throw in the mid to upper 90s from the left side, it’s hard not to get noticed. 

Another Cubs Insider favorite is Scott Kobos, the 2020 undrafted free agent out of Coastal Carolina who has yet to allow an earned run this year. He dominated at Myrtle Beach in May and was doing the same thing at South Bend in June before an undisclosed injury sidelined him. Don’t expect him to be in South Bend much longer. He’s got a plus changeup, a developing breaking ball, and a 95 mph fastball, plus he’s another lefty who converted to the mound in college and doesn’t have much mileage on his arm.

The one pitcher I’ve been bugging out about since he made his 2021 debut in June is 22-year-old Jeremiah Estrada, who’s been devastating the competition at Low-A Myrtle Beach with an electric fastball. The 2017 draft pick from Palm Desert, California basically missed three seasons dealing with an arm/elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, but he’s at a full go now. After opening the year with a strict 20-pitch limit, the Pelicans built him up to where he now can go two innings.

It’s uncertain if his career path is to continue building up pitches so that he can get back to starting or if the Cubs are going to keep him in the bullpen. Either way, he’s probably ticketed for South Bend when the next round of promotions takes place.

The key for this reliever renaissance this year is that these guys are healthy, for the most part. Most of the injuries are being monitored with an abundance of caution in the wake of the canceled 2020 season and the need to keep the pipeline flowing. You want proof of concept that the pitching infrastructure works, this reliever renaissance is it.

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