Right-handed relievers shot up the position rankings in the Cubs system in 2021 as the organization totally revamped how it develops arms for the major league level. With Craig Breslow entrenched as assistant GM and director of pitching, a more aggressive approach has led to the sort of velocity increases that were previously only seen in other teams.
While the starters are still trying to find their way, relievers dominated Cubs pitching headlines in 2021. We saw Manuel Rodriguez, Tommy Nance, and Michael Rucker debut in Chicago this past season, but they are just the tip of the iceberg as the Cubs have several other big arms that will be ready in 2022 and beyond.
Let’s see what each affiliate has in store.
There will be no shortage of righty relievers in Des Moines next summer. Ben Leeper advanced through three levels in the system last summer and should be the first called up if the Cubs need help in the bullpen. The only issue is he’s not on the 40-man roster just yet, so give it maybe a month into the season. Cubs Insider favorite Ethan Roberts is not too far behind Leeper and has been added to the 40-man, but Roberts probably needs more seasoning in Triple-A before he’s ready for Chicago.
Cayne Ueckert (pronounced EK-ert) dominated at both South Bend and Tennessee last summer and should start 2022 at Iowa. He can throw in the mid-to-upper 90s and is also armed with a nasty slider.
Watching Cayne Ueckert pitch in the ninth, every hitter is just late. I know he’s wearing camouflage shirt, but he must just be extremely hard to pick up. pic.twitter.com/OemdsNRhUs
— Todd ⚾️🐻🦌 (@CubsCentral08) May 29, 2021
Eury Ramos had a bit of a breakout in 2021 as he was able to stay healthy all season after moving to the bullpen. He previously had been a starter at Eugene and South Bend but the relief role suits him and he did fairly well in a short stint at Double-A last August. Eduarniel Nunez generates some of the highest spin rates of anybody in the system, now the Cubs just have to help him figure out how to control his stuff. He showed progress from month to month last year and missed a lot of bats along the way (over 10 Ks/9).
Those should be joined by Ben Hecht when he returns from Tommy John surgery after breaking out in 2019 at Myrtle Beach. That’s when Hecht really bought into nutrition, weight training, and the mental skills program.
Another fun outing from Eduarniel Nunez. Follows 99 with an 84 MPH curve for the K, gets the next guy swinging with 98. pic.twitter.com/PrvgclJcQK
— Brad (@ballskwok) August 15, 2021
There could be several guys who could end up either at South Bend or Tennessee depending upon how they do in spring training. I really like are Danis Correa, Gabriel Jaramillo, Zac Leigh, and Tyler Santana, all of whom ended the year at High-A. Leigh, last summer’s 16th-round pick, can crank it up to 98 mph and sets off his fastball with a nasty breaking ball.
Zac Leigh nasty bender pic.twitter.com/H5LlKxE28I
— Todd ⚾️🐻🦌 (@CubsCentral08) September 19, 2021
Santana did not really embrace the technology revolution in college, but is now said to be all-in on pitch data after seeing how it impacted his performance in his short tenure at South Bend. The undrafted free agent could show the biggest growth this summer.
Another possible arm for South Bend is Frankie Scalzo, who the Cubs took in the 14th round of the 2021 draft. The former closer for Grand Canyon University is armed with a classic 70s-style mustache that rivals Tom Selleck and get a fastball into the upper 90s. He’s going to be a guy to watch to start the year.
Former Clemson righty Sheldon Reed is finally healthy after signing as an undrafted free agent in 2020 and he did very well debuting late in the year in Myrtle Beach. More than likely, he finds his way to South Bend.
Welcome back to South Carolina, Sheldon Reed!
— Myrtle Beach Pelicans (@Pelicanbaseball) August 25, 2021
My favorite reliever that should be in South Bend is Jeremiah Estrada. The 2017 draft pick was finally healthy last year and he got to show off a little before the Cubs shut him down in August. He was almost unhittable for long stretches as he flashed a mid-90s fastball to go with a classic 12-to-6 curve and an improving changeup. I’d imagine the plan is to stretch him out to 60 or 70 innings in 2022, then he can advance up to Tennessee and Iowa next year if all goes well.
Jeremiah Estrada and his CB. Nasty nasty nasty… pic.twitter.com/JdKys01Whj
— Itsacon (@thats_so_cub) July 2, 2021
Johzan Oquendo could be a name to watch next summer. The Cubs took him in the 2019 draft out of high school in Puerto Rico and he did not play that summer. He struck out 49 batters over 41.1 innings in Mesa in his first action as part of the organization. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Oquendo find his way into the rotation at some point next summer.
The Cubs are stocked with a lot of high-powered arms now, which is quite a change from just a couple years ago. We should continue to see growth in this area as the revamped pitching infrastructure really gets working. Velocity was the first goal, one that obviously won’t be going away, but now we can expect improvements in both command and pitch design.
That is some really exciting stuff, folks.