Burl Carraway – Picture by Todd Johnson
Over the past few years, the Cubs really stocked up on left-handed relievers. Most of them should be in Tennessee and Iowa to start 2022. But after that, pickings are slim from High-A on down. Still, the Cubs could have upwards of 10 lefties who are just a phone call away from Chicago this summer. Some of them are still developing while others could be pressed into service if needed.
When it comes to ranking them, it’s a pretty fluid situation. All that really means is that some guys are still figuring just exactly how to pitch at each level. 2022 could be the year of the lefty reliever if things go according to plan. For several of them, it is a make or break year. As for our rankings, these guys have a little bit of time to put it together.
1. Burl Carraway
Looking back at Carraway’s first year in the minors, it was a bit unfair to see all the expectations heaped upon him beginning on draft day in 2020. Jim Callis of MLB Pipeline said that Carraway could possibly pitch in Chicago in 2020. Everybody thought that the closer from Dallas Baptist would be part of the pennant race in September. That did not come to fruition in 2020 nor did it in 2021, although the Cubs were not in the race last year.
Anyway, Caraway struggled with his command early on last year in May and June. In July, things began to click as he put up an ERA of just 1.00 for the month of August and that earned him a promotion to Tennessee. What Carraway did that month was to just control his mid 90s fastball with his killer curve as well as cut his walk rate in half. He struck out 15 that month in 7 outings.
For the year, his K rate was a phenomenal 14.81. The issue was his walk rate was an equally gaudy 12.19. He did not give up a lot of hits when he was pitching bad and he still didn’t give up a lot of hits when he was pitching well. At Tennessee, he did not allow a run in four appearances. Then he showed up in instructs and did not throw a fastball or a curve the entire time he was there. It was all sliders all the time. I’ll let you extrapolate where that’s going on your own.
Heading into 2022, Caraway should be at Tennessee and he just needs to relax and hit the mitt with all three of his pitches. If he does that, he’s not going to be in Tennessee very long.
2. Brandon Hughes
The former outfielder went through two levels last year and was just outstanding once he got settled in. After a rough start at South Bend, he turned it on and found his way to Tennessee and spent all of the second half dominating hitters from both sides of the plate. Armed with a mid 90s fastball, a slider, and a curve, Hughes first full season as only a pitcher was beyond expectations. I thought if he had a good year, he could be in the low 3.00s. Instead, he had a 1.71 ERA in 26 games for the year. He’s ahead of Carraway in terms of being ready for Triple-A, but because of the recent acquisitions to back up the major league squad, Hughes will probably begin 2022 at Tennessee for a little while. If he shoves again, he’ll be in Des Moines by June, if not sooner.
3. Brendon Little
I have seen Brendon Little throw a lot the last three summers. I’ve gotten a good look at his outstanding curveball from day 1 at South Bend and I’ve seen his fastball improve over that same time as he’s got it back into the mid 90s. This year, the Cubs added a slider to the mix but his future right now is a bit uncertain as the Cubs pulled him from play during the Arizona Fall League in his first appearance. He was coming off an outstanding August where he had a 1.35 ERA at Triple-A Iowa and was looking like he might be added to the 40-man roster to avoid losing him in the Rule 5 Draft. After the injury, the Cubs said they were going to shut him down for a couple of months and then check him back out. Hopefully he will not need surgery. If so, we can forget about him pitching in 2022.
4. Scott Kobos
It’s extremely rare to see a pitcher go through four levels of an organization in one year. Yet, that’s exactly what Scott Kobos did. Between Myrtle Beach, South Bend, and Tennessee, Kobos allowed one run for almost the entire summer. He did make his way to Iowa at the end of the year where he gave up six runs in one outing. That one outing skewed his ERA for the year, but if you only allow one run between May 1 and the middle of September, something is going extremely right. For Kobos, that was a low to mid 90s fastball well matched with a beautiful curve and nice changeup from a somewhat deceptive delivery. What Kobos gets on hitters is that he’s able to put the ball where he wants it when he wants it. He was one of many breakout relievers in the system last year.
When 2022 comes around, it’s unclear if he’s even going to be a reliever. There’s been some talk at the Cubs could try and push him into the rotation. He’s going to have a lot of competition just to earn a spot. Still, Kobos is not that far away from Chicago and he could make it to Iowa on a more permanent basis later this summer. There’s really not a lot for him to prove it AA, it’s just the fact that the lefties the Cubs acquired this winter provide some MLB depth and experience, something that Kobos does not have. Then again, he can’t get it if you don’t give him the opportunity.
Over the course of the next six months, it’ll be interesting to see if any other lefty relievers pop in the system, especially in the lower levels where they might have one per team. I would not be surprised to see the Cubs spend most of Day 2 of the draft trying to find a few relievers along with some nondrafted free agents. They could also hit the independent/partner leagues as well.
Most of the lefty relievers the Cubs have in Double and Triple-A can become free agents at the end of the 2022 season. That’s going to slash the ranks of relievers by 2/3 in one fell swoop. They are going to need to replenish their ranks this summer, if not sooner depending on who gets to Chicago.