Ben Leeper – Pic by Dylan Heuer/Iowa Cubs
The Cubs currently have some crazy depth when it comes to right-handed relievers these days. They’ve gone out and acquired guys who can throw in the mid to upper 90s and they are developing pitches to go with those fastballs.
Every affiliate is going to be stacked with power arms to call out of the bullpen.
In trying to rank them, it was extremely hard. The first five guys popped up pretty quick and then it became a matter of who do I include, who do I leave off, who has the most potential, and who could move fast this year. That’s a lot to take into account.
So let’s get to it.
1. Ben Leeper
The 2020 nondrafted reagent out of Oklahoma State could not have had a better debut season. In 35 innings, he struck out 53 batters and had a WHIP of 0.80 to go along with the 1.23 ERA between Tennessee and Iowa. Armed with an upper 90s fastball and a vicious slider, Leeper made mincemeat out of two levels. He’s going to be the first one the Cubs call this spring when there is an injury or opening if he dominates early, which he should.
2. Cayne Ueckert
Ueckert was one of the biggest surprises of last summer. After not pitching much after signing in 2019, he dominated in his first month at South Bend. He spent the rest of 2021 at Tennessee where his upper 90s fastball and slider combo worked really well.
3. Ethan Roberts
One of my favorite posts of the pandemic was chronicling Ethan Roberts’ summer and transformation in a series of tweets. Roberts really turned it up last year at AA improving upon his strength and increasing his fastball up into the mid 90s. In addition to getting a lot of movement on his pitches, Robert just has a bulldog mentality on the mound and a spirit that is fun to watch. He’s going to start this year at AAA after getting placed on the 40 man roster last Months. If all goes well, he might see Chicago along with Leiper and Ueckert this summer.
4. Zac Leigh
Leigh is turning into the prospect du jour. FanGraphs ranked him as the number 21 prospect in the Cubs system and he did not even pitch 10 innings as a Cub. But he did flash a newfound upper 90s fastball along with an excellent slider that really complements the former. I am really stoked to see just exactly where he’s going to begin 2022. More than likely, he’ll be in South Bend but I don’t expect him to stay there very long if at all.
5. Jeremiah Estrada
I just love everything that Jeremiah Estrada can do with a baseball. He’s got both movement and location on all his pitches. It’s just a matter of him staying healthy. He was near dominant for most of his time in Myrtle Beach last summer before the Cubs shut him down after missing the better part of three seasons. I’m hoping this year that the Cubs will stretch him out a little bit more to get up to 60 to 70 innings.
6. Eduarniel Nunez
When he was in Eugene, he had trouble literally staying on the mound as he would often fall over from throwing the ball so hard. The Cubs worked that kink out of his delivery last year and we began to see some extremely positive results at the end of the year. Nunez has some incredible spin rates. He’s a guy who’s pushing 3000 RPMs on his pitches. It’s just a matter of him being able to control what he throws. In August, he had a 0.00 ERA over nine appearances. In September, he had a 6+ ERA over four games. So there’s some consistency stuff that needs to be worked out.
7. Danis Correa
Like Estrada, Correa had not pitched much the past three summers. To see him make it all the way through the year was quite the surprise. I thought the Cubs would shut him down at some point, but they never did. The former starter took to the bullpen and never looked back because he flashed an upper 90s fastball as his main calling card. Now that he’s made it through a full season healthy, I’m excited what he can do in a second season as he is still relatively young as he only turned 22 at the end of the year.
8. Gabriel Jaramillo
I only get to see him the last two weeks of the season in Beloit and the Quad Cities. I came away impressed with Jaramillo in large part because of a side session I watched in Davenport. In addition to a mid 90s fastball, Jaramillo is actually a pretty quick learner. I’ve never seen someone just take to a slider in a matter of five minutes and feel totally comfortable doing it. He could be one of those rare four pitch relievers and that could allow him to dominate South Bend to start the year and Tennessee later.
Breakouts for 2022
Tyler Santana was a starter in college and did not really pay much attention to the Pitch Track data. After signing with the Cubs and heading to South Bend, Santana bought in immediately and could be one of the bigger breakout stories for next year as a result. Sheldon Reed, who missed almost a full year after signing, is a name to watch as well along with Frankie Scalzo, Jr.
I also like what I’m seeing from Johzan Oquendo. The Cubs drafted him in 2019 but he did not pitch that summer. He debuted this summer in Mesa and had a pretty good run until his last couple of outings. He is rapidly maturing physically and could be a steal from that draft class next summer as he should be in Myrtle Beach. I’m excited to see him throw every three days or even possibly in the rotation.