Tyler Santana – Picture by Todd Johnson

We have now reached a point where we are less than two months away from opening day in the minor league season. In a little over three weeks, minor league players will report for the physicals and spring training for the minors will begin on March 6 or 7.

At North Side Bound, we are doing some planning to get you ready for the season. Over the past two weeks, we have looked at some sleeper hitters and starting pitchers who could possibly break out this spring and summer.

Today’s task is a little bit more difficult.

Choosing a breakout reliever for this upcoming season is a little bit harder because of the uncertainty of who’s going to start and who is going to relieve. When you’re talking about a sleeper, it has to be a guy that makes a huge leap in his performance and really takes over the system like Ben Leeper and Cayne Ueckert did a year ago. Jack Patterson would fit that definition to a T in 2019.

With those things in mind, let’s get going on who each of us think will be this year’s shooting star out of the bullpen.

Jimmy Nelligan – The mustache, the spiked curve, the experience closing in college, count me all in on Frankie Scalzo, Jr. There are a few things I think are really important to becoming a great reliever: you have to limit walks, you have to get strikeouts, and you have to limit the home run. Luckily, Scalzo, Jr. does all three. I’m excited to see Frankie in 2022 after getting acquainted in the Cubs organization and professional baseball in general. He could come out this year in South Bend absolutely dealing with a high 90’s fastball (he touched 97 at Grand Canyon University in 2021) and a hammer spiked curveball. I wouldn’t be surprised if he even spends half of his season in Tennessee. 

Greg Huss – Riley Martin has been my guy since the moment he was drafted. A former GLVC guy out of D-II Quincy University, this long-haired cat struck out over SEVENTEEN batters per nine innings his senior season as a starting pitcher. He came into the Cubs system and immediately saw his velo increase thanks to professional development staff and a shift to shorter stints out of the bullpen. Martin will be 24-years-old when this 2022 campaign comes around and might zoom through the system pretty quickly with a pretty simple fastball-curveball combo. He all the quirkiness and fire you could ever want out of a lefty reliever and that makes it incredibly easy to root for him.

Greg Zumach – I believe we’ll be talking about 9th round pick Chase Watkins much, much differently in a few months. I don’t have any insight as to whether he’s going to start or relieve, but my guess right now is he gets some run out of the pen. It was very clear he overmatched hitters in his limited time in the Complex League with 20 Ks in 11 1/3 innings (1.59 ERA) and I think he’s setting himself up even better in 2022. This offseason Watkins shared he’s working on building velocity (he sat 89-92 mph last summer) as well as incorporating a more horizontally moving breaking ball to his repertoire. I’ll have a more thorough breakdown of Watkins in an upcoming “System on the Rise” piece, but I’m definitely buying Chase Watkins flashing some whiff-inducing stuff out of the pen this upcoming year.

Todd Johnson – If I hadn’t built up Zac Leigh at the end of the 2021 season, he would be my guy. All I had to do was to keep my mouth shut and Zac would’ve made me look like a genius. Instead, I have to roll with somebody else because everybody and their mother already sees Zac coming. So, as a result, I’m going with Tyler Santana. Santana pitched well last year at South Bend after signing as a non-drafted free agent. Like Leigh, he moved from a starting role in college to the bullpen. But the main reason I’m going all in on Tyler Santana is he’s finally going all-in on technology. I’m excited to see how much he’s developed over the winter and how he will deploy things he learned from his pro coaches and the data he’s getting on his pitches.

The Cubs pitching program is starting to turn out some high revolution arms. We could see more than what we’ve talked about here today. We could see Eduarniel Nunez take his crazy spin count and find some control to really shoot through the upper levels of the system. Who knows how Riley Martin, Chase Watkins, Frankie Scalzo, and Tyler Santana are going to improve with pro instruction and pitch technology? There are a lot of ifs and what have yous that will get worked out in due time. It should be an interesting spring as I am sure there will be one or two guys we did not think of for this list. Maybe Walker Powell, Johzan Oquendo, or Luis Rodriguez might be household names by June. You never know!