99.9% of eyes that watch the Iowa Cubs this spring will be focused on Brennen Davis and seeing him get to Chicago in due time. However, there will be other stories to follow including Ben Leeper, Ethan Roberts, and possibly Cayne Ueckert joining Davis in the Windy City. But for today’s sneak peek, it is all about who could be in the starting rotation in Des Moines this spring.
We’ve seen the Cubs go out and sign a few minor league free agent pitchers this winter, but mostly of the reliever variety. That leads one to believe that the Cubs are going to roll with their own pitching prospects, for the most part, to help the big league club in 2022.
As of today, Iowa’s rotation is a bit of a mystery. We know that Cory Abbott will be there along with Matt Swarmer. Both were outstanding down the stretch for Iowa and hopefully they can pick up where they left off as they both had ERAs under 3.50 in August.
Free agent signee Mark Leiter is another possibility as a starter and there is a chance the Cubs could sign a future free agent after the lockout ends. More than likely, the final three spots will be filled with pitchers that were in Tennessee in 2021.
Javier Assad could get a nod and so could Caleb Killian. Assad is a likely choice but Kilian could head back to Tennessee to start the year as he really doesn’t have a lot of experience beyond class A except for last August. In total, Kilian has just 78.2 innings at AA and the Cubs might want him to get closer to 120. Still, his turn in the Arizona Fall League may make up for that and the Cubs could fast track him to Iowa to start the year. I would prefer the latter scenario.
Cam Sanders is also in that mix. Despite a disappointing season statistically, Sanders gained a lot of experience after basically skipping High-A. Sanders’ big thing last year was working on developing a four pitch mix. At South Bend in 2019, he was mainly fastball, curve, and change. The addition of a slider didn’t slow him down last year. Instead, it was more of a command issue as he was seemingly behind in the count a lot. Part of me says that Cam should go to the bullpen where he would be electric and could probably come close to triple digits. He might get to Chicago faster. On the other hand, the Cubs have not exhausted every opportunity with Cam and if Cam uses last year as a learning experience, his stuff is nasty enough to play at the next level. He just needs to control it.
When it comes to Brailyn Marquez, I’m at the point where I’m just throwing up my hands. He missed all of last year after the pandemic and being added to the 40-man. Now, he can’t even practice or work out in Mesa because of the lockout. So, he’s basically going to be starting from scratch when the year begins. As a result, Marquez probably does not start in the rotation as the Cubs try to get that arm and shoulder stretched out. If he does start a game, it might just be for one inning or two that first month.
The long shot to get to the rotation in Iowa might actually be the guy with the best stuff in the system in Anderson Espinoza. The former number one prospect of the Padres missed the better part of four years before the Cubs picked him up in the Jake Marisnick deal. After getting his legs under him in August, Espinoza made his way to Tennessee where the 23-year-old was pretty studly in the last month of the year. In three starts, he threw 13.1 innings with an ERA of 1.35 and struck out 16. That’s a pretty dominating little sample size. If he is healthy this spring, it wouldn’t shock me if he’s in Iowa as he has probably the most electric stuff of any Cubs pitcher. It’s just a matter of getting his command and control back after missing so many seasons.
So as MiLB spring training unfolds, we shall keep an eye on who exactly is starting with the Triple-A club. It could go any number of ways.
What could throw a wrench in the Cubs plans is if the lockout stretches into the season as players on the 40-man roster like Abbott, Marquez, and Espinoza cannot play minor league baseball. They have to sit out along with the MLB players.
Stay tuned as it’s going to be an interesting spring before we get to opening day!