Frankie Scalzo Jr. by Rich Biesterfeld (@biest22)

We’ve already seen the Cubs farm system rise in the national rankings and there’s significant optimism about the organization’s players making significant improvements heading into 2022. But what are those improvements players are making behind the scenes? I reached out to hitters (Part 1) and pitchers (Parts 2 and 3) to discuss their goals and player development plan for 2022.

Relief Pitchers on the Rise

Bailey Reid
2021: The Cubs signed Reid during the 2020 post-draft free agency period that arose because of the shorted MLB draft and the early results suggest he’s an impact addition to the system. Reid logged 50 1/3 innings with a 13.4 K/9 (32.8% K-rate) with most of his outings in Myrtle Beach before a quick stint in South Bend to end the year. The righthander showcased upper-tier stuff out of the pen. It’s not a requirement for a reliever to even throw three separate pitches, but Reid throws four: fastball, cutter, curveball, and slider.
2022: Reid knows he needs to continue building on what he’s done to set him up for a strong 2022. “[The] goals entering camp this year are to get uptick on my velo, and find a comfort in throwing my curveball,” Reid says. The righty described his desire to continue keeping both his cutter and slider “sharp”.

Sheldon Reed
2021: If you took a snapshot of Reed’s 2021 statistics (1.93 ERA with 19 Ks in 14 innings pitched in Myrtle Beach) and show them to Reed or his coaches in early 2019, it would have been shocking. Reed began his collegiate experience at Spartanburg Methodist before making the gigantic leap to Clemson University… as an outfielder. Reed impressed at the plate for Spartanburg hitting .448/.508/.697 and redshirted for Clemson. The next year, Reed found himself on the mound with mixed results with an ERA over 5. The righthander then turned a serious corner. He dominated the Coastal Plains League with a 1.54 ERA and a batting average against of 0.77. Not even the COVID-wiped 2020 season could prevent Reed from making his way to the pro ranks. He signed in July during the post-draft free agency period of that year. The righthander made his Myrtle Beach debut on August 24th 2021 and didn’t look back, even appearing in Iowa at the end of the year.
2022: The righthander is looking forward to the 2022 season and spending time this offseason, ensuring his mechanical foundation is in peak condition. According to Reed, he has been working to use his lower half better in order to sync his delivery. The key to Reed is to make his delivery as efficient as possible. The Cubs are building one heck of a bullpen corps in the minor leagues and Reed is a potential fast-moving arm to watch in 2022.

Frankie Scalzo Jr.
2021: Grand Canyon University is an underrated gem of a program under coach Andy Stankiewicz and Frankie Scalzo Jr. is the latest in a line of players drafted from the Antelopes. While he garnered attention for his facial hair, Scalzo Jr. is far more than a pitcher with an 80-grade mustache as he features high-leverage stuff out of the pen. He served as the closer for GCU prior to the draft and it’s not surprising he took to the professional bullpen quickly. In limited innings after he signed, the righthander produced a fantastic 1.13 ERA with Myrtle Beach. Scalzo Jr. is a fastball/spike curve dominant pitcher, but after talking with him, it appears that the Cubs worked to expand his offerings.
2022: Scalzo Jr. dominated opponents for the Lopes and he’s coming armed with an improved arsenal. After not utilizing the changeup in college, Scalzo Jr. worked to employ the pitch in professional ball. And despite success with his fastball, he’s ”made tweaks” to the pitch in order to get better action on it. With a closer’s mentality, a robust reliever arsenal, and drive to succeed, Scalzo Jr. should log high-leverage innings for upper-level affiliates this season.

Zac Leigh

2021: Asking around with players and minor league coordinators, Zac Leigh is frequently brought up as a player the Cubs feel is a late-round steal. The former Texas State starter didn’t produce the stats that classically raise eyebrows (5.03 ERA with 86 Ks in 87 2/3 innings), however, the Cubs saw a player ready to take a step forward. Leigh didn’t just take a step forward, he made a massive leap. The results were spectacular in his limited sample (14.4 K/9 in 5 innings at South Bend), but it’s the velocity that jumped that provides the most encouragement. Leigh uses deception in his delivery that plays up after the huge velocity spike (he’s up to 98 mph).
2022: Leigh put himself squarely in the discussion of which relievers could move quickly through the minors. His goals reflect his potential. “My main focus this off-season has been to build on the plan the coaches in Mesa had for me to continue getting stronger. The increase in velo has fueled me to to keep grinding, knowing that the sky is the limit,” Leigh said. “With my mentality, the goal for 2022 is to work my way up through the organization with [the] intention to contribute and help win games in Tennessee, Iowa or even Chicago”

Chase Watkins
2021: Ninth round pick Chase Watkins was an unexpected pick out of Oregon State last summer. He took to professional ball like a duck beaver to water. 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 he’s setting himself up even better in 2022.
2022: This offseason, Watkins shared he’s working on building velocity (he sat 89-92 mph last summer) as well as incorporating a “larger lateral breaking pitch” to his repertoire. Horizontal breaking sliders such as a sweeper slider are incredibly popular offerings by the premier pitching development organizations. It’s not hard to imagine what Watkins could do with a bump in velocity coupled with two high-spin breaking balls.

Big Improvements in 2022

“Find Pitching” is the famous line that Theo Epstein wrote on a whiteboard in the Cubs Front Office. The starter and reliever corps are building their way towards Wrigley. After last season’s trade deadline, the writing is on the wall, opportunities are there if you perform. Could we see any of these five relievers make their MLB debuts?