Over the past month, the affiliate sneak peek series has looked at Myrtle Beach’s rotation, returning injured players at South Bend, and who could be in the starting rotation at Iowa. Today, as you can probably guess, we are going to Tennessee.

There are a lot of things to keep an eye on when it comes to 2022 for the Tennessee Smokies. There’s a lot of uncertainty about who is going to be playing where when it comes to position players. There’s even questions about who could be in the rotation. For today, though, it’s time to check out the Smokies smoking arms in the bullpen.

In 2021, the bullpen was clearly the strength of the club especially after injuries played a major role with the position players and starting rotation. Relievers stepped up their game on day one of the season. Ben Leeper and Ethan Roberts were both notable for their tenure at Tennessee. We also saw the maturity Brandon Hughes as he settled into his role as a reliever and we also saw the breakout performance of Cayne Ueckert. What are we gonna see in 2022? Who is manager Michael Ryan going to be calling in from the bullpen?

The biggest factor affecting the construction of Tennessee’s bullpen is just exactly what Iowa does. The Cubs went out and sign several minor league free agents as insurance for the major league squad. Whether all of them stick in spring training is what is going to drive Tennessee’s bullpen construction. As a result, we could see Ueckert and Hughes back at Tennessee, at least to start the year. In addition, Wyatt Short should return along with Eury Ramos, and Burl Carraway. 

I am really excited to see Carraway and his brand new slider in game action. He worked on it all last fall in instructs and it’s going to be fun to see how that he can mix and match that pitch with his curve to create a dominant arsenal coming out of the bullpen.

After those five, it’s anybody’s guess as to who ends up in Tennessee. Been Hecht, who missed all of 2021 with Tommy John surgery, is one option. Hopefully he is ready to go. If he is, he would be quite the stabilizer out there after his outstanding 2019 season at Myrtle Beach and Tennessee.

A couple other names that are in the mix are Eduarniel Nunez and Zac Leigh.

Nunez has crazy good stuff. A year and a half ago, I wrote an article about how he always basically fell off the mound on his delivery because he threw so hard. Well, the Cubs corrected that delivery last year. From August until the end of the year, he was one of the most dominant pitchers in the system as he did not allow a single earned run in August. He made nine appearances that month as he struck out 13 in 12.2 innings. In addition, opponents had a measly .115 against him.

I got to see Zac Leigh pitch the last two weeks of the year in Beloit in the quad cities and he is just plain filthy. Armed with a 98 mile an hour fastball and a hard breaking ball, I am really excited to see where the Cubs 16th round pick in the 2021 draft ends up this year. Because of his lack of experience, he might end up in South Bend. However, if he has a great spring training, he could force his way Into the Tennessee bullpen.

Starters or relievers?

The Smokies might have three players that the Cubs are thinking about actually putting in the rotation but it’s unclear at this point how that’s going to work. We will know more in a week or two once spring training games begin. But Joe Nahas, Michael McAvene, and Scott Kobos could all be possible starters in the rotation. Nahas and Kobos both did very well out of the pen last year and they should be competing for a rotation spot over the next month. McAvene is a longshot as he has yet to pitch above Eugene. I would not be surprised to see him start the year at South Bend but it’s unclear if he’s going to be in the bullpen or in the rotation at either place.

The Elephant in the Room

After missing basically the past two years, no one knows just exactly what the Cubs are going to do with Brailyn Marquez. When we last saw him in a competitive game, he was pitching for the Chicago Cubs at the end of the 2020 season after spending the year at the alternate site. Because of COVID and minor injuries, he did not pitch it all in 2021. And with missing that much time, and it’s unclear how much of a workload the Cubs are going to put on that shoulder. So, he could come out and start and do an inning or two or the Cubs could work him in out of the bullpen. Either way, I don’t expect him to be at Tennessee long if he is fully healthy.

More for Your Perusing Pleasure 

If you look at Tanner Jesson-Dalton’s 2021 stats, they are not eye-catching. But if you look at him from month-to-month-to-month, you can clearly see that he improved from the beginning of the year all the way through September. Armed with a low to mid 90s fastball and anasty sinker, it took Dalton a while to adjust to the competition he was facing. I’m hoping he really gets into that sinker  this year. If he has a good camp, he could find his way to Tennessee as well.

There will be five guys, maybe six, at South Bend who are going to be knocking on Tennessee’s door from day one of the season. Jeremiah Estrada, Danis Correa, Gabriel Jaramillo, Tyler Santana, Sheldon Reed, and Bailey Reid are all going to be vying to get to Tennessee. It’s a big collection of big arms and that’s just the way the Cubs work anymore. It’ll be interesting to see if any of those guys can make their way to Tennessee quickly this year or possibly in June.

Whatever the makeup or construction of the bullpen is, skipper Michael Ryan is going to have a ton of fire-balling arms to go to when the time comes. What I like is that they’re not all cookie cutter pitchers. They all may throw hard, which is the new Cubs way, but they also have complimentary pitches that really helped him to succeed in short bursts. No matter who ends up sitting out behind the right field wall in Kodak, they are going to be fun to watch once they come through the fence.