Dalton Stambaugh – Picture by Todd Johnson
One of the most interesting attributes about the start of the 2022 minor league baseball season has been the use of piggyback relievers at all levels. The Cubs are still trying to get all of their starting pitchers up to full strength in terms of pitch counts and innings limits. Part of that stems from residual effects of the pandemic and other aspects come from injuries that have occurred over the past two years or even this spring. What the piggybackers have done this spring has been a little bit head turning. There are several guys who are being extremely productive in their new roles and might earn a chance at a different role later this summer.
Two piggyback starters have already moved into the rotation. Matt Swarmer has been one of the best pitchers in the Cubs system this month, picking up where he left off in the second half of last year. His dominance at Iowa the last seven weeks of the year was one of the more under reported stories in the cup system. This year, it is more of the same as he has a 1.08 ERA in 16.2 IP. His workload easily leads the system and now he is staring Chicago in the face.
Max Bain had a minor injury in spring training but he has now moved back into the rotation after two piggyback outings. His walks are way down from last year and he is sitting regularly at 95 and 96. His ERA is definitely down at 3.75.
The piggyback pitcher who has drawn the most attention this month has been Myrtle Beach’s Riley Martin. Just last week, he went 7.1 innings and struck out 17 earning the Carolina League Pitcher of the Week. That 17 Ks is not a typo, he just dominated. He might be one of the first guys to get moved up here in the next week or two as rosters will shift a little bit. He has a 0.68 ERA heading into this week. That’ll do.
Manny Espinoza and his 1.50 ERA at South Bend are drawing attention this year as a piggyback reliever after a rough first full season in the rotation at Myrtle Beach. I will be going all in on a post about Manny tomorrow and I will explain his success in more depth.
Luis Rodriguez had the same role last year in Mesa and was outstanding but struggled when he moved into the rotation. Now, the young lefty is back in the same role for the Pelicans. He has a 1.17 ERA and struck out nine in 7.2 IP.
One of the surprise piggyback pitchers to start the year was Frankie Scalzo of Myrtle Beach. Unfortunately, he went down with an injury after two games and was placed on the seven day IL. As with most minor league players, no reason was given. I was surprised to see him being used in that role as most of us thought that he was going to be their closer since he can pump it in the mid to upper 90s.
Walker Powell of Myrtle Beach is starting to figure some things out. He hasn’t had the consistent success others have had, but his last couple of outings are worthy of consideration for Reliever of the Day. We’ll see how his role develops over the next month.
Dalton Stambaugh has also had an outstanding month as he has not allowed a run heading into today. He’s been fantastic for South Bend in that role and has 10 strikeouts in eight innings. I really liked him in a relief role last year and thought he would really benefit from having a development plan this off-season with pro-instruction, something he not had a lot of. He is one of the few guys I want to talk to this week in the Quad Cities just to see what things the Cubs have done with him to set him up for success this year. Looking at his stats, he’s never really been hard hit, He’s just never really had the chance to be developed. Even when he was with the Orioles, his batting average against was under .200 as it is and has been with the Cubs.
Peyton Remy and Riley Thompson are starting to make an interesting duo as they both return from injury. Thompson missed all of 2021 and Remy missed half of it after being promoted from South Bend to Tennessee. Remy‘s last piggyback outing was spectacular as he struck out seven over five innings and only gave up three hits and basically shaved his ERA in half. Hopefully he doesn’t shave his mustache, because that thing could start on its own.
It’s unclear what’s going to happen in the future for the aforementioned pitchers.
Some of them might get a break and earn a spot in the rotation. Others will be put back in a short relief role. Others could stay in a long relief role. But if the starters are going to get to 5-6 innings over the next few months and that greatly reduces the need for a piggyback starter.
Then again, the Cubs could be changing their pitching philosophy in that they could use a starter for five innings or six, then use a long reliever for three or four and then may be a bullpen guy for one. That would greatly reduce the load on the bullpens at each affiliate. It might allow them to strengthen their arms and to be more flexible in case of either injury or a blowout.
Anyway, the Cubs are going to probably keep most of these guys stretched out just in case they need them to do a variety of roles.