Jeremiah Estrada – Picture by Dylan Heuer/Iowa Cubs

Our three part series on the status of the Cubs minor league system concludes today with a look at the relief corps.

Over the course of 2022, several relievers went from Iowa to Chicago and provided some depth for the major league club. Brandon Hughes, Erich Uelmen, and Jeremiah Estrada were all fun to watch throughout the season. Combined with Manny Rodriguez and the injured Ethan Roberts, they all showed how the pitching development program is working and working very well.

In other words, the relief corps is very strong.

From Iowa on down to South Bend, the Cubs have a lot of promising relievers who will be working their way up through the system in 2023. The strength of the relief corps is that there are a lot of arms who are almost ready.

Iowa – Ben Leeper is pretty much good to go along with Estrada, who now has a 40-man spot. The Cubs will lose a few relievers this off-season to free agency like Dakota Mekkes and possibly Bryan Hudson and Wyatt Short. Cayne Ueckert has his work cut out for him next year as he struggled a bit at Triple-A this year. Danis Correa might be the name you should watch for early on in the year as he looked really good with upper 90s heat all year long at Tennessee and Iowa. Correa could make it to Chicago quickly as long as he doesn’t get plucked in the Rule 5 Draft. And then there’s Cam Sanders. If he is not protected, he could get plucked in the Rule 5 too. Exhibit A from yesterday:

Tennessee – By the end of the year, the Smokies bullpen looked like it had been through a war. Between injuries and the attrition through the grind of a 140 game season, it’s a little unclear who all could head up to Iowa to start 2023 and who will stay behind. As the players refresh this winter, things could change greatly with one or two adjustments as we’ve seen in the past. I still like Eduarniel Nunez quite a bit as he has some nasty stuff. Whether he can get that under control is another story. The same is true for Max Bain who moved from a starting role to the bullpen to the Development List for the last month. Hunter Bigge was outstanding in June and July at South Bend but had his moments down the stretch for the Smokies. Even the injured list reads like a “Who’s Who of 2021 relievers” with Scott Kobos, Burl Carraway, and Jack Patterson on it. In the playoffs, Michael McAvene and Riley Martin came up to provide some depth and they did not see any action until the championship series. But the guy I like most is Zac Leigh who was outstanding in South Bend this year and pitched well in his month at Tennessee. It is iffy where Leigh will begin 2023. Blake Whitney started out at Tennessee, did well in sourts in Iowa, and then helped Tennessee in the playoffs should head up to start the year.

South Bend – This bullpen was pretty deadly in the playoffs and I would imagine only a few of them will start back at South Bend next year but a most of them could slide to Tennessee to begin the year. Jake Reindl, Michael McAvene, and Riley Martin are likely the guys who will begin next year in Tennessee along with swingman Joe Nahas. I don’t see any need for those guys to stick around South Bend any longer. As a result, Sheldon Reed and Adam Laskey are going to have big roles on day one of next year and if they produce like they did the last half of the year, they could be in Tennessee in early June. If Alfredo Zarraga bounces back from his finger injury, he should be just fine at South Bend. Chase Watkins and Luis Rodriguez will provide some left-handed depth coming up from Myrtle Beach and it’ll be interesting to see if Johzan Oquendo and his extremally live arm also arrives. Frankie Scalzo could come up as well.

The Concerns

1. Lack of Lefties – If Hudson and Short leave, the Cubs don’t have too many lefties still in the system. Bailey Horn has looked really good at Tennessee and Riley Martin, the same at South Bend and in the playoffs with Tennessee. They just need more numbers.

2. Reliever Depth in the Lower System – But at South Bed is where the reliever depth ends. Until the Cubs 2022 draft class comes in and roles are defined and assigned, it’s a little unsure who is going to be doing what next year in terms of starting or relieving.

Maybe Pelicans Angel Hernandez or Angel Gonzalez take a big leap in development along with Yovanny Cabrerra, Gregori Montano, and Anthony Mendez. All five guys flashed at Myrtle Beach and all five guys struggled and will likely return to the Carolina League to start 2023.

But that’s not the biggest concern for 2023.

3. Mesa Pitching – The Cubs rookie league team in Mesa only had a few pitchers stand out. Elian Almanzar has a live arm as does Oliver Roque. But their lack of control creates some inconsistencies in performance. Tomy Sanchez pitched really well but he’s not what you call high powered arm.

2023 is really going to be about some of this year‘s draft class stepping into relief roles. Maybe Brody McCullough becomes a shut down guy or Luis Rujano shoves. Maybe Elian Almanzar and Dom Hambley take a huge step up. We just won’t know for a while.

Who knows, we could see somebody from the DSL come up and pitch their way to Myrtle Beach to start the year like Zarraga did this year.

The Cubs have all winter to figure this out. I’m pretty confident that they got this. But it’s going to be one of the more interesting storylines to follow next spring.