During last summer‘s acquisition cycle in July, I was stunned that the Cubs did not go out and get a lefty reliever in either the draft, non-drafted free agency, or via trade. The reason I say that is because over the past two winters they’ve seen several lefty relievers walk in minor league free agency. In addition, injuries to two of their top relievers really put a strain on the others.

Last Year’s Rankings

2022 began with one of the most positive things I’ve seen as Brandon Hughes debuted with the Cubs and stayed with the club all year long. Flashing that slider that he debuted in 2021 at Tennessee, he looked like he belonged just two years after converting to a reliever. I love it when good things happen to good people!

As for the other three in last year‘s top four, 2022 was a rough go. Burl Carraway, who ended 2021 so magnificently, fell off the rails early at Tennessee and never made it back as he missed most of the year. The same is true for Scott Kobos who was injured early and often at Tennessee. As for Brendon Little, he did make his major league debut but 2023 is the final year of his minor league contract. So it’s boom or bust for him next season.

The Cubs went out and acquired several lefties this winter in, including Luis Aquino, Roenis Elias, Ryan Borucki, and Eric Stout. Aquino should be in Myrtle Beach while the other three are in Iowa.

The Wildcard – I love to watch Jack Patterson pitch. Unfortunately it’s been a while since he has and I am really pulling for him to come back in a big way in 2023. More than likely, he’s going to be a reliever from here on in after undergoing Tommy John surgery. I am hoping he can come back healthy this year and that could change a lot of things, specially if he has a slider in his back pocket working.

Here are the rankings for 2023.

1. Bailey Horn – Acquired in the Ryan Tepera trade, Horn got a late start to his year and I wondered early on whether they were just going to keep him as a reliever and have him start later. It turned out they never took him out of the pen and for good reason. And after seeing him pitch three times in two weeks in 2021, I thought he looked uncomfortable coming out of the pen versus starting. That was not the case in 2022. In fact, Horn has found his role in the organization and will begin 2023 in Iowa after a dazzling campaign in the Arizona Fall League where he only had one outing in which he gave up a run.

2. Riley Martin – The Quincy University product has been a lot of fun to follow. In seeing South Bend play last summer quite a bit in June and July, I was surprised he was put on the development list in July because he pitched really well in June with an ERA under three that month. For about three weeks, I watched Martin throw side session after side session with pitching coach Tony Cougoule and development coach Alex Wright working on what grip was best for a new slider. When he came off the list, that pitch was deadly. He also pitched pretty well in the Arizona Fall League and has set himself up for a nice run at Tennessee where he threw a scoreless outing in the playoffs after South Bend won a title. I am expecting big things from him in 2023.

3. Brendon Little – This is it for him. Unless he puts it all together this year, his Cubs career could end when his contract expires at the end of 2023. The curve is still there, the slider has improved things. When given an opportunity this year, he has to take advantage of it and seize it by the neck.

4. Burl Carraway – One of the most annoying things about the minor league injured list is they never put out what the injuries are. So when Burl Carraway was placed on the full season list, everyone was just left in the dark. Hopefully Burl can come back in 2023 and show off that new slider that he learned in instructs at the end of 2021.

5. Chase Watkins – The young lefty out of Oregon State had an uneven year at Myrtle Beach. I will get to see him first hand this year at South Bend. Last year, he struggled in April and May and something clicked for him in June, July, and August as he had ERAs close to 2.00. That’s a very promising way to end the year!

6. Scott Kobos – I’m hoping for a bounce back year for Kobos and hopefully he avoided surgery and he can return to his 2021 form when he pitched at four different levels in the minors. If he’s ready to go on opening day, I hope to see him playing for Iowa.

7. Adam Laskey – Laskey really came into his own in the first half of last year as he was the most dominant reliever I’ve ever seen in half a season. He was just untouchable in Myrtle Beach because he did not allow a run. When he got to South Bend, the learning curve was steep those first six weeks. And then things started to come around and I am excited to see him begin the year at South Bend in the back end of the pen.

8. Dalton Stambaugh – The former Orioles farm hand is one of the nicest guys in the system and after seeing him attempt to start in 2021 for South Bend, I was glad to see him in a relief role last year and he took to it like a fish to water in April and earned a quick promotion to Tennessee. He was up and down as a long reliever. He went back down to South Bend again and was lights out. When he came back to Tennessee, he did a little better and I’m hoping that he settles in nicely in 2023 at Tennessee.

9. Angel Hernandez – I would not be surprised to see him start the year back at Myrtle Beach. He seems to have the stuff, it’s just a matter of him gaining experience.

10. Andricson Salvador missed most of 2022 after two good campaigns in rookie ball. He should be back next year at Myrtle Beach. 

The “Hell If I Know” Category – Who knows what shape Brailyn Marquez will be in start 2023. Who knows if he will even be healthy enough to pitch.

Keep them in mind: I’m not sure what’s going to happen with Brandon Noriega. Are the Cubs going to turn him into a starter? Are the Cubs going to put him in the bullpen. The 2022 draft pick can get it up into the mid 90s and I’ll be interested to see just how he is used.

One of the interesting things that happened in the past couple years in the Cubs’ system is that you just never know about relievers because one simple change to a pitch or delivery or physical conditioning is changing everything and guys are skyrocketing through the system quickly when it happens. I know there will be surprises next year but I think those will come mostly at the lower levels as there is a lot of uncertainty about who will end up starting and who will end up relieving. There could be a roster crunch or two.

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