The Iowa Cubs are going to have a bullpen that can help the major league club at a moment’s notice. Jeremiah Estrada, Ben Leeper, Danis Correa, Cayne Ueckert, and Cam Sanders are going to be ready to go on day 1 of the season. For my money, though, the bullpen that is going to be the one to watch in the beginning of 2023 is clearly the Tennessee Smokies. They will be armed with several guys who helped lead South Bend to a championship run in 2022.

There will be a few holdovers from the 2022 Smokies’ roster of guys that ended the year with Tennessee. As well, we will hopefully see a couple of guys come back from injuries and I would not be surprised to see a couple of guys move quickly to Iowa just based on performance.

The Holdovers

Most of the players that ended the 2022 season at Tennessee were at South Bend to start the year and part of that championship team. Zac Leigh is probably the most well-known along with Bailey Horn. The duo could be given an opportunity to earn a spot at Iowa but it’s clearly uncertain at this point where they will be assigned. Based upon how well Horn did in the Arizona Fall League, I am heavily leaning towards him beginning of the year at Iowa. He was just vicious competing against some high-level competition and he didn’t allow a run all fall until the last regular season game. I’ve always thought that Horn had good stuff. He really put it together last year out of the bullpen after missing the first month of the season.

The other guy that could move quickly is Riley Martin, whose new slider proved to be quite vicious in the Midwest League in the second half of the year.  While Bailey Horn and Zac Leigh probably have the best chance to start the year to Iowa out of this group, Martin would probably be the next guy up to head there. He just looked so polished at the end of the year and when he releases the ball, you can tell that he knows where it’s going to go. That includes his curve and slider and he’s able to locate his fastball. I am pumped to see this guy at Double-A in April and May.

We’re also going to see Max Bain who supposedly has made a couple adjustments that has him throwing in the upper 90s as he is no longer seen as a starter. The key for Max is going to be how efficient he can be. We know he can throw hard, we know he can spin a curveball, and we know he’s been touching up his slider this off-season. But for him to succeed, he’s going to have to throw strikes and use his pitches to get guys out. He doesn’t have to strike everybody out, but it would be cool if he did. But to be quite frank, I’d rather see guys try and roll over on a ball back to the mound.

Big arms like Michael McAvene, Hunter Bigge, Ben Hecht, and Jake Reindl should be there as well. I have a sneaky suspicion that Reindl could move quickly next year if he can stay healthy. Reindl probably has the nastiest stuff out of any of these guys who will be at Double-A. It’s just a matter of him being able to stay off the injured list. For Bigge and McAvene, they both had their moments last summer. Hunter was outstanding in June and July which led to a promotion to Tennessee on August 5. He looked to be more of the pitcher that we saw in 2019 and it looks like his fastball was back in the mid to upper 90s.

McAvene should be much better in 2023 now that he won’t be rehabbing all winter long. I’m excited to see just exactly where he’s at with his stuff to begin the year. The wildcard is Ben Hecht who was coming back from Tommy John surgery last year and struggled in 17.1 IP. Hopefully he can put that all behind him this winter and return to the pitcher we saw in 2019 who was ready to compete for a spot in Iowa’s bullpen in 2021 had he not been injured. My fingers are still crossed that he can bounce back this year now that he’s hopefully 100%.

The list also includes Eduarniel Nunez, who is blessed with a powerful arm that he has yet to fully control. This might be the year that he just dominates.

Whoever the Smokies put in the pen is a legitimate shot to make it to Chicago at some point in 2023.

Return of the Injured

Scott Kobos and Burl Carraway should both be back at some point in 2023 after missing most of last season. As well, getting to see Derek Casey, and Jack Patterson come back would be great. I doubt if they start so the bullpen looks more like an option for them to regain their arm strength.

If Kobos can return to the 2021 form, he’s not going to be long for Tennessee either. My concern with all of these players is injuries are mostly physical at the time, but coming back from them is mentally hard.

Overall, this bullpen looks like it could be a shut down pen that could turn every game into a five or six inning affair. Skipper Michael Ryan may have some easy choices to make every day because no matter who he chooses, they could be really good.