Chase Watkins – Picture by Todd Johnson
When minor league free agency began earlier this week, I went and looked at what was left of the Iowa bullpen. They were four names left and only two of them finished the year healthy. So, it looks like the reliever log jam in the upper levels of the system might be cleared out. That means we could see a lot of new faces in Iowa to start 2024.
This past year, it was pretty much the summer of Luke Little. He started out 2023 in the rotation and dominated as a bullpen arm and made it to Chicago by the end of the year.
Could there be another guy in 2024 to make that transition? That is something to think about.
Let’s get to some storylines that I’m going to be looking at to start the 2024 season.
How much of this bullpen in 2024 will be minor league free agents who are signed this winter? And how much of this bullpen will be made up of guys that are currently on the 40-man roster?
With Cam Sanders and Bailey Horn as the only non-injured returning relievers, I’m curious to see what the mix is going to be when it comes to free agents vs. prospects. I’d like to think that we see Hunter Bigge, Zac Leigh, and Riley Martin in the Iowa bullpen to start the year. However, it’s really unclear as to who’s going to be throwing well in March. Frankie Scalzo is a name who could make his way to Iowa. Porter Hodge went to the pen last year and, after some adjustment, it looks like he figured some things out, and he could be at Iowa to start this season. Blake Whitney is also a guy who looks like he’s ready to try Triple-A again.
In addition, there are going to be some guys coming off the injured list at some point. Will Jack Patterson make it back this year? What about Ben Leeper along with Jake Reindl?
As the Big Lebowski said, “There’s a lot of ifs and what have yous” that will go into constructing that bullpen.
If you want to bet, I would put the over/under on free agent bullpen arms at 4.5. I think I would take the over just because of the uncertainty.
One thing we’ve seen in recent years since the restructuring of the minor league system is that the move from the South Bend bullpen to the Tennessee bullpen is a huge jump. A lot of pitchers have made the move and have struggled mightily succeeding at Double-A. It’s a level that seems to be needing experience to succeed. Good arms at South Bend like Sheldon Reed and Adam Laskey deserve a shot at Tennessee in 2024. But the jump in talent level or competition is just such a huge gap that it takes some pitchers a while to acclimate. For Laskey, his stint in the AFL ought to help.
Eduarniel Nunez is likely to be here to start the year and it’ll be interesting to see how Burl Carraway and Dalton Stambaugh hopefully resume their careers.
However, the pitcher I want to see most at this level is Chase Watkins. This offseason is going to be big for him as he is one of the few lefties in the system. He can make a big splash if he gets off to a good start. I am also looking forward to seeing how Joe Nahas and Max Bain handle Tennessee a second time.
South Bend is going to have plenty of arms that are going to have to take a step up.
Which ones will do that? What role will Tyler Schlaffer have when he comes back after missing a year and a half to Tommy John? Will Yovanny Cabrera and Angel Hernandez, and Nick Hull dominate out of the pen? When will Saul Gonzalez return? Will Johzan Oquendo dominate at High-A like he did in Low-A?
Sadly, there are more questions to follow at this point than possible answers.
Two guys I feel confident about are Jose Romero, who pitched in the Arizona Fall League, and Landon Ginn who the Cubs signed as a free agent out of East Carolina last year. They may stand the best chance of initial success.
This bullpen is going to be a max of three types of players – a few college guys the Cubs signed last summer, some international guys, and players making their way back from injury.
The main storyline is seeing who emerges from a heap of arms. A bigger question might be, “How busy is the Mesa to Myrtle Beach shuttle going to be next summer?”
Normally, I throw out some names here, but like Myrtle Beach, there’s not going to be a lot of certainty to who is going to be in the pen, and who’s going to be in the rotation, because those roles could reverse at any point in time.
Still, I am excited to see Grayson Moore, JP Wheat, and hopefully Ethan Flannagan is ready to pitch. Erian Rodriguez is a guy who flashed at times last summer, but also was very inconsistent in the zone. Still, he could be a guy.
Overall, 2024 is going to be a big year to see who steps up to fill the void at the back end of the bullpen. There’s a lot of uncertainty and a lot of questions as to who’s going to be where and who’s going to be doing what. And with Craig Breslow gone, I am curious to see how that plays out over the course of the summer. In my duties as a photographer, I do get to meet roving instructors from time to time. I’ll be interesting to see what they have to say about how things are working next summer with Mr. Breslow.