Out of all the positions in this breakdown series, relief pitchers are the most unpredictable. And I mean even more than usual for what is already a pretty fickle role. I don’t think anyone foresaw the phoenix-like ascendance of Dillon Maples last year to go from class A all the way to Chicago. One pitch can sometimes be the difference.
I went back and forth on how to organize this entry. My first thought was to rank the top five arms, followed by a list of some potential breakouts. Then I had a great idea to put them in categories, until I thought about it some more and went back to rankings.
But after sifting through each affiliate, I began to wonder aloud how much more time the Cubs are going to give some of these pitchers a chance in the system. As a result, I circled back and wound up with four categories.
Kind of a big deal
1. Dillon Maples is armed with upper 90’s stuff and a devastating slider and he is technically not going to be a prospect very much longer. After struggling for several seasons, he was able to harness his physical and mental skills to perfection at Myrtle Beach, Tennessee, Iowa, and Chicago in 2017. He does have closer-type stuff but will probably be treated with kid gloves in his first full year in Chicago (assuming he makes the roster). His confidence level is at an all-time high.
2. Dakota Mekkes dominated two leagues in 2017, putting up an ERA under 1.00 and striking out 92 hitters in 73.1 innings. The 6-foot-7 reliever from Michigan State has a deceptive delivery that makes his 91-93 mph fastball seem more like 96-98. The ball just sneaks up and creates a rushed decision. He should be exciting to watch at AA Tennessee this year. If he can cut down on his walks, the big league club could be calling very soon.
3. Jake Stinnett appeared to be reborn as a pitcher when he returned late in the season in a relief role for AA Tennessee after missing four months. He then went to the Arizona Fall League and did very well against elite competition. A starting role saw him struggle for three seasons, but his stuff plays up a little bit better out of the bullpen, as most of his pitches have some sort of wiffleball type movement to them. Along with Dakota Mekkes, Stinnett is going to be an interesting test case as the Cubs deal with just what his role is going to be.
4. Corey Black is healthy and cutting it loose once again after missing last season following elbow reconstruction. It’s not just his physical health that’s key, though, as Cubs Director of Player Development Jaron Madison said at the Cubs Convention. Madison mentioned an “emotional maturity” with Black, who is now 26 years old and should be on the precipice of making it to the majors. If he can command his four pitches, Black could be a guy. Sometimes an injury can turn your career around for the better.
Been over a year since I’ve stepped on a mound but boy let me tell you that’s the most comfortable I’ve felt on the mound in a very long time.
— Corey Black (@CblackCHC) January 23, 2018
Who the hell is this guy?
Jhon Romero flew under the radar in the second half of 2017, beginning his season in June at Eugene and ending up in South Bend. After Maples and Mekkes, Romero was this relief pitcher I enjoyed watching the most in August. He can throw 93-95 and has a beautiful, tight breaking ball that just devastated hitters. He struck out 53 in 41 innings and opponents only hit .109 against him. He should be at Myrtle Beach to begin the year.
How much longer?
James Pugliese, Daury Torrez, Ryan McNeil, Tommy Nance, Jordan Minch, Tommy Thorpe, Kyle Miller, Craig Brooks, Scott Effross, and David Garner have all been in the organization for at least three years, some of them going on six. Nance, who throws in the mid 90’s and breaks a lot of bats, has the best pure stuff of the bunch. Hopefully, he can return healthy in 2018. Effross and Garner came on strong at some point last year and have some potential. Effross will be at AA and Garner will be in AAA, along with a spring training invite.
Breakout relievers for 2018
Jake Steffens, Ricky Tyler Thomas, and Ben Hecht, all 2017 draft picks, were outstanding for Eugene last summer coming out of the ‘pen. Steffens is pretty good-sized guy with a natural sinking fastball while Hecht was a strikeout machine for the Emeralds. To me, Thomas has the potential and pitches (plus changeup) to be a starter, I’m just unsure about his frame. He might get a shot to stretch it out this year. The Northwest League is a different animal than the Midwest League, though, and full-season Class A is usually a better barometer of a pitcher’s acumen than short-season ball.
If I had to pick one more arm to break out, I would go with Ivan Medina, who was Mesa’s closer. I am sure there will be others that no one saw coming, there always are.
Be sure to check out the rest of the series: