Cubs Organizational Breakdown, Pt. 9 – Plenty of Righty Relievers Ready to Make Impact

The Cubs will have no shortage of right-handed relievers who could help out the big league club in 2020 if needed. And not just junk-ballers, but some guys who can really run it up there with elite velocity. It all comes down to trust.

Are they willing to gamble on having James Norwood or Dillon Maples on the 25-man roster because they can throw close to 100 mph? Will they ever take a chance and see if Dakota Mekkes can get it done at the highest level? Will Duane Underwood stick in Chicago now that he’s out of options, or can he somehow slip through waivers to get back to Iowa?

Right now there are more questions than answers for a lot of the relief corps, so it’s a matter of what the Cubs feel gives them the best bang for their limited bucks.

The sure thing(s)

Whether Adbert Alzolay serves as a starter or reliever, he is the closest to a sure thing from Cubs pitching prospects to make the opening day roster. The issue for him is that he hasn’t pitched over 100 innings since 2017 and can’t be expected to jump up to 160 innings this season. Between that and questionable health over the past couple seasons, he’ll be a mix-and-match guy in 2020.

While not a prospect, Brandon Morrow is on a minors deal and, if healthy, he could easily earn his way to Chicago in spring training. That’s still very much in question for a guy who hasn’t pitched since the middle of 2018 after undergoing at least three procedures on his right elbow.

Sticky situation

It’s been evident for two years that Maples has arguably the best stuff of anybody in the organization. The issue has been controlling it, particularly a fastball that Maples can’t seem to locate with any consistency. He’s struggled with confidence as well, so it’ll be up to the new pitching development team to determine whether and how to get Maples’ mind and mechanics to work together.

The unusual suspect

Eyebrows were raised all over when Manny Rodriguez was placed on the 40-man roster. Even though he was considered a longshot, he is armed with an upper 90’s fastball, a sinker, a curve, and change. He will be at Double-A to start the season after finally figuring out how to command his wicked raw stuff. 

My guys

Sometimes you just fall in love with one guy throwing one pitch. For me, that’s Erich Uelmen and his sinker. Even though he’s been a starter to this point, he pitched in relief last fall in the Arizona Fall League and was quite dominant out of the pen with a 0.75 ERA for the Mesa Solar Sox.

Oscar Del La Cruz began to put things back together as a reliever last August at Tennessee. His 2.35 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 20 innings are proof that the shape of his curve that is just devastating to hitters. While he is not a sleeper, DLC might be a sneaky pick to make it to Chicago this year as he should start out at Triple-A Iowa.

In the building

Between Duane Underwood, Alec Mills, Dakota Mekkes, James Norwood, Bailey Clark, and Scott Effross, the Cubs have an eclectic collection of arms who should see plenty of time in the early part of spring training. But will any of them break camp with the Cubs?

Underwood and Mills are out of options while Mekkes never seemed to get a chance under Joe Maddon. Norwood has as good a shot as anyone. Clark had his delivery retooled to be less stressful and he was killing it in the second half at Tennessee, including a 0.66 ERA in July. Effross went from a guy on his way out to possible becoming a dude by dropping his arm slot.

A year away

Ben Hecht, Chad Hockin, and Ethan Roberts will all be at Double-A to start 2020. Hecht got a taste of Tennessee last year after a new mental approach helped him dominate at Myrtle Beach. Hockin came back from elbow reconstruction and threw better than ever for the Pelicans with a 1.98 ERA in the second half. Roberts was dominant at South Bend in the spring and later in for Myrtle Beach due to a four-pitch mix that is pretty uncommon among relievers.

The new guy

Hunter Bigge was the most surprising pitcher from the 2019 draft class after showing up in Eugene and threatening triple digits. A two-way player in college, Bigge will now be focusing just on pitching and should start the year in Myrtle Beach after his dominance at Eugene, where he struck out 22 in 16 innings with a 1.13 ERA before being shut down.

As you can see, there are a lot of options to choose from at this point. Unlike in the past, the Cubs don’t have to lean on one or two guys just because that’s all they’ve got. If the reconfigured development team does its job, we’ll be seeing plenty of these guys pushing their way up through the system soon.

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