Cubs Positional Breakdown – A Collection of Unique Relief Arms in the Minors

It’s hard to quantify and analyze over 70 relief pitchers in the Cubs organization in one post. When it comes to relievers, 2016 is going to be a lot different than 2015, primarily because the front office has solidified the bullpen by adding depth this offseason at both the major- and minor-league levels.

In 2016, you’re looking at a major league bullpen of Rondon, Strop, Grimm, Wood, Cahill, Ramirez, Brothers, Warren, and maybe Carl Edwards, Jr. and Zac Rosscup, with additional arms at Iowa in Spencer Patton, Andury Acevedo, Edgar Olmos, Jean Machi, the injured Jack Leathersich, Luis Parra, and Stephen Fife in AAA Iowa. It’s likely the big league club will keep eight arms in April until the starters are stretched out, though the identities of that octet are not clearly evident at this point.

With all of these new bullpen signings, it appears on the surface that the Cubs are setting up some depth, but they are also creating competition at Iowa. Right now, there are close to 20 bullpen arms who could be competing for 8-10 spots, a battle royal that could filter down and affect the other affiliates.

One thing is clear about the relief system: there is a shortage of lefties across the upper minors, which is why the loss of Michael Heesch in the Rule 5 Draft hurt.

Here are the potential relief pitchers and their possible placements in 2015.

Iowa – Armando Rivero, Brandon Gomes, Jean Machi, Scott Barnes, Blake Cooper, P. J. Francescon, Jeffry Antigua, Yoanner Negrin, Michael Wagner, Starling Peralta, Luis Parra, Michael Jensen, Matt Brazis, Tayler Scott, Gerardo Concepcion, Corey Black, Steve Perakslis, and Jack Leathersich

Tennessee – Jasvir Rakkar, David Berg, James Pugliese, Tyler Ihrig, Juan Carlos Paniagua, David Garner, James Farris, Josh Conway, and Jose Rosario

Myrtle Beach –  Corbin Hoffner, Dillon Maples, Daniel Lewis, Jordan Minch, Alexander Santana, Sam Wilson, Ryan McNeil, and Santiago Rodriguez

South Bend – Jose Paulino, Pedro Araujo, Adbert Alzolay, Trey Masek, Greyfer Eregua, Tyler Peitzmeier, Craig Brooks, Scott Frazier, Scott Effross, Luis Hernandez

Eugene/Arizona – Heath Dwyer, Mark Malave, Jared Cheek, John Williamson, Jesus Castillo, John Michael Knighton, Carlos Rodriguez, Jordan Brink, M. T. Minacci, Andin Diaz, Gabriel Lima, Junior Marte, Jose Zapata, Yomar Morel, and Jose Albertos

There are 10 other arms in the minors who could be seen as bullpen pieces here in the near future.

  1. PJ Francescon – PJ Francescon had the best year of his career in the Cubs’ organization in 2015. He had a 1.69 ERA in 42 appearances with 22 saves in 25 save opportunities while pitching 53 1/3 innings. He’s been in the Cubs organization since 2011. He will be at AAA Iowa with all the new relievers to start out the year. He could be in Chicago, if needed, by the middle of summer.
  2. Corey Black – The San Diego native started off the year strongly in Tennessee as a starter before being moved to the bullpen, where he really struggled with his command. Black has the stuff to succeed in the middle of a bullpen, with his mid 90’s fastball, average slider and fringy changeup which allowed him to strike out 10.6 batters per 9 innings. Moving to the bullpen is always a difficult mental adjustment as you have to be prepared to pitch all the time, but if Black irons out some of his control problems he could be in Chicago by the end of the year.
  3. David Berg – The NCAA single-season record holder for saves, Berg performed well for the Emeralds and Pelicans, posting a 1.69 ERA in 19.1 innings. The side-armer Berg has a fastball in the low-to-mid-80’s, a sinker, and a slider, and due to his low slot it’s tough for hitters to pick up on the direction of the ball. Due to his experience, he was drafted as a senior, Berg should start the year in Kodak and if he keeps on getting hitters out in the pen could end up in Iowa by the end of the year.
  4. David Garner – is coming on quickly. In 2015 he went from South Bend to Myrtle Beach and was dangerous at high A. Garner earned a spot on the Cubs Arizona Fall League team in Mesa so the Cubs could see what he could do against advanced competition. I loved the move because I think Garnercould be a fast riser next year. In 16 appearances at Myrtle Beach, Garner had a 2.37 ERA in 30.1 innings where he struck out 36. Opponents batted a measly .162 off Garner. If not for one poor game in early September where he gave up three runs, his ERA would have been 1.50 at high A. In the Arizona Fall League, he had 10 appearances where he pitched 12 innings and struck out 12 with a 3.00 ERA. He will have to continue to make adjustments as he moves up in the system. His arm action is clean and he threw an easy 95-96 most of the summer.
  5. Josh Conway – After missing the better part of two years in 2012-13 to injuries, Josh Conway’s career is back on track after starting at Boise in 2014, and relieving last season in Myrtle Beach. Conway’s arm is rounding into shape, last year touching the low to middle low 90s. he got off to a rough start in 2015 before dialing up a great June, July, and August with ERAs of 1.54, 0.96, and 2.89 respectively. He struck out 49 in 52.1 innings. 2016 should be another great test and a series of adjustment for Conway.
  6. Jose Paulino – Paulino is not quite sure what he is. At times he’s a reliever, at times he’s a starter. Paulino’s greatest asset is the hand in which he throws – his left. For Paulino, he still needs to put on some weight. While currently at 165 pounds, he still can generate low 90s heat, but his off-speed pitches are a work in progress. 2016 might be a critical year for Paulino. One, to see if he can put on weight, and two, to see if can harness his burgeoning slider – which at times can be a plus pitch – but no one knows when.
  7. James Pugliese – The New Jersy native Pugliese had a very solid year pitching mostly in the Pelicans bullpen. He had a 2.62 over 55 innings in Myrtle Beach and got a taste of AA action late in the year. I got a chance to see him over the summer and his fastball sat in the low 90’s with a lot of tailing movement, and he also had a changeup in the low 80’s that he used a lot as well. He induced a lot of weak contact this year, and didn’t allow a homerun in 57.2 innings. If he has a solid showing in AA, he could be a guy in contention of a spot in the bullpen come 2016.
  8. Adbert Alzolay – The 20 year-old Alzolay had a strong year piggybacking in the Emeralds rotation. Over 53 innings, he struck out 49 batters and had a 2.04 ERA. The 6’0″ Venezuelan “is not the biggest guy but has very good arm speed/strength, can hit 95 mph, has solid secondaries, and average command right now. Sleeper type” (@Cubsden). Alzolay is definitely an intriguing name to watch next season at South Bend.
    Adbert Alzolay pitching for the Emeralds
    Adbert Alzolay pitching for the Emeralds
  9. Pedro Araujo – Another under the radar name, Araujo was signed out of the Dominican in 2011 and made his short-season debut this season. He pitched 50 innings in the Northwest League and struck out 70 batters thanks to his fastball that resides in the low-90’s, his average curveball and changeup. Keep an eye on him in South Bend, as he’s 22 and could move quickly next season.
  10. Daniel Lewis – Part man, part myth, Lewis emerged after the 2014 Draft with the hype of throwing 100 mph. Signed as a free agent, Lewis actually emerged in the Cape Cod after a tour in the service where he claimed the training got his body right. 2015 was Lewis’s first full season as a Cub. The first month did not go so well. In two games in May, he had 10.12 ERA before he began to control his mid 90s fastball. ERA’s of 2.79, 2.56, and 2.19 rounded out the summer. In all, Lewis threw 36.2 innings, struck out 22 but walked 30 in his WHIP of 1.66. Getting the walks down are his goal for this year


Breakout Picks

TeddyScott Frazier – The former Pepperdine Wave, Frazier was drafted in the 6th round in 2013 and was only able to pitch 10 innings due to injury problems. Although he is already 24, he is a relatively advanced arm, and at 6’7” has a lightning fastball that sits in the mid-90’s. He also has a slider with downward movement and pounds the lower part of the strike zone. If healthy, he could move quickly next season.

ToddCraig Brooks – A two-way player in college, Brooks has yet to focus solely on pitching for an entire year. 2016 will be his first. In 2015, in just 10.2 innings at Eugene, Brooks struck out 21!!! At 23 years old, he could move quickly if he can keep his walks down. I doubt that Brooks pitches three innings in relief in 2016 as he did in 2015. He likely fits more in the closer role at South Bend as time goes on.

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