The Cubs had Monday off, which also marked the halfway point of spring training. Let’s take a look at a handful of Cubs pitchers who came into camp being somewhat under the radar, but have made the most of their opportunity so far down in Mesa, Ariz.
Although the major league team hasn’t been very fun to watch ever since the 2021 trade deadline, one thing fans should be excited about is the pitching development that’s been improving in the last few years down in the minor leagues. We’ve seen some of the homegrown pitchers come up and succeed at the MLB-level and there are many more on the pipeline.
Cam Sanders began 2022 at Double-A and after posting a 3.38 ERA in six starts he was promoted up to Triple-A Iowa. The right-hander struggled in the Iowa Cubs starting rotation and by the end of July he was moved to a reliever role. Now, at 26-years-old, the 12th round pick from 2018, may no longer be a starting pitching candidate for David Ross, but Sanders is showing he has the poise and the ability to become an effective pitcher in a major league bullpen.
Sanders has made four relief appearances so far in spring training and he’s been lights out. The right-hander has struck out seven batters, allowing only two hits and one walk in 5.2 innings. On Saturday, Sanders might have had his best outing, recording a four-out save against the Los Angeles Dodgers that included striking out the side in the ninth inning. But more importantly for Sanders, those three strikeouts all came against left-handed hitters, who have been able to hit Sanders even when he had success in the minors.
Sanders also has a two-inning save in spring training against the Texas Rangers.
Sanders has been nasty.
One of the veteran pitchers the Cubs picked up this offseason was Tyler Duffey, who previously spent his entire MLB career with the Minnesota Twins from 2015-22. The 32-year-old righty began his big-league career as a starting pitcher, but Duffey has been a reliever on a full-time basis following the 2016 season.
Last year went pretty sideways for Duffey, as he posted a 4.91 ERA in 44 innings. That raised his career ERA as a reliever to 3.99. Maybe signs of regression or an outlier, because from 2019-21, Duffey had a 2.69 ERA in 144 innings for the Twins.
At his best, Duffey’s strikeout rate was between 33-35 percent. That has decreased to the low 20 percent range the last two seasons.
Yet, in spring training, Duffey is one of many pitchers competing for a bullpen spot and in four games he’s only allowed one run, two hits, striking out six and walking one. Because Duffey does have a track record of MLB success, he may be in line to be in the Opening Day bullpen if he continues to pitch well in spring training.
Right-handed pitcher Nick Burdi hadn’t pitched in a game since 2020 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, so it’s just great to see him healthy again and on the mound. The Cubs acquired Burdi from the San Diego Padres in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft this past offseason and he was one of the non-roster invitees to spring training. Burdi not only had thoracic outlet surgery in 2019, but in 2020, Burdi underwent Tommy John surgery, the second of his career.
Now, he’s back to hitting 100mph on the radar gun and snapping off a nasty slider in spring training.
Although Burdi is a long shot to make the Cubs bullpen on Opening Day, he’s certainly putting his name in the mix to get called up during the regular season. Good to see someone who has gone through so many injuries and setbacks, get back into the game and get to a point where he can earn another opportunity.
Burdi, now 30, was a second-round pick by the Twins in 2014.
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