7 under-the-radar players that could make an impact on 2022 Cubs
Last season, the Cubs used a franchise-record 69 players as Jed Hoyer’s front office constantly needed to shake up the roster to get through the year.
So there’s no doubt the Cubs are going to need more than the 28 players they broke camp with to start the 2022 season.
Some of those moves will be players returning from injury as Andrelton Simmons and Alec Mills could be back this month while David Bote, Wade Miley and Adbert Alzolay are still a ways off.
Then there’s players already on the 40-man roster, like outfielder Greg Deichmann and pitchers Cory Abbott and Manny Rodríguez.
Of course, there’s also a top prospect waiting in the wings in Brennen Davis, who could make his debut at some point this summer if all goes according to plan.
Beyond that, here are a few players who are flying under the radar that Cubs fans should keep an eye on:
Steven Brault, LHP
Brault was a part of the free agent frenzy in mid-March and originally signed with the Cubs on a big-league deal. However, a triceps injury has held him back and he ultimately signed a minor league contract with the team for this season.
The southpaw turns 30 later this month and has a wealth of experience in the majors with 107 games and 343.1 innings over 6 years with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Brault has had success as both a starter and reliever and can provide some left-handed depth for the Cubs when he returns to health.
Mark Leiter, Jr., RHP
The 31-year-old right-hander could be one of the first calls if the Cubs need a starter in the big leagues. Leiter hasn’t pitched in the big leagues in 4 years after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2019.
He posted eye-popping strikeout numbers in Triple-A last season with the Tigers with an 11.4 K/9 rate (145 strikeouts in 114.2 innings) and a 3.77 ERA. He picked up right where he left off this season, whiffing 7 batters in 4 innings with Triple-A Iowa in his 2022 debut last Friday.
Leiter signed with the Cubs on a minor league deal over the winter and came to Spring Training healthy and ready to compete for a role on the pitching staff.
The Cubs ultimately sent Leiter down as one of the last cuts in camp but he hopes to be in Chicago at some point in 2022.
“There was a lot of things I liked about what the Cubs had to offer,” Leiter said. “As far as opportunity, as far as what they thought of me, as far as some of the things they saw that we could do and work on and improve on and turn things. I think they followed through with everything they said and I’m extremely happy to be here. It’s a great fit.”
Robert Gsellman, RHP
Let’s continue the trend of pitchers with MLB experience who signed minor league contracts with the Cubs in the offseason.
The 28-year-old Gsellman spent 6 years in New York with the Mets, working as a starter (34 games) and reliever (142 games). He sported a 3.77 ERA in 28.2 innings last year and has a career 4.59 mark.
He would most likely profile as a multi-inning reliever — as the Cubs utilized him in Spring Training — but he could also serve as rotation depth in the event of injuries.
Jonathan Holder, RHP
The Cubs signed Holder to an MLB contract in December 2020 and were excited about how he could potentially impact the bullpen after years pitching in the AL East. But a shoulder injury sidelined him for all but 2 rehab games in 2021 and he returned to the club on a minor league deal in November.
Holder, 28, has a career 4.38 ERA and 1.29 WHIP while pitching for the Yankees, racking up 14 holds and 165 strikeouts in 176.2 innings.
He made 4 appearances in Spring Training and if he can return to his pre-injury form, maybe he makes an impact in the Chicago bullpen later this year.
Stephen Gonsalves, LHP
The southpaw is a former top prospect, ranking as high as No. 78 in baseball by MLB.com prior to the 2018 season. He was initially drafted in the 4th round by the Twins in 2013 and has worked mostly as a starter throughout his minor league career.
In 2021, Gonsalves made the transition to the bullpen on a more regular basis in the Boston Red Sox system. He struck out a whopping 103 batters in 73 innings in Triple-A last season between 22 appearances (10 starts).
Gonsalves is still only 27 and signed a minor-league deal with the Cubs over the winter. He pitched well in spring, whiffing 8 batters in 6 innings against only 1 walk.
At the moment, Daniel Norris is the lone left-hander in the bullpen for the Cubs. If the team ever decides it could use another southpaw in the mix, Gonsalves could get the call.
Cayne Ueckert, RHP
Now it’s time for some young, intriguing arms who are on the cusp of making their MLB debuts.
Ueckert (pronounced like “Eckert”) put himself on the map in Spring Training with a fastball that sits 95-96 mph and a nasty slider. Cubs fans and coaches alike took notice of the 25-year-old right-hander.
“Real swing-and-miss and [I like] the way he carries himself and his presence,” David Ross said. “There’s a lot to like about him.”
Ueckert was the Cubs’ 27th round pick in 2019 out of McNeese State University and was dominant at multiple levels in 2021 with a 1.45 ERA and 0.81 WHIP in 26 games. He also struck out 37 batters in 31 innings.
But the young pitcher didn’t rest on that success after the season and set about changing his secondary pitch over the winter. He felt as if his slider acted too much like a cutter last year and wanted to add more shape and bite to it, so he changed the way he grips the pitch.
As the minor league season kicked off last week, Ueckert was assigned to Triple-A Iowa, so he is just one call away from Chicago.
Ben Leeper, RHP
The 24-year-old righty turned in an incredible stat line during his first year in pro ball last season. In 27 games between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa, Leeper had a sparkling 1.29 ERA and 0.80 WHIP and struck out a whopping 53 batters in 35 innings (13.6 K/9).
He signed with the Cubs as an undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma State University in the summer of 2020 and has quickly climbed the ranks.
Ethan Roberts is already in Chicago and we could see Ueckert or Leeper join him at some point this season as a wave of young pitching rises through the Cubs system.
“It just speaks to the work that our front office and our player development staff have done and the work they put in of making some changes and seeing real results — guys coming in with real velocity like you see around the league and legit secondary stuff,” Ross said in spring. “There’s a real presence in them — they know they’re good and they can stand out there on the mound and feel like they command the space.
“I think that’s a big deal for young guys and I’ve seen a lot of those guys come up and I know they’ll be able to help us out this year, so that’s rewarding too.”
Other names to watch
Ildemaro Vargas was one of the final cuts ahead of Opening Day. He had a strong spring (.333 AVG, .947 OPS) and can play all over the infield but he is not currently on the 40-man roster and is out of minor-league options, so that makes things a bit tricky for any potential promotion to the majors.
Adrian Sampson was impressive down the stretch last year when he received an opportunity in Chicago, pitching to a 2.80 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 10 games (5 starts). The 30-year-old righty re-signed with the Cubs on a minor league deal over the offseason and is currently in Triple-A.
John Hicks and P.J. Higgins figure to be vying for the next man up if the Cubs should ever need more catching depth behind Willson Contreras and Yan Gomes in Chicago. Hicks, 32, has 264 MLB games under his belt with the Mariners, Tigers and Rangers. Higgins, 28, made his big league debut last season with the Cubs before an elbow-forearm injury ended his year in June.