Last year, I really didn’t have a breakout reliever of the year. I talked about several players and their progress such as Ryan McNeil turning into a setup man at South Bend and Josh Conway coming into his own as a reliever at Myrtle Beach after skipping South Bend. Then, I also Waxed poetic about the trio of Greyfer Eregua, Jose Paulino, and Adbert Alzolay dominating at Eugene in 2015. This year, though, the conditions were right to pick a breakout reliever of the year.
For the better part of the first half of 2015, the relievers saved the season for the Iowa Cubs. Carl Edwards, Spencer Patton, and Felix Pena were pitching copious amounts of innings in order to make up for the debilitating starts of a starting rotation besieged by injuries. Edwards would get the first call to Chicago early in the year and then would be recalled to stay in July. Pena, who also converted to relieving this year, seemed to have no trouble coming out of the bullpen versus starting, which he had done for the last three years.
When Dave Berg and James Faris were promoted to AA Tennessee, Myrtle Beach was in need of a closer. That turned out to be a right-handed reliever, Ryan McNeil. McNeil was a highly thought of prospect when he was drafted in 2012, but injuries caused him to miss two years. He returned as a starter in 2014 at Boise for just a few starts. In 2015 he was moved to the pen at South Bend and he slowly made the adjustment over the course of the year. In 2016, that adjustment continued as he neared 95 miles an hour out of the pen, a level at which he pitched at before Tommy John Surgery in 2012. He took to the closer role like a fish to water and has been one of the most dominant pitchers in the Cubs system.
Wyatt Short has also been a surprise at Eugene. The 5’8” lefty closer from Ole Miss has come in and just plain dominated the Northwest league in a closer role. He has yet to allow a run in 11 games. Jared Cheek, who struggled last year at Eugene, turned into the Emerald’s closer this year and is much improved. The rapping reliever, John Williamson, has been a nice surprise this second-half as he has added a pause to his delivery which is very deceptive.
All of these players have had nice seasons, but not one of them has come close to what Jose Rosario has done. After missing all of 2015, Rosario returned to the organization as a reliever. He began the year at Myrtle Beach where he quickly impressed everyone with his mid to upper 90s fastball. He did not throw that hard as a starter. No one saw his year coming at all.
He was promoted to Tennessee and eventually Iowa in July. Combined, he’s thrown 48 innings and struck out 44 with a 2.22 ERA. Based upon what he has done this year, and what he could do the rest of this year, he could even get a crack to be in consideration for a bullpen spot next year, provided he can still throw in the upper 90s.
Rosario has been so good this year, he made MLB.com’s Top 30 Cubs Prospect List. They said of him:
Though he isn’t very physical, Rosario has a big fastball and is throwing harder than ever since having his elbow reconstructed. He established his prospect bona fides when he started hitting 97 mph in short-season ball as a 20-year-old, and now he sits at 96-97 and can reach 99. He generates his velocity more with arm speed than effort and keeps his heater down in the strike zone, generating swings and misses as well as groundballs.
Rosario’s No. 2 pitch is a mid-80s slider that’s a plus offering at its best and morphs into more of a slurve at times. He’ll show signs of an average changeup too, though the Cubs have made him a full-time reliever since his return. Control never has been his strong suit, though he’s doing a better job of finding the strike zone and could contribute in the big leagues in the near future.
The thing that bodes well for him is that he has only walked 14 batters across three levels for all of 2016. In addition to being a breakout reliever of the year, Rosario’s story is also one of the feel-good stories of 2016 for the Cubs organization.