Cam Sanders admits he had good and bad thoughts when he was informed the Chicago Cubs wanted to move him from starter to reliever after last year’s Triple-A All-Star break.
Even now, on the back of an impressive performance in camp in his role as a reliever, Sanders said he always wants to be a starting pitcher.
“But honestly, anything that gets me into the game, I’m cool with it,” Sanders told the Tribune.
Sanders is positioning himself to get an opportunity in the Cubs bullpen at some point this season. The Cubs are fortunate that no team took him in December’s Rule 5 draft after not placing him on the 40-man roster to protect him.
The Cubs are still working on their opening day options. Multiple spots remain in flux. The team took note of Keegan Thompson’s low-90s velocity. Their multi-inning weapon last season was unextended, limited to one inning in each of his three Cactus League appearances. The Cubs also aren’t ruling out putting Javier Assad or Adrian Sampson in the bullpen rather than sending them to Triple A as rotation depth. The starters won’t be fully stocked early in the season, which will put a heavier load on the bullpen.
As a non-roster invitee in big league camp, Sanders, 26, earned rave reviews from the Cubs.
“As a reliever, you get to be like, here I come at you,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy told the Tribune. “It’s refreshing to see a guy go out there and challenge people and feel like he’s been aggressive all along.”
Sanders has given up just one run in 6⅔ innings this spring. He has 10 strikeouts and two walks over five appearances. His electric fastball hit 99 mph during his Friday outing against the White Sox.
“You’re starting to see he has a little bit of a presence on the mound,” assistant pitching coach Daniel Moskos told the Tribune. “While I think maybe he lacked a certain presence before, he didn’t quite understand who he was, like if I’m a starter, I’ve got to come back, I’ve got to try to get through five or six innings now as well. It’s like, no, go on the throttle until we don’t need you to get any more exits.
“He’s really shown himself in camp so far. It was a lot of fun to watch.”
Sanders is following the path of at least 10 pitchers coming into camp. He too has adopted a wide slider into his repertoire.
“Who hasn’t?” Moskos joked.
The Cubs liked how Sanders can get topspin on a curveball, a key component to being able to throw the one-seam slider.
“I always felt it was there,” Moskos said.
With Sanders’ change as a weapon against left-handed hitters, the Cubs believe his new slider can help generate more swing-and-misses compared to right-handed hitters. In 17 relief appearances for Triple-A Iowa last year, Sanders struck out 34 batters in 29⅔ innings. He struggled at times with his command, recording 16 walks in that stretch with a 56% strikeout percentage.
Sanders’ slider has been good, if inconsistent at times this spring when he misses a little horizontal break, but “that’s not unusual for guys who are just starting to learn it,” Moskos said.
“Sometimes the launch traits can change a little bit, so there’s always going to be a battle you’re going to fight there.”
Right now, Sanders is focused on throwing his slider in the zone and letting his motion do all the work. He wants to get to the point where the muscle memory from throwing for a strike allows him to start messing with his slider and manipulating where he wants to throw the ball.
If Sanders ever needs additional information or advice as he works to earn a promotion to the big leagues, he has a great resource in his father, Scott, who spent seven years in the majors. Scott appeared in 235 games for four teams, including the Cubs in 1999 when Cam was 2 years old. They usually talk after every Cam outing, with Scott’s message usually centered around staying focused and locked in.
“He’s always that guy in your corner,” Cam Sanders said of his father. “He always told me that I work hard when no one is looking.
“He always tells me, ‘You’re better than me.’ Go out there, trust your stuff and you will be successful. “
Sanders survived the Cubs’ first round of major cuts, when 10 were sent to minor league camp on March 10. Last week allowed him an extended opportunity to be around veteran pitchers and pitch in front of big league pitching staff, something he hasn’t taken for granted.
“I appreciate every day being in this locker room,” Sanders said. “Ever since I was a kid, I had a dream and that was to pitch in the big leagues. So at this point, I’m not going to let anything stop me from doing it.”