Chicago Cubs relief prospect Cam Sanders setting himself up for an in-season promotion: ‘He’s been really fun to watch’

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Cam Sanders admits he had good and bad thoughts when informed the Chicago Cubs wanted him to transition from starter to reliever after the Triple-A All-Star break last year.

Even now, amid an impressive camp performance in his reliever role, Sanders said he always wants to be a starting pitcher.

“But honestly, anything that gets me in 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 no team selected him in December’s Rule 5 draft after they did not put him on the 40-man roster to protect him.

The Cubs are still working through their opening-day bullpen options. Multiple spots remain in flux. The team has taken notice of Keegan Thompson’s decreased velocity, sitting in the low 90s. Their go-to multi-inning weapon last season hasn’t been stretched out, limited to an inning in each of his three Cactus League appearances. The Cubs also are not ruling out putting Javier Assad or Adrian Sampson in the bullpen rather than sending them to Triple A as rotation depth. Starters won’t be fully built up at the beginning of the season, which will put a heavier workload on the bullpen.

As a nonroster invitee in big-league camp, the 26-year-old Sanders has earned rave reviews from the Cubs.

“As a reliever you get to be like, here it is, I’m coming at you,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said to the Tribune. “It’s refreshing to see a guy go out there and challenge people and feel like he’s been aggressive the whole time.”

Sanders has given up only one run in 6⅔ innings this spring. He has 10 strikeouts and two walks over those five appearances. His electric fastball hit 99 mph during his outing Friday against the White Sox.

“You’re starting to see him have a little bit of a presence out on the mound,” assistant pitching coach Daniel Moskos told the Tribune. “Whereas I think maybe he was lacking some presence previously, he didn’t quite understand who he was, like, if I’m a starter I have to coast, I’ve got to try and get through five or six innings and now it’s like, no, go step on the gas until we don’t need you to get any more outs.

“He’s really shown out in camp so far. He’s been really fun to watch.”

Sanders follows the path at least 10 pitchers took coming into camp. He, too, adopted a sweeping slider to his repertoire.

“Who hasn’t?” Moskos joked.

The Cubs liked how Sanders can get topspin on a curveball, a key component of being able to throw the one-seamed slider.

“We always felt like it was in there,” Moskos said.

With Sanders’ changeup a weapon against left-handed hitters, the Cubs believe his new slider can help generate more swing-and-miss versus right-handed hitters. In 17 relief appearances for Triple-A Iowa last year, Sanders struck out 34 batters in 29⅔ innings. He struggled with his command at times, recording 16 walks in that stretch with a a 56% strike percentage.

Sanders’ slider has been good though inconsistent at times this spring when he loses a little horizontal break, but it’s “not uncommon for guys who are just starting to learn it,” Moskos said.

“Sometimes release traits can change a little bit, so there’s always going to be a battle you fight there.”

Right now, Sanders is focused on throwing his slider in the zone and letting the movement do all the work. He wants to get to the point at which the muscle memory from throwing it for a strike allows him to begin messing with the slider and manipulate where he wants to throw the ball.

If Sanders ever needs additional insight or advice as he works to earn a big-league promotion, he has a great resource in his dad, 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. They usually talk after each of Cam’s outings with Scott’s message typically centering on staying focused and locked in.

“He’s always that guy in your corner,” Cam Sanders said of his dad. “He’s always told me work hard when nobody’s watching.

“He always tells me, ‘You’re better than me. Go out there, trust your stuff and you’ll be successful.’ ”

Sanders survived the Cubs’ first round of big cuts when 10 were sent to minor-league camp March 10. This past week has allowed him to get an extended opportunity to be around the veteran pitchers and throw in front of the big-league staff, something he hasn’t taken for granted.

“I cherish every day that I’m in this locker room,” Sanders said. “Since I was a kid, I had one dream and it was to pitch in the big leagues. So at this point, I’m not going to let anything stop me from doing it.”