Could high-upside relievers Daniel Palencia and Luke Little play big roles for Chicago Cubs?

MESA, Ariz. — Daniel Palencia did not need much of an introduction to manager Craig Counsell the first time they met.

After all, the hard-throwing right-hander had already shown his mettle and elite stuff months ago in Milwaukee. Counsell witnessed how much of an asset Palencia could be in the bullpen during the Venezuelan’s first two big-league appearances in which he faced the Brewers. In his major-league debut July 4 at American Family Field, Palencia entered for the bottom of the 10th inning with the potential winning run on second base. He forced a flyout and got an inning-ending double play and then locked down the save in the 11th with another double play on an outfield assist from Ian Happ.

As an encore to Palencia’s electric debut, he tossed a scoreless sixth inning the next day to maintain a one-run lead. Palencia smiles recollecting those moments, which have come up with Counsell, who remembered feeling bad for the rookie having to come into extra innings.

“It’s great to work with somebody that knows what you do and knows you well and has seen you pitch,” Palencia, 24, said. “(Counsell’s) told me, ‘Hey, I know what you can do and I know you can have success up here.’ ”

Coming off a 4.45 ERA in 27 appearances with the Cubs, Palencia spent the offseason working on his body. He lost 10 pounds and increased his flexibility, which improved his athleticism on the mound to make his delivery more repeatable.

“What I like about that is it’s a person focused on the long term, not the short term, and that’s the right answer about somebody who expects to be here for a long time,” Counsell said.

Palencia specifically wanted to improve how his hips moved through his delivery.

“Sometimes I try to open up my hips early and that’s when my arm flies and my pitch starts to go up (in the zone) with the heater,” Palencia said. “So I’ve been working to be patient with my mechanics and be consistent all the time.”

Palencia primarily relied on his four-seam fastball and slider last year but learned to throw a splitter in the offseason and plans to use his sinker more — he threw it only six times with the Cubs in 2023, according to Statcast. He wants to throw his splitter to generate whiffs and to set up his fastball.

The next step in Palencia’s development focuses on learning himself and knowing how to fix things from pitch to pitch.

“That’s a process and that evolves,” Counsell said. “The big velocity, you take note of that. Big velocity is still a great equalizer for hitters. It’s the first question a hitter asks, which means it’s the most important thing to him. And he’s got that and that’s a great foundation.”

Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Luke Little throws during the ninth inning against the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023. (Trent Sprague/Chicago Tribune)Palencia and left-hander Luke Little give the Cubs two high-upside relievers who could become important bullpen pieces.

Little’s run of tossing Cactus League zeroes continued Tuesday against the Milwaukee Brewers. He recorded a perfect ninth inning with one strikeout while his fastball averaged 97 mph, topping out at 99. Through six spring outings, Little hasn’t surrendered a run in six innings with two hits allowed, two walks and six strikeouts.

“He’s had a fabulous spring so far,” Counsell said before the game. “It’s been fun to watch him.”

As a September call-up, Little’s seven appearances culminated his wild climb through the Cubs system. After starting the season at High A South Bend, the 23-year-old was promoted to Double-A Tennessee and made 23 appearances for the Smokies before moving on to Triple-A Iowa, pitching lights out in August leading to his first major-league promotion.

“I know I can face anyone, get anyone out,” Little told the Tribune of his takeaway from the majors. “Obviously just the confidence is the most important part of being up there. If you go into an outing knowing or thinking you’re going to do bad or like, ‘Oh, God, I’ve got to face this lineup,’ then things are going to go bad. But I didn’t really think like that.”

Little recalled his toughest outing Sept. 28 in Atlanta, facing a gauntlet of a lineup in a must-win game for the Cubs. He wasn’t happy he allowed a leadoff double to Austin Riley but recovered to retire Matt Olson, Marcell Ozuna and Eddie Rosario to keep the Cubs’ deficit at four runs.

Those moments are important for young relievers like Little to learn from.

“Facing advanced hitters is still fairly new to him,” Counsell said. “So it’s just getting out and pitching and understanding hitters reacting to him, running into some innings that give him some trouble are good things.”

Little said he is prepared to be in Triple A but hopes to be part of the big-league bullpen: “I’m just going to go out there and throw the best that I can and be ready for wherever I’m going to be playing baseball this year.” Little knows the Cubs don’t have many left-handed-reliever options and believes he can be the lefty specialist or long-relief option the organization envisions him to be.

Little added a splitter in the offseason to his fastball-slider pitch mix, something he first started fiddling around with in 2022 at Low A Myrtle Beach. The pitch initially featured all his fingers on the ball before turning it into a more traditional “V” grip last year. Little didn’t throw it during his brief stint in the majors after uncorking a bad one during his first in-game warmup. But he believes the splitter will be very important to his success this year and plans to incorporate it more.

Little ideally wants his split fastball, which can range between 88-92 mph, to be a put-away pitch, though he is confident in his fastball and slider to get chase when needed.

“It’s about just having that splitter as a third pitch to where they can’t either sit on spin or sit on heat makes it a lot more helpful,” Little said.

With the addition of veteran right-hander Héctor Neris and the return of key relievers Julian Merryweather, Mark Leiter Jr. and Adbert Alzolay, Palencia and Little give the bullpen electric upside if they can cement roles with improved consistency this season. They possess off-the-charts stuff and show the mentality needed to back that up.

“They’re constantly working and cerebral guys, want to talk and have discussions about things,” Merryweather told the Tribune. “That’s a huge green flag for me, seeing guys who want to learn and are open to tweaking stuff here and there and not thinking they have everything figured out.

“They’re coming back hungry. They got a taste of it last year, they’re not going to be scared of the lights when they come on. They’re going to have a chip on their shoulder looking to come in and prove their worth.”