Mark Leiter Jr., Shota Imanaga and the stuff Cubs can’t measure in building team


Mark Leiter Jr. got a sneak preview of Shota Imanaga’s unforgettable introduction to Chicago Cubs fans and the local media. In town for the team’s annual winter convention, Leiter visited the hotel room where Imanaga worked on reciting the lyrics to “Go Cubs Go.” Leiter was impressed by how much English the Japanese pitcher already understood, and the way Imanaga practiced his cadence and delivery. Leiter was first introduced to Imanaga through his agency, Octagon, which had extensively explored opportunities for him in Asia back when it looked like his major-league career might have hit a dead end.

At the Loews Chicago Hotel, Imanaga was preparing for the news conference announcing his four-year, $53 million contract. Around that same time in January, the Cubs had just executed a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers for Michael Busch and Yency Almonte and settled a series of arbitration cases that included Leiter’s $1.5 million deal. When Imanaga kicked off a low-key Cubs Convention — “Hey, Chicago, what do you say?” — the expectations in that ballroom did not rise to the Cy Young Award level that seems possible now.

“He kind of got overlooked a little bit,” Leiter said, “and I think that can give you an edge.”

Leiter wasn’t talking about himself, but the same idea applies to his long journey to becoming one of the most trusted relievers in the Wrigley Field bullpen. It’s part of why the Cubs believe they will eventually get out of this .500-ish rut and start rolling again.

Leiter was born into the family business March 13, 1991, in Fort Lauderdale, where the New York Yankees used to hold spring training in Florida. Six days later, the Yankees traded his father to the Detroit Tigers for Torey Lovullo, the future manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Existence for a major-league player is transient.

Mark Sr. and Al Leiter are now the only brothers in major-league history who have each had a son play in The Show. Jack Leiter, who debuted with the Texas Rangers in April, was a No. 2 pick out of Vanderbilt University, a trajectory much different from what his cousin experienced. Leiter Jr. was selected in the 22nd round of the 2013 draft out of New Jersey Institute of Technology and then began the steep climb.

This is one way the Cubs attempt to build their bullpen, by giving players second (or third or fourth) chances and hoping a change of scenery and the right timing can make things click.

Leiter missed the 2019 season after Tommy John surgery and was released from his minor-league contract with the Diamondbacks in 2020 while the baseball industry was shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic. After a 2021 season split between two of Detroit’s minor-league affiliates, Leiter seriously weighed offers to pitch in South Korea or Japan.

The guaranteed money overseas was tempting, but the logistics that offseason were difficult as his wife, Megan, welcomed their first child, a daughter named Madison. Leiter wound up signing a minor-league contract with the Cubs and going 1,300 days between appearances in the majors.

“You’ve been through certain aspects, but you never came off of the mindset of what it was going to take,” Leiter said. “Like the Babe Ruth quote: It’s hard to beat a person who won’t quit.”

Leiter was released again after a solid 2022 season with the Cubs but decided to come back on another minor-league deal because he didn’t want to start over in another organization. He still felt some momentum with the Cubs, an instinct that proved to be correct.


Mark Leiter Jr. celebrates after securing the final out in a 4-0 win over the Marlins on Aug. 6, 2022, during his first season with the Cubs. (Quinn Harris / Getty Images)

As the Cubs went on a hot streak last summer and stopped a sell-off at the trade deadline, Leiter emerged as a key reliever in an improving bullpen that wore down near the end of the season. Of that late-inning group, Adbert Alzolay and Julian Merryweather are now on the 60-day injured list and Leiter entered Friday with eight holds and 19 scoreless appearances.

Leiter, 33, persevered through the disappointments, giving him the kind of perspective Cubs hitters appreciate when they explain Mike Tauchman’s value. After bouncing around for years, and learning from his time in the Korea Baseball Organization, Tauchman, also 33, knows how to prepare and plays with an edge.

Role players matter. The Cubs purposely added Héctor Neris this offseason for his durability, postseason experience and bilingual ability to connect with anyone in the clubhouse. It’s not a surprise that Neris, 34, took over as Chicago’s closer and maintained a sense of calm. In thinking about clubhouse chemistry and other things that can’t be measured, Leiter sees beyond some of the stuff that didn’t overwhelm certain teams during the process of scouting Imanaga.

“He knows how to pitch,” Leiter said. “And if you know how to pitch, good pitching beats good hitting. That’s just kind of how it goes. If you execute what you’re trying to do, it’s awfully hard to hit.”

Leiter’s favorite part of Shotamania is watching him read swings, set up at-bats and blow away hitters with a fastball in the low 90s. That feel for pitching is something that has carried Leiter, who has a dominant splitter and significant experience as a starter, which helped him take on a substantial workload. Through 130 career appearances and 155 1/3 innings with the Cubs, he has 182 strikeouts and a 3.71 ERA, which gives credence to the theory the team will find more relievers and improve over the next four months.

The bullpen has begun to stabilize. The offense has looked better recently. The Imanaga-led rotation has been better than advertised. The Cubs have enough players who already know how to stick with it.

“As long as you don’t quit,” Leiter said, “you just keep going.”

(Top photo of Mark Leiter Jr.: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)



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