When pitcher Ben Leeper walked into the clubhouse at the Chicago Cubs’ complex for the first day of spring training, he was greeted by David Ross.
The Cubs manager walked over to Leeper to tell him how impressed he was watching him in the minor leagues last season and looked to seeing him again this year.
“That’s really just an honor to hear that from him,” Leeper said.
One thing became abundantly clear to the right-handed pitcher in that encounter. Leeper, an undrafted free agent in 2020, was no longer flying under the radar. With one strong season in 2021, he had captivated the attention of not only Ross but Chicago’s front office and minor league baseball prospect evaluators.
“Being labeled as someone who can contribute is something that I’ve always wanted,” Leeper said.
Leeper, one of the biggest surprise stories in the organization, now has what he wants being looked at as a pitching prospect with plenty of potential. But it hasn't always been that way. The 24-year-old, who attended Oklahoma State, underwent Tommy John surgery twice and went undrafted in the shortened event in 2020.
Leeper did latch on with the Cubs by signing a minor league deal that year. He made his professional debut in 2021 and, thanks to a mid to high-90s fastball and solid slider, rapidly rose through the system. Leeper tallied 53 strikeouts in 35 innings and compiled a 0.80 WHIP in 27 games between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa.
He was dominant in Triple-A and so successful that Leeper may have been on the verge of moving up one more level and reaching the big leagues. But any thoughts of that happening ended when he developed elbow inflammation and was shut down after 27 games. Leeper went out to the Cubs' facility in Arizona and started throwing again when the club determined his injury wasn't serious.
"I was throwing out there the whole time and off the mound, basically at max effort, just maintaining," Leeper said.
It didn't stop Leeper from getting a jumpstart on the 2022 season. Leeper was so anxious to get going for the big season that he reported to spring training in January, well ahead of schedule. His early arrival allowed him to not only get some face time with Ross. It also gave him an opportunity to work with members of Chicago's pitching department, including pitching coach Tommy Hottovy.
"Just being able to have a conversation with them and just pick their brain about what it's like at the next level and what you really need to do to be successful, that was definitely some of the best conversations I had," Leeper said.
Unlike last season, Leeper enters the season with giant expectations. He's listed as the 28th-best prospect in the organization, according to MLB Pipeline. And now the Cubs are keeping close tabs on him.
"He did a really job in big league camp for the first time," said Jared Banner, Chicago's vice president of player development. "He really got in stadium's full of more people and with big league coaching staff in the dugout and responded really well under some pressure. So, I'm really excited about him."
Even though expectations have changed for Leeper, the pitcher insists he hasn't. Outside of smoothing out his delivery, Leeper said he's still the same pitcher with the same simple but intense mindset this season.
"I still have that chip on the shoulder that I have to earn it every day," Leeper said.
Tommy Birch, the Register's sports enterprise and features reporter, has been working at the newspaper since 2008. He's the 2018 and 2020 Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Reach him at email@example.com or 515-284-8468. Follow him on Twitter @TommyBirch.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: How Iowa Cubs' Ben Leeper went from undrafted to major league talent