Gazing into our crystal ball to see the staff of the 2026 Cubs

(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) /

Having previously examined the potential Chicago Cubs 2026 lineup, today we take a look at the pitching staff. In the wake of this year’s draft and trade deadline, the Cubs have 13 pitchers among their Top 30 prospects, according to MLB Pipeline.

Some of these guys will make an impact; most won’t. Forecasting pitching performance is even more of a crap shoot than doing so for hitters, but the exercise may help illuminate some of the pitching strengths and weaknesses down on the farm. So in this post we’ll look at the potential 2026 five-man rotation as well as the top three relievers.

Before going further, it may be worth a minute contemplating whether starting pitching will even still be a thing in 2026. Major league teams are averaging just 5.2 innings per start, down from 6 as recently as 2014. It’s possible starters will continue to be marginalized, but there are reasons to think the trend has reached the point of diminishing returns.

There are 13 teams averaging less than 5.2 innings per start. Just three of them are over .500, and only one (no points for guessing the Rays) would be in the postseason if the season ended today. In addition, MLB is inching its way toward reversing the bullpen-ization of the game. The 13-pitcher roster limit isn’t especially restrictive, but it is both a solid beginning and a shot across the bows of the 30 major league front offices.

Many fans (and I’m among them) like seeing starting pitchers work deeper into games, and fewer pitching changes means shorter games (or, more cynically, more TV ad time). And while 5.2 innings per start seems lower, this is actually the second season in a row that the number has gone up, rising from a miserable 4.8 in 2020.

So yes, the starter will be surviving, and perhaps thriving, in 2026. Greater changes may be in store for bullpen usage, a topic to which we will return momentarily.

Cubs rotation: Shane Bieber, Justin Steele, Caleb Kilian, Jordan Wicks and DJ Herz

Hey, why not dream? Bieber hits free agency after the 2024 season, and there is a good chance the famously tight-fisted Guardians will not shell out the Croesus-like sums necessary to keep him in Cleveland. There will be a bidding war for him, but that’s the kind of war the Cubs can win.

Whether it’s Bieber or someone else, the future Cubs ace will likely come from outside the system. MLB Pipeline gives no Cubs pitcher a scouting grade higher than 50 (average). Fangraphs assigns a 45 Future Value grade to Kilian, Wicks, and Herz; no one else gets higher than a 40+. A 45 grade means the pitcher is likely to end up in the middle to back of the rotation. (Cade Horton gets a 45+, but he’s a bit of a special case; we’ll get to him shortly.)

The grades are predictions with big error bars. Justin Steele got a 40 Future Value and seems to be emerging as a solid number three starter, as predicted in this space. Keegan Thompson, another 40, has landed in the rotation for the moment, though he may be more likely to end up in the bullpen once the current rebuild nears completion.

These two pitchers may give a hint as to the Cubs pitching development strategy. Both throw fastballs that (1) aren’t all that fast but (2) have very high spin. A high-spin fastball tends to “ride” or “carry” – what those of us with a surfeit of annual growth rings used to call a “rising” fastball. Kilian, Wicks and Herz all throw a fastball with good rise or carry, suggesting they are achieving high spin rates in line with two young-ish Cubs starters that have already established some track record of success. Wicks and Herz also have excellent changeups, which can work very well with riding fastballs.

It’s anybody’s guess as to whether Kilian, Wicks and Herz will become rotation mainstays, but for now they’re a better bet than any other three guys currently in the Cubs system. Except for Bieber, I think any of the other four guys to end up anywhere from 2 to 5 in the rotation, but I still give the edge to Steele to be the first among relative equals, given the progress he’s made so far and the head start he has on the other guys.

Some teams have started employing a six-man rotation more or less regularly. Since guessing even five names is a reach I haven’t bothered to speculate whether the Cubs might move in that direction. I’ll throw Drew Gray out there as a sixth man if there is one.

Cubs bullpen staples: Brailyn Marquez, Keegan Thompson, Daniel Palencia

If I had to name a closer I’d say it’s Brailyn Marquez. True, the young lefty has been through the injury gauntlet recently, but he still has the best fastball in the system. It’s an 80-grade pitch that he can blow past hitters at triple digits. If the Cubs stick with LaRussan bullpen roles, Marquez will be pitching in the ninth.

I’m guessing, though, that the Cubs might follow the path of more creative organizations like the Rays and begin to use their bullpen more flexibly, deploying trusted relievers in key situations rather than adhering to more mechanical usage. Even before this season’s bullpen-stripping trades, David Ross was doing some of this, albeit often by necessity as much as choice. The Cubs’ generally lackluster pitching in recent seasons has in a way created an opportunity: there is little reason to stick to old ways that haven’t worked.

So while you can read that bullpen list above as ninth, eighth, and seventh inning guys, respectively, I see that list as more a projected Circle of Trust.

Keegan Thompson is there because, well, let’s go to the numbers.

The pen is mightier? Thompson’s career OPS against:

  • As a starter: .799
  • As a reliever: .620

Both numbers are better for 2022, but the gap is still large. It is admittedly a rather small sample size, but through 152 career innings Thompson has been a so-so starter and a suffocating reliever. He’ll continue to start for now. The Cubs have no better options, and he may yet develop into a rotation fixture, but I could see him moving into a high leverage relief role as some of the higher ceiling guys on the farm graduate to The Show.

As for Palencia, this pick isn’t quite as random as it sounds. Fangraphs gives the high-A farmhand a 40+ Future Value; not great for a starter but not bad for a reliever. At 5-11, Palencia will probably suffer from the continuing bias in favor of tall starters, and his mechanics are complicated. But he might have the stuff to be a fairly wicked circle-of-trust guy in the pen.

What does the future hold for Cubs first-rounder Cade Horton?

I’m glad you asked. I didn’t include him in the above discussion because he isn’t yet in MLB Pipeline’s Top 30, but he already has the highest Future Value (45+) of any Cubs pitching prospect. Horton recently developed a filthy slider to go with a 95-ish MPH fastball. As with many other good young arms, Horton’s fate will be heavily dependent on mastering a third pitch and demonstrating stamina. The Fangraphs scouting report (scroll down to Horton and click on “report”) suggests Horton has a usable curve but probably not (yet, anyway) a changeup. Because he’s only thrown just over 50 innings in his college career, his durability remains largely untested.

Horton’s upside is at or near the highest of any arm in the Cubs system but his overall lack of experience makes him a highly unusual prospect. If he develops that third pitch and can go deep into games with some frequency, he could land near the top of the rotation. Otherwise, he could easily become a circle-of-trust guy in the pen. My guess is that he becomes a number 2 starter behind Bieber, but not until 2027.

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There is a lot of uncertainly about this projected Cubs staff. But with the major league club providing only limited entertainment in the near term, the ongoing development of the pitching staff should make up for at least some of the missing intrigue.