Cubs have far more questions than answers in the rotation

(Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images)
(Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images) /

After a woeful first half, the Cubs seemed to turn it around following the All-Star Break, running off a 39-31 mark down the stretch, due largely in part to a sterling 2.89 starting rotation ERA that ranked third in all of baseball.

So, naturally, as the season drew to a close and our attention turned to the looming offseason, there was a lot of excitement and plenty of optimism throughout the fanbase. But I’m here to douse that optimism with maybe not cold, but perhaps some room temperature water, because there are a lot of signs indicating that second-half success might not be sustainable.

Cubs have depth pieces, but need more proven commodities in 2023

In my mind, two returning arms from the 2022 rotation can be safely penciled into next year’s plans: Marcus Stroman and Justin Steele. From there, it’s nothing but question marks – some intriguing question marks, to be sure, but question marks nonetheless.

The most household name in the mix for one of the remaining spots in the rotation is, of course, Kyle Hendricks. The right-hander struggled through a second straight disappointing season, this one ending early due to a shoulder injury. With one year left on his deal, the Cubs are hoping for a return to form, of sorts. It seems safe to assume, though, he’s not going to be the guy he was back from 2014 to 2020, when he worked to a 3.12 ERA in 174 starts.

From there, we’ll pivot to some younger arms who turned heads late in the season: Hayden Wesneski, Javier Assad and Adrian Sampson. You can toss Keegan Thompson into this group, as well, although his first taste of big league action didn’t exactly go as planned.

Assad worked to a 3.11 ERA across seven starts and a lone relief appearance, seemingly coming from out of nowhere to play a role for the Cubs this season. He was stellar between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa, as well, putting up a 2.66 ERA in 21 starts and a pair of relief outings.

As impressive of a year as it was for the 25-year-old righty, this was his first taste of competition at this level and, as we’ve learned over the years, it takes a lot to sustain it over the course of a career. Prior to this year, Assad has posted a sub-4.00 ERA and pitched at least 100 innings once in his career, back in 2019 with High-A Myrtle Beach.

When it comes to Sampson, don’t get me wrong. The guy was clutch for Chicago this year, but I’m not willing to bet on a 30-year-old who had never really put it all together prior to 2022. He was a nice story the last two years on a pair of pretty not great Cubs teams, but I think he’s a swing man, at best, moving forward.

The two guys who seem far likelier to contribute in a meaningful way long-term are Wesneski and Thompson, although the latter was notably better out of the bullpen this year (1.47 ERA as a starter/4.83 ERA as a reliever). Wesneski was unquestionably sharp after making his major league debut, turning in a 2.18 ERA in four starts and two relief appearances. His late-season success certainly made the Scott Effross trade easier to swallow and the right-hander seems like a top candidate to make a play for a rotation spot in 2023.

Next. $50 million annually for deGrom isn't the solution here. dark

All this to say: yes, there are guys who could provide depth (Assad, Sampson, Thompson) – not to mention someone like Drew Smyly or Wade Miley if the Cubs choose to bring them back into the fold. But this team needs to add at least two proven commodities when it comes to the rotation this offseason or risk falling into a false sense of security cultivated by the team’s second-half success.