How the Chicago Cubs should handle their starting rotation
The Chicago Cubs have a crowded list of arms competing for their starting rotation and bullpen spots this Spring Training. This means there will be some tough decisions to make and every pitch thrown will be important from now until opening day.
The latest Cub pitcher making waves is Javier Assad, who has been dealing while splitting time between Cactus League play and playing for Team Mexico in the World Baseball Classic. His combined numbers are 9.2 shutout innings pitched with 8 strikeouts and just two hits given up. An offseason routine has also seen Assad's velocity rise, as his average fastball has been between 94-96 mph while maxing out a 97.
Assad's impressive performance this month is making it very hard to send him to Iowa next week, and David Ross has said the 25-year-old in the conversation to make the opening day roster if he keeps pitching this well. Whether Assad will be in the rotation or bullpen remains to be seen.
""He's in the mix. He's in the mix for being on the team," Ross told MLB's, Jordan Bastian. "It doesn't matter whether it's starting or relieving. When he's pitching like that, he can really help us. So as long as he continues to do that, he's setting himself up to make really tough decisions for us. And those are good decisions. The more tough ones we have, that's a good thing.""- David Ross via Jordan Bastian
One of those tough decisions will be what to do with Adrian Sampson, who along with Assad and Hayden Wesneski, has been competing for the fifth starting rotation spot. Although Sampson's last outing against San Francisco was better (4.1 innings, 6 strikeouts, and 1 earned run, he has given up an ugly 8 home runs this Spring and has performed the worst between the three men. Hayden Wesneski on the other hand has been outstanding in his four starts, 3.00 ERA with 17 strikeouts in 12 innings. Although the 25-year-old was tagged for a 3-run home run against the Dodgers on Friday, Ross is still impressed and has faith Wesneski will use the bad outing as a learning moment.
"Having a rough outing like that and knowing where you can really hone in and focus is a good thing to me," Ross told the Athletic. "Complacency can set in in a spring training outing. It just kind of takes that dial back up to where we need it to be come Opening Day."
With Wesneski all but destined for the rotation, and Assad cooling off the best players from the United States in the WBC, the logical path forward at this point would be to put both Assad and Sampson in the bullpen as swingmen/ long relief options. This role was bound for Keegan Thompson when Spring Training began, but he has not looked sharp so far with a slightly concerning dip in velocity. Perhaps starting in Iowa will allow Thompson to get into mid-season form and gain his much-needed velocity back which he used to effectively blow hitters away last season. This would leave the Cubs' pitching staff looking something like this:
Rotation: Stroman, Taillon, Steele, Smyly, Wesneski
Bullpen: Sampson, Assad, Fulmer, Boxberger, Alzolay, Hughes, Merryweather, Wick
Wick still has options left, so he could be interchangeable with Thompson if the former struggles and the latter finds his velocity in the next week. What is certain is that Assad has proven he is worthy of one of these roster spots and I say let the man get some more big-league experience since he's already found success at that level in 2022 (3.11 ERA, 37.2 IP, 30 strikeouts).
Sampson's below-average production hasn't quite warranted a DFA, especially because he was one of the most effective pitchers on the staff last year, so I say leave him in the pen and see what happens. Plus it is almost certain that Sampson, Assad, and Wesneski will see time as a starter regardless of where they begin on Opening Day. Last year the Cubs rotation was plagued by injury, with Marcus Stroman leading the team in innings pitched with just 138. That means all the depth will come in handy, not to mention Kyle Hendricks is still out there making strides on his shoulder injury. It will be exciting to see just exactly how things shake out with Opening Day rapidly approaching, but having too many guys with the ability to pitch well is never a bad problem to have with your baseball team.