The Chicago Cubs largely have their starting rotation locked in for the start of the 2023 season, but the competition for the fifth spot is already heating up.
Marcus Stroman, Justin Steele, Drew Smyly and Jameson Taillon are all expected to start the season in the rotation, but the continued-recovery of Kyle Hendricks has opened up that fifth job for what appears to be a wide open three-way race.
Manager David Ross confirmed the suspicions of many fans and observers this weekend when he said that the battle for that final spot will likely come down to one of three pitchers, with Javier Assad, Hayden Wesneski and Adrian Sampson all getting chances to earn the job.
Sampson would seem to have the experience edge, as he’s started 44 games in his big-league career. In 19 starts with the Cubs last season, he posted an impressive 3.11 ERA, striking out 73 batters in 104.1 innings of work.
Speaking to reporters in Mesa this weekend, Sampson says that he was proud of the fact he stuck on the Cubs’ 40-man roster, but that he knew there were bigger fish to fry this time around.
“I thought I did a good enough job last year to get through the offseason, and then ended up being a super-two guy (in arbitration),” he said. “It gave me confidence going into the offseason. Thinking that you deserve things is not the way to get through things, so I’m trying to keep my head down and work at it and to get better.”
Sampson told reporters that he had been put on a velocity-improvement program during the offseason, and that it has already shown signs of bearing fruit during his first live batting practice sessions of spring training.
He says that he is impressed with the Cubs’ depth, and knows that nothing is guaranteed as he tries to earn a regular role in the rotation.
“I’m not trying to step on anyone’s toes here, but if you think you deserve something, go out and get it, and that’s what I’m trying to do,” he said.
Wesneski is arguably the highest-ceiling pitcher competing for a starting role with the Cubs. He put up some eye-popping numbers while he was in the New York Yankees’ organization, and after arriving in Chicago via trade last season he put up a sparkling 2.18 ERA, striking out 33 batters in 33 innings, and he’s hoping to carry that momentum into the new season.
“I’ve just been getting healthy and figuring out really who I am as a pitcher and person, and figure out the whole routine,” he said. “I got to be able to go through a full season. That’s a whole big-league season, hopefully, and I mean that takes a lot of work and effort.”
Wesneski called his success last season a “confidence boost,” and said that being around the team’s veteran hurlers has done wonders in preparing him for a shot at a full-time MLB job.
He echoed Sampson’s sentiments on appreciating the team’s depth, and said that while his goal is to make the rotation, he’s willing to do whatever the Cubs ask him to do out of camp.
After being in the team’s minor league system since 2016, Assad finally made his debut with the Cubs in 2022, making eight starts and nine total appearances. His 3.11 ERA impressed fans and observers alike, but he also struggled at times with his control, walking 20 batters while striking out 30 in 37.2 innings.
Still, his minor league performance in recent years could point to bigger and better things, as he put up a 2.66 ERA in his 23 minor-league appearances in the 2022 season.
While there are other pitchers in camp who could conceivably compete for the starting role, two key figures are ticketed to key roles in the bullpen, as Ross said that both Keegan Thompson and Adbert Alzolay will serve as relievers, roles in which they excelled last season.
Thompson did make 17 starts last season, showing off some strikeout skill while fanning 108 batters and posting a 10-5 record. He can be used in high-leverage situations, but he could also be a key contributor in terms of long relief outings.
Alzolay posted a 3.38 ERA in six relief appearances last season, with 19 strikeouts in 13.1 innings.
Ross has not yet set his rotation for the start of spring training, but one would expect the three starters vying for jobs to get several starts apiece to get accustomed to the demands of the role.