MESA, Ariz. — Adrian Sampson knows nothing will just be given to him in his line of work. He knows he’s still got to earn it, regardless of how well he pitched for the Cubs for the majority of his 19-start stretch in the rotation last season.
“Thinking that you deserve things is not a good way to look at stuff,” Sampson said Sunday morning. “I’m just trying to keep my head down and try to work at it and get better.”
Sampson has gotten the call a number of times: A team needs to open a spot on its 40-man roster, and he’s the odd man out. He was designated for assignment twice last season, even once by the Cubs themselves in May. And of course, that never got any easier to hear.
“You almost become numb to those words,” Sampson said.
But things changed when Sampson re-signed with the Cubs at the end of May in 2022. His contract was selected on June 16 and he pitched a stellar 4 2/3 innings of scoreless relief three days later, but he was then optioned back to Triple-A Iowa as the pitching staff size limit of 13 arms went into effect.
When Cubs manager David Ross had that conversation with him, Sampson wasn’t happy. He let Ross know that he thought it was the wrong decision. Sampson made sure to do it the right way, and that fiery conversation, which showed his will to fight for his job, stuck with Ross.
“He still brings it up here and there,” Sampson said. “I think he does it in a positive way. He knows it’s a strength of mine to kind of be a little fiery and use that to my advantage. There’s a line you got to not cross and be able to balance it and not try to get too emotional out there. As I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve learned how to teeter the line but not cross it.”
At that point in time, Sampson wasn’t on the radar for a Cubs rotation spot in 2023. The now 31-year-old had bounced around since debuting with the Mariners in 2016. He even spendt the 2020 season playing in Korea. There was no way he was going to establish himself as a legitimate rotation candidate for the Cubs, right?
Well, the way he pitched to end the year really put it into their minds that he could play that role moving forward. He finished the year with a 3.11 ERA, which included the 1.50 ERA he recorded in six September starts.
There were times when it felt like everyone was waiting for Sampson’s run to end. This was a guy who couldn’t hang onto a 40-man spot before. The other shoe had to drop eventually — until it just never did.
“Sampson just keeps going out there and proving that he can do it,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “And not only do it, but do it at a high level. There were stretches the last two years that he’s been our most consistent starter.”
Sampson’s run made it clear that he’s, at worst, good starter depth for this team. But now, there’s another opportunity in front of him. With the addition of Jameson Taillon and the re-signing of Drew Smyly, the Cubs have a clear top four in the rotation that also includes Marcus Stroman and Justin Steele.
In a normal year, Kyle Hendricks would round out the group of five, and someone like Sampson would likely either move to the bullpen or be optioned down. This isn’t a normal year, however. Hendricks isn’t scheduled throw his first bullpen (one he described as “touch and feel”) until Friday, and he won’t be ready to re-join the club on Opening Day.
So, the battle for the fifth starter job is on.
When asked which players are being considered for the spot, Ross specifically named, Sampson, Hayden Wesneski and Javier Assad (along with some non-roster invitees) as the competitors. Those three provided solid innings for the Cubs in 2022 and all have arguments to begin the season in the rotation.
“The messaging to those guys is just go out and be yourself and do your thing,” Ross said. “I think that’s going to be our message for everybody. It’s like, we want you to pitch to your strengths, compete, get ready for the season and let us make those decisions. You just go out and be yourself.”
Sampson, for his part, is still of that mindset that he has to earn that No. 5 starter job. He said the Cubs had him on a program to increase velocity over the winter, which will be another feather in his cap if it leads to tangible results.
“My first live BP [on Thursday], I was a little ahead of where I usually am,” Sampson said. “I was at like 91-93 [mph] I think, so I was pretty happy about that. I think the results are starting to show a little bit. We’ll see how it goes the next couple of weeks in spring training.”
Statcast shows that Sampson’s four-seamer and sinker averaged 92.5 and 91.9 mph, respectively, last season. The fact that he’s already hitting that range not even a week into spring training is notable and could be a sign that his fastballs could tick up in 2023. Obviously, that’d be another thing working in his favor in this rotation competition.
There’s still plenty of time left in spring training. The fifth-starter competition likely won’t be over until closer to the end of camp. With that in mind, it’s on Sampson to go out and prove he deserves the job.
“Look at his career and bouncing around and having to prove himself,” Ross said. “For me, the things that I’ve told him, it’s like, keeping that chip on your shoulder is important, because [you’re] constantly having to prove yourself as somebody that doesn’t throw 98.
“Different teams value certain things. The way he’s pitched for us every time he’s been called upon in a lot of different roles, he’s done a really nice job. So, I commend him on that. That’s why he’s in the talk for fifth-starter role, because of what he’s done and what he’s proven here. I think all that stuff is good, but you can’t ever let off the gas.”