At the beginning of spring training a month ago, it may have been easy for outsiders to overlook Javier Assad when it came to the Cubs’ fifth-starter competition.
Marcus Stroman, Jameson Taillon, Justin Steele and Drew Smyly are in line to take four of the five rotation spots. Kyle Hendricks is only now throwing bullpens in his recovery from a capsular tear in his right shoulder, so the spot that would normally go to him is up for grabs.
Early in camp, Cubs manager David Ross was asked which pitchers were involved in that competition. He didn’t want to leave anyone off the list, but he did name Assad, Hayden Wesneski and Adrian Sampson specifically. Now, it wouldn’t have been completely wrong to assume Sampson or Wesneski were the front-runners. Sampson came into this spring looking to prove he could build on his strong 19-start run in the rotation in 2022. Wesneski quickly put himself on the map with an impressive first month in the majors.
Assad also putting together a solid performance in his first taste of the big leagues (3.11 ERA in nine outings), but he was probably third in line when the Cubs reported for spring training. Since the start of camp, Wesneski has continued to be lights out (11 strikeouts in 8 2/3 scoreless innings), while Sampson has struggled (14.04 ERA, eight home runs in 6 2/3 innings). But even still, it’s seemed like they still at the top of the list.
But Assad worked hard all offseason to keep himself in that conversation. He focused on gaining velocity and improving his mechanics over the winter (Maddie Lee of the Sun-Times reported that Assad’s velocity program “incorporated a core velocity belt, weighted PlyoCare balls, lifting and running, and when he threw, he was focused on staying closed and driving off his back foot”).
Assad impressed in his first two outings of Cactus League play, limited opponents to only a walk over four innings of work. Cubs coaches had been encouraged by the results of his velocity program since the start of spring, and the eye test was promising, but without Statcast numbers from either of those outings, we couldn’t confirm that his fastball velocity was consistently ticking up.
But that changed Sunday night during his relief appearance for Team Mexico in the World Baseball Classic. Facing a star-studded Team USA lineup, Assad allowed just a single hit to Mike Trout over three scoreless innings. The rest of the batters he sent back to the dugout included Pete Alonso (who he struck out twice), Kyle Tucker, Tim Anderson, Will Smith, Jeff McNeil, Mookie Betts, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado.
The most notable part about that performance? The velocity on his fastballs was higher than ever. According to Statcast, Assad hit 95-plus mph on 12 different sinkers and four-seamers Sunday night (his second-fastest pitch actually finished off his first Alonso punchout). In 2022, he hit that mark just twice — despite throwing those two pitches a combined 362 times.
It’s obviously a small sample size, and the adrenaline from pitching in a WBC game probably had an effect, too. But there’s a reason adding velocity was part of the offseason plan. Assad has a real chance to contribute to what should be a far deeper group of Cubs starters in 2023, and adding a couple extra ticks would do nothing but help.
In all honesty, saying he’d been overlooked prior to spring training isn’t incorrect. And that means something, even if he isn’t on the Opening Day roster.
Regardless of how well he performs over the next two weeks, Assad may very well not win the fifth-starter competition. His quick rise from Double-A Tennessee to the big leagues last season was impressive, and his spring performance thus far has been, too, though that still may not stop him from starting the season with Triple-A Iowa.
But as Ross recently told reporters in Mesa, Arizona, “We all put so much emphasis — players especially, and I was in the same boat — on making the Opening Day roster. But there’s a lot of guys in camp that won’t be on the Opening Day roster that are going to help us this year and help us win ballgames.”
So, even if Assad isn’t in Chicago to start the season, his three-inning gem on Sunday provided a good reminder of why nobody should overlook him this spring.