With only two weeks left until Opening Day, it’s time to provide an updated prediction for how the Cubs’ 26-man roster will look to start the year.
There aren’t many changes from CHGO’s initial prediction last week, though the changes that were made do feel fairly significant. The biggest one features the young starting pitcher pictured above: Hayden Wesneski.
Back when Cubs manager David Ross talked about the fifth-starter competition, Wesneski was one of the names discussed. It’s not that the idea of him beginning 2023 in the majors felt like a long-shot; he was impressive over the last month of 2022, and he displayed a veteran-type presence on and off the field. He really felt like a big leaguer.
However, Ross also mentioned Adrian Sampson and Javier Assad, and for good reason. Sampson was arguably the Cubs’ most consistent starter over the last month-plus of the year and came into spring looking to prove it was no fluke. And though Assad seemed to become the forgotten one in this camp battle, he also had a solid first stint with the Cubs to finish 2022.
So, as good as Wesneski looked, he knew heading into spring that he would have to compete for the fifth-starter job.
“It means I have a chance to start,” Wesneski told CHGO last month about the message from the coaching staff. “It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do, especially in pro ball. I’ve always wanted to start, and I think I have a starter’s mentality, but just to get the chance, that’s all that I can ask for. There’s been a few times in my career where I didn’t get this opportunity, and it’s finally in front of me.”
As for how things look now, it appears Wesneski has moved ahead of the pack for that fifth-starter spot. As of Thursday morning, he’s allowed no earned runs and struck out 11 batters in 8 2/3 innings this spring.
Spring performances may not affect how the front office builds the Opening Day roster, but as a continuation of his strong 2022, Wesneski’s performance has. If the season started today, Wesneski would be in Chicago in a Cubs uniform.
Keep reading to see the rest of CHGO’s Opening Day roster predictions.
Catchers (2): Yan Gomes, Tucker Barnhart
Gomes: He’s not going to replace Willson Contreras on his own, but Cubs pitchers have raved about Gomes’ catching since last season. The defense he brings exemplifies what the Cubs want in their backstops. He’ll be a big part of the catching group.
Barnhart: He got to learning his new pitching staff as soon as he signed in December. That helped Barnhart get familiar with the group before spring training began, which gave them a solid rapport from the start. While it won’t be a straight lefty-righty split between him and Gomes, this is how the group will look to start 2023.
Infielders (4): Eric Hosmer, Nico Hoerner, Dansby Swanson, Patrick Wisdom
Hosmer: Looking for a better 2023, Hosmer should start the season first base. President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer basically said confirmed that during the Cubs Convention, and not much has changed. If the shift restrictions do in fact help him find some more holes on the right side, he could find himself with a bounce-back year.
Hoerner: Even though he proved he can play strong defense at shortstop, Hoerner is moving to second base — where he was a Gold Glove finalist in 2020. Hoerner had his own breakout season in 2022 that showed he’s a building block for this team. It would take something unforeseen to stop him from being in Chicago on March 30.
Swanson: He’s the Cubs’ $177 million man for a reason. Coming off an All-Star and Gold Glove season in 2022, Swanson is as big a lock as anyone on the roster to start on Opening Day. He’ll provide elite defense at one of the most important positions on the infield, something the Cubs have built the roster around.
Wisdom: Though he’ll likely also be in the outfield and first-base mix at some point this season, Wisdom should kick off the season as the starting third baseman. Of course, he’ll have to prove his 2022 defensive showing was a fluke and that he can rebound to his 2021 form at the hot corner. Even still, the Cubs clearly value the power he adds to the lineup.
Outfielders (3): Ian Happ, Cody Bellinger, Mike Tauchman
Happ: He’s coming off the best season of his career. He’s a team leader, an All-Star and a Gold Glover. Regardless of what the future holds for Happ, both he and the Cubs hope he can match his 2022 production, and that’ll start on Opening Day.
Bellinger: Will he ever reach an MVP level of play again? Nobody knows for sure, but the Cubs are paying him a lot of money to get as close to it as he can this year. And even if he doesn’t, Bellinger’s steady glove makes him a lock for Opening Day.
Tauchman: It’ll take some roster shuffling to get him on the 40-man, but it feels like Tauchman is inching closer to starting the season in right field with Seiya Suzuki expected to be out. He’s slashing .318/.444/.545 in Cactus League action, and he’s made six spring appearances at the spot. There’s still time for this to change, but his ability to play all three outfield spots and some past big league success (.865 OPS in 2019) also make him an intriguing option as the fourth outfielder when Suzuki returns.
Designated Hitter (1): Trey Mancini
Mancini: While he’s still an option for right field, Mancini feels like a stronger fit to open the year as the DH. That doesn’t mean he won’t be in the mix in right and at first base early on, but hey, he’s got a 1.221 OPS this spring (as of Thursday morning). For a guy who wants to rediscover his best form at the plate, letting that be Mancini’s main focus could pay dividends.
Utility/Bench (3): Nick Madrigal, Edwin Ríos, Zach McKinstry
Madrigal: The idea that Madrigal could be a third baseman seemed unlikely a couple months ago, but the Cubs have been encouraged by his performance this spring. It doesn’t seem like he’ll have an everyday starting role at third, but a little added versatility should keep Madrigal on the active roster to begin the season.
Ríos: Left-handed power was something the Cubs lacked last year. Despite his inability to stick with the Dodgers, the Cubs were impressed with Ríos’ slugging ability. He’s hit two homers and is slugging .500 through 24 spring at-bats (as of Thursday morning). That he joined the Cubs on a major league deal probably means they had an idea of how he fits on the Opening Day roster.
McKinstry: His lefty bat and the fact he’s out of minor league options helps his case, but the biggest thing getting McKinstry on the Opening Day roster is his defense. He can capably back up the middle infield spots, and he’s likely in the third-base mix, too. That versatility should get McKinstry to Chicago to start the year.
Rotation (5): Marcus Stroman, Justin Steele, Jameson Taillon, Drew Smyly, Hayden Wesneski
Stroman: When he was finally healthy and properly built up in the second half of 2022, Stroman was who the Cubs thought they were getting. He’s currently pitching for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, and he’s probably in line to get the start on Opening Day.
Steele: He established himself as a big leaguer starter last year. He’s said his goal is to reach 180-200 innings and 30-35 starts in 2023, but even if that doesn’t happen, Steele will begin the season with a key role in the rotation.
Taillon: He was the Cubs’ big free-agent pitcher addition. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he has the best season of all the starters. With real potential to end up being the Cubs’ No. 1 starter, there’s no way Taillon isn’t on the Opening Day roster.
Smyly: The Cubs made the right move to bring Smyly back this offseason. He was a steady starter for them last year, and he wanted to stay in Chicago. He won’t be counted on to be the No. 1 starter, but he’s expected to provide some consistency to the rotation.
Wesneski: With Kyle Hendricks all but officially ruled out to begin the year, Wesneski gets the nod. Starting him off in Triple-A might’ve allowed the Cubs to manage his innings and keep him on a more consistent schedule to start the year, but he keeps proving he deserves the shot.
Bullpen (8): Keegan Thompson, Adbert Alzolay, Brad Boxberger, Michael Fulmer, Brandon Hughes, Julian Merryweather, Rowan Wick, Mark Leiter Jr.
Thompson: Ross has made it clear that he views Thompson as one of his main bullpen arm. That’s good news, since Thompson was dominant as a reliever in 2022. He may return to a starting role at some point in the future, but he’s proven how valuable he is out of the ‘pen.
Alzolay: In the same boat as Thompson, Alzolay is primed to start the year in the bullpen. He’s had plenty of success in that role the last couple years, and as the multi-inning relief spot continues to evolve, Alzolay’s value likely comes best as a reliever.
Boxberger: He was a big part of a solid Brewers bullpen over the last two seasons, and he has plenty of late-inning relief experience. Boxberger is a veteran, high-leverage reliever the Cubs will count on in 2023.
Fulmer: Though he didn’t officially sign until a few days into spring, Fulmer figures to play a significant role in the bullpen. He’s put together two solid seasons since becoming a full-time reliever. The Cubs will rely on him in a similar (if not even more significant) role to Boxberger’s.
Hughes: He proved himself to be a reliable bullpen arm for Ross last season, so much so that he ended up with the second-most appearances on the pitching staff. It remains to be seen if Hughes becomes a closer-level reliever, but he should be a high-leverage arm.
Merryweather: Working in his favor is the fact that he’s on the 40-man roster, he’s out of minor league options (per FanGraphs) and he touches high 90s consistently. Claimed off waivers from the Blue Jays in January, Merryweather is still strongly in the Opening Day conversation.
Wick: He was the Cubs’ most-used reliever in 2022, but he wasn’t consistently effective. The Cubs aren’t giving up on him, but they seem to have solid relief depth in the organization. Wick will need a better 2023 to stay in the long-term picture.
Leiter: He’s another player who would have to be added to the 40-man roster, but Leiter had solid numbers out of the bullpen in 2022 that makes him a realistic option. His splits resembled a left-hander’s, so if Hughes is the only true southpaw in the bullpen, Leiter could be useful in what would be lefty-on-lefty matchups.