Early in spring training, it became something of a running joke to ask Cubs manager David Ross who would be the team’s starting pitcher on Opening Day. Everyone knew he wouldn’t name an Opening Day starter in mid-February. Regardless, one pitcher had long been expected to be the one Ross named when he made it official: Marcus Stroman.
As it turns out, Ross didn’t have to make the announcement (the Cubs haven’t as of this writing, either). Instead, Stroman broke the news himself.
Kyle Hendricks is all but officially off the Opening Day roster. So, his run of three straight Opening Day starts was already going to come to an end. And while the Cubs have newly signed Jameson Taillon, veteran Drew Smyly and up-and-comers Justin Steele and Hayden Wesneski who could take the bump against the Brewers next Thursday, Stroman was the logical choice.
He’s the only former All-Star among the starters. Per RosterResource, the $25 million he’s due to earn in 2023 makes him easily the team’s highest paid starter. Plus, he already pitched meaningful games for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. He’s plenty built up, and he should be ready to go in a week.
Yes, getting the ball on Opening Day is more symbolic than anything. But it still means that, at the beginning of the season, whoever gets the start is considered the team’s No. 1. So, it makes sense that Stroman will get the nod.
“I told Rossy that straight up. I said, ‘If you want me to have it, I would love to have it,’” Stroman told reporters in Arizona on Tuesday about the prospect of starting Opening Day. “But if you want anybody else to have it, like, I’m trying to make 33, 34 starts, and that’s the goal. Doesn’t matter if I’m pitching one or pitching five out of the gate.”
That Stroman sees more value in his total number of outings — not when his first one comes — is important. Though he’ll try to start the Cubs off on the right foot, it’s what he does over the remaining six months of the year that ultimately matters.
Stroman had a rocky first half of 2022 in his first year in Chicago. He struggled to a 6.98 ERA in April. He did toss seven shutout innings against the Brewers on May 1, but he then battled COVID-19 (which put him on the shelf for 11 days in mid-May) and shoulder inflammation (which a few weeks later put him on the 15-day IL for a month) stemming from him ramping up too quickly.
After he returned for good on July 9, Stroman consistently looked like the reliable starter the Cubs brought in. Over his last 16 starts of the season, Stroman went 4-2 with a 2.56 ERA. Opponents had only a .283 on-base percentage, and as someone known for being aggressive in the zone, Stroman induced ground balls at a very solid 56.9 percent clip. Overall, “The Stro Show” was on display much more often in the second half than the first.
“Little ups and downs [in 2022], but I feel like I ended pretty strong,” Stroman said early in spring camp. “To come back from COVID and pitch like I did in the second half, it’s a testament to the work. I’m just looking to carry that momentum into the next year.
That second half, though, is something Stroman has to turn into a full season performance.
Stroman’s first-half health issues added to the rotation’s volatility. But when the group eventually found some stability, it posted MLB’s third-lowest rotation ERA (2.89) in the second half. It’s probably not a coincidence that once Stroman finally got healthy, the starting group as a whole performed better.
The rotation needs to start the year on a much better note than it did in 2022. The team is built on pitching and defense, so getting consistently good starts is the best way for the Cubs to legitimately compete this season.
With Stroman getting the ball on Opening Day, he’ll lead the way to start the season. He’ll set the example for the group filling out the rotation behind him. If the Cubs are going to make a statement right away, they’ll need Stroman to set the tone.
“I’m someone who puts together full years,” Stroman said. “I feel like I always have. I’m very prideful in that. I feel like my second halves are always pretty strong, which is hard to say in this league. The goal is always 200 innings for me, and that’ll be the approach going into it.”