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Pitchers and catchers officially report to Mesa, Ariz., for Cubs spring training on Wednesday, which means baseball season is officially here.
The Cubs have built important depth in the rotation and have some interesting bullpen names to look at, but there are still a number of questions that need to be answered this spring. But that’s why camp lasts six weeks. By Opening Day on March 30, many of those questions should already be answered.
To take a look at which of them might be higher up on the list, here are three pitching questions to consider as pitchers and catcher report to camp.
1. Who is the fifth starter?
It might be weird to think a player who made his debut last September and immediately looked the part of a big leaguer will be fighting for an Opening Day roster spot during spring training. But that’s where Hayden Wesneski and the Cubs are at.
“The biggest thing I’ve heard from guys who actually make the team is you got to act like you’re fighting for your life,” Wesneski recently told CHGO. “That’s kind of the point I’m at. It’s like, hey, I’m not set in stone for a starting rotation spot, or even in the bullpen. I could be sent to Des Moines. I know that’s realistic, and I know that’s not what my friends and family want to hear, but it’s real. And so that’s kind of the sense of urgency you have to have during the offseason.
“It’s, ‘Hey, you haven’t earned anything. You gave yourself a chance. You walked in the door. Now, you have to be able to do something with it and try to give yourself the opportunity to start for a full year.'”
Wesneski, along with a few other arms, will be competing for the fifth spot in the rotation as spring training begins. Each has a case to get the nod.
There are four starters who should be locks for the rotation: Marcus Stroman, Justin Steele, newly signed Jameson Taillon and newly re-signed Drew Smyly. Manager David Ross hasn’t been keen on extending it to a six-man rotation, so there is likely going to be only one spot up for grabs. Along with Wesneski, those competing include Adrian Sampson, Javier Assad, Keegan Thompson and Adbert Alzolay (though the latter two may end up opening the season in the bullpen).
Again, you can make the argument for any of them to get the No. 5 starter job. All but Alzolay (who didn’t pitch until the end of the season) turned some heads in 2022. The Cubs should feel comfortable having any of them round out the rotation.
The team built as much starting pitching depth as it has had in years heading into 2023. Until Kyle Hendricks is ready to re-enter the rotation, one of these arms will have to step up and take over the job.
Speaking of Hendricks…
2. When will we see ‘The Professor’?
Hendricks didn’t pitch after July 5 last season, and it looks like the wait for his return will extend past Opening Day.
Both he and the Cubs are being very deliberate about his rehab. They’re not rushing the process to get him back as quickly as possible. He’s still working up to throwing off the mound (which will potentially come in late February or early March) after resuming his throwing program on Dec. 1, and that slow process probably pushes his return past the start of the season.
It is a good thing that the Cubs have built the kind of depth that can withstand another period of time without “The Professor.” No, he hasn’t really looked the part for most of the last two seasons, but he’s still an important piece of the rotation. Even if he’s only a backend starter at this point in his career, a good Hendricks often means a good Cubs team.
So, that’s why Hendricks is one of the biggest questions on this pitching staff heading into spring training. When he is able to start throwing off the mound and how his body responds will help determine if the Cubs have to wait until May to see him pitch in a big league game again. It’s certainly not how anyone wanted to see Hendricks’ recovery go, but that’s the hand they’ve been dealt. Now, it’s all about seeing when he might actually return to the club.
3. Is there a ‘closer’ on the roster?
The Cubs obviously have some interesting pieces in their bullpen. The reported addition of Michael Fulmer and the signing of Brad Boxberger give the Cubs two veteran reliever with late-inning experience. Those two, in addition to young arms like Thompson, Alzolay, Brandon Hughes and Jeremiah Estrada can all be options to close out games.
The problem is that none stick out as a sure-fire closer for a club who hasn’t named an official closer since training Craig Kimbrel at the 2021 trade deadline. Sure, David Robertson became the de-facto closer with his strong performance in 2022, but the Cubs haven’t gone out of their way to make it known who the team’s closer is.
It isn’t completely clear that the Cubs have a closer on the roster right now, anyway. Fulmer and Boxberger have been pretty reliable as backend relievers, but they don’t have a ton of closing experience. Hughes had an solid rookie year and features an impressive slider, but needs to continue to prove himself at this level. Same goes for Estrada, who has more of the velocity the Cubs are looking for but has too little time in the big leagues. And with Thompson and Alzolay, both have the stuff to shut things down in late innings, but they’re both probably better suited focusing on working multiple innings when needed.
It may not be necessary for the Cubs to have a closer in order to return to relevancy, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt. If there is one on this roster, spring would be the right time to start to stand out.
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