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When Hayden Wesneski walked off the mound at the end of his third career start for the Cubs on Wednesday, he didn’t think he had his best stuff all night.
He said his slider — and particularly his two-strike slider — wasn’t playing the way he wanted it to, and that’s part of what forced him to grind through five-plus innings against the Phillies. As much as he might’ve felt he wasn’t at his best, though, in a post-outing conversation with his father, his dad offered him a bit a bit of reassurance.
“He said that was probably the best outing I had where I didn’t have my stuff,” Wesneski said.
Despite Wesneski allowing a season-high six hits and walking two batters, he didn’t waiver in the Cubs’ 4-2 win. He limited Philadelphia to just one run on a sacrifice fly from Bryce Harper in the third inning, and now in his three big league starts, he owns a 1.96 ERA and a 0.982 WHIP (those numbers sit at 2.33 and 0.963, respectively, in five total outings).
Sure, his first two starts came against two of the bottom three lineups in the National League (in terms of wRC+) after Wednesday’s games (Pittsburgh, 83; Colorado, 87), but he just held the lineup with the ninth-best wRC+ (106) in Major League Baseball to only six singles, a couple of walks and a single run. Especially considering it came on a night when he didn’t feel like he pitched all that great, that means something.
“I thought that was the night for him, pitching out of some jams,” manager David Ross said. “Even when he’s not in cruise control, it feels like he’s got control of the game. Did a really nice job of just continuing to work through a really tough lineup.”
That’s part of why this early portion of his career has been so impressive.
It was really the first time he had a lot of traffic on the basepaths, particularly when the Phillies loaded the bases in the fourth. But for a 24-year-old pitcher getting his first crack in the majors to find a way to work out of multiple jams against a good lineup, it’s a sign that he’s got what it takes to get important outs at this level.
“There’s a lot of times guys pitch their entire career and don’t really have a whole lot of tough outings, and they get to the big leagues and are facing failure for the first time,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “That’s a hard thing to do. But I think these guys understand, if it’s about the process, if it’s about the things that you know are going to make you successful, then if it does happen, if that tough stretch happens, then you’re ready for it.”
And if this trend continues, there’s every reason to think he could find himself in the rotation when next season starts.
That’s not a given at the moment. The Cubs believe they have other in-house options who can start for them next year, and they’re expected to be in the market for free agent starters this offseason. So there’s no point in writing Wesneski into the rotation right now, six months before they even have to make that decision.
“Obviously, we know he can start,” Hottovy said. “We’re going to build him up as a starter in the offseason and then see where we’re at in spring training. I mean, a lot of different things can happen in three or four months.”
No, the Cubs aren’t going to gift him a spot in the 2023 rotation at the end of September 2022. However, there are behind-the-scenes aspects of his work ethic that could certainly get him to that point by next Opening Day.
One of those is his day-to-day routine. The way he goes about his work is something veterans often talk about having had to still figure out when they began their careers. For Wesneski, it appears that’s something he’s already got it nailed down.
Ross doesn’t always love comparing young players on the roster to some of the greats he’s been around, but every once in a while, he’ll bust one of those comparisons out. On Wednesday, he did that with Wesneski and a pitcher he and Cubs fans are all too familiar with.
“It feels like — I just know this person really well, and I don’t wanna compare the two — but like a Jon Lester that comes in and has a routine: ‘Don’t mess up my routine. I’m busy and I’m moving,” Ross said. “I don’t see him sitting at his locker on the phone too much. He’s here to work and he’s engaged on the bench and he’s talking baseball.
“He’s hungry to be better. He wants to be great. And his routine, his conversations, the way he carries himself mimic that.”
That’s high praise for a pitcher who’s just three starts and five appearances into his big league career, but it’s the impression Wesneski has left on the coaching staff in a short amount of time.
There’s a reason why he’s had so much success so quickly. His impressive repertoire is an exceptional foundation, but the fact that he already has immense confidence in who he is as a pitcher breeds that same kind of confidence from his coaches.
“He knows what he wants to do,” Hottovy said. “He knows what makes him successful. I think that, in and of itself, is such a huge thing for young guys to be able to do when they come up — know what makes them successful. Yes, we’re gonna be able to find ways to continue to work on things and hone things in, but his knowledge of himself — what makes him tick, what makes him good — I think is the key foundation for what he does.”
Even though he’s still so early in his career, those traits — knowing who he is at his best, figuring out a way to maneuver a lineup when he’s not, and doing the work in between starts to make sure the good outings come more often than the bad ones — are those of a capable starter in the majors.
It’s far too soon to say that’s who he’s going to be for sure. As much as he’s had success as a starter early on, major league hitters are going to get more information on how Wesneski is going to attack them, and rough patches will almost certainly come. And when they do, he may not always be able to escape the way he did Wednesday night.
But to stick around as a starter at this level, it’s all about showing you can consistently give your team a chance to win.
“You have to prove it,” Ross said. “I mean, that’s what you gotta do in this game. You gotta continue to prove [when you] go out and compete that you’re a big league starter.”
So far, Wesneski has done that, and he’ll hope to do it one more time with another start likely coming during the last series of the season in Cincinnati. After that, he’ll have to hit his offseason running and go into spring training ready to battle for one of those starting spots.
As it stands now, Wesneski has inserted himself into that conversation. His performance at the big league level has many believing he should one of the Cubs’ starters when next season arrives.
His future looks bright, and what appears to be an inevitable job as a major league starter could arrive as early as next year. But even then, he doesn’t want to get too far ahead of himself.
“I mean, I gotta make the team first,” Wesneski said. “I know how this is going to kind of go. I’m going to go into the offseason, the Cubs are going to try to win next year, and I would like to be a part of a winning team. I mean, we’re winning games now and it’s really fun, right?
“To be a part of the rotation, I’d love that. I’d love that more than anything, but that’s a little far away.”
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