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Jordan Wicks, younger Cubs pitchers balancing development and results this spring

Jared Wyllys Avatar
March 13, 2024

MESA, Ariz. – Before Jameson Taillon was scratched from his Saturday start, which casted doubt on whether he’ll be ready to pitch come April, the fifth spot in the Cubs rotation was a four-way battle between Drew Smyly, Jordan Wicks, Hayden Wesneski and Javier Assad.

On Tuesday, manager Craig Counsell said that, at this time, he expects Taillon will have to start the season on the 15-day injured list. The Cubs would be able to make the start date on those 15 days retroactive to March 25, but even then, he would miss two starts at minimum. There are three off days in the first 15 days of regular season play, but Counsell has said that he intends on using those off days to extend the time between Shota Imanaga’s starts in the early going.

So, at best, that’s two turns through the rotation without Taillon. This opens another spot on the back end, even if only temporarily.

Fighting for roster spots or specific roles is nothing new to spring training. For younger pitchers like Wicks, Wesneski and Assad, they’re not necessarily fighting for jobs on the team at this point, but they have more to prove than someone like Smyly. The Cactus League is a time for preparing for the season, and players are walking the line between results and development.

“To a small extent, you have to separate the results from what you’re trying to do on the field and what you’re trying to work on, whether it’s new pitches or tinkering with sequences,” Smyly told CHGO. “We’re playing games every day, but we’re practicing. We’re trying to make ourselves the best we can be for April, not March.”

The trick at this stage of spring training is managing the fine line between getting too far into experimenting and tinkering and competing and showcasing your ability, Smyly said. Spending too much time working on things can make it tough to eventually reel it in and get outs. 

That balance creates some added pressure for the trio of younger pitchers fighting to show they deserve one of the two rotation spots remaining. They have things to work on, but they need to show they belong on a major league roster, hence the fine line between development and results. 

“You’re trying to have your eyes on all of those things and understand that this is the time when we want them exploring a little bit,” Counsell said. “But when you’re also in a spot where you’re competing for a team, I would default to put your best foot forward. I think that’s fair to the player.

“But at the same time, the player’s job is always going to be to find something they can do a little bit better. You’re always striking that balance.”

All pitchers come to camp prepared to handle that balance, and for the most part they are not going to stray significantly from their spring gameplan because an injury to another player has opened up a spot. 

“I just keep going about my business,” Wicks told CHGO. “Stuff outside of me I can’t do anything about, but the stuff I can do something about is my preparation. How prepared I am to start the season, no matter where that is or what role they decide to put me in. For me, that’s all I can really do is just focus on my job.”

In Wicks’ case, he said the seven big league starts he had last season informed his work heading into spring training this year. Specifically, in the majors, the level of plate discipline is much higher than in the minors, and teams are very good at adapting to a pitcher’s approach and learning from how other teams gameplanned against him to develop their plan of attack at the plate. His Plan A might unravel quickly as a result, so Wicks has been working on developing as many weapons as he can to counter what opposing offenses do.

In other words, it can be easier against developing farm system hitters to have an off day and still get the results you’re looking for in the box score.

“I think in the minor leagues you can kind of get away with it and not think about it,” Counsell said. “He’s talked about, ‘I need to do something else when those starts happen.’ Preparing yourself for that is important.”

Wicks was always in the discussion for the fifth rotation spot, but especially now that there are two places open, the expectations for him have gone up.

This spring, he’s gotten great results: a 1.46 ERA and 10 strikeouts through 12 1/3 innings pitched, easily the best of the group competing for those two rotation spots. Assad has allowed six earned runs in 5 1/3 innings, Wesneski eight runs in seven innings, Smyly is giving up base hits at a .355 clip. 

But at the same time, some of those results should be taken with a grain of salt. The final decisions that will be made in the coming weeks won’t necessarily hinge on the stats these guys put up in Cactus League play. None of them are completely inexperienced — especially not Smyly, who debuted in 2012 — so this is not a case where they are necessarily trying to prove they belong on a 26-man roster. They’re working on improving this spring while also demonstrating the ability to get results worthy of being a fourth or fifth starter.

“If you’re young, of course you want to play well, and results matter, but you’re also still trying to figure stuff out. This is practice,” Smyly said. “Fans or media or whoever can make a big deal about it that someone’s pitching better than the other, but this isn’t the regular season. It’s not real games, so I think the coaches know that, the players know that.”

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