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Monday morning Cubs thoughts: Who's in the rotation in '23?

Ryan Herrera Avatar
September 12, 2022

Happy Monday, everyone.

After a week off due to Labor Day last Monday, we are back with another set of Monday morning thoughts. Because the Cubs are 24 games under .500 with 22 games remaining, there’s not a whole lot of game-level stuff to worry about outside of seeing the continued development of a lot of the youngsters on the team.

Today’s thoughts, then, are going to focus mostly on this offseason and the storylines for the Cubs in 2023. That’s a year when they hope to be much more competitive than they’ve been this season. That’s a year when offseason additions and jumps from the young guys might actually push them to being much more competitive than they’ve been this season.

So as we get closer to a very important offseason in this rebuild, that’s what we should be talking about. And that’s where these thoughts from yours truly are centered on.

Let’s get into it. Here are some Cubs thoughts for Monday morning.

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Piecing together a competitive rotation didn’t go so well this season because of the injury bug. We’re still going to be waiting around a bit to see what the 2023 iteration of the group of starters will look like.

Right now, I believe we can for sure pencil in Marcus Stroman and Kyle Hendricks to be in the rotation on Opening Day. Both are veteran starters with a history of success, and I think they’ve earned that. Stroman certainly has with the way he’s pitched for most of the last two months. Hendricks may have struggled over the last two seasons, but when he returns in ’23, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he can be productive as a back-end starter for the Cubs.

Justin Steele was lights out before going on the injured list last week. Even if he doesn’t pitch again this year, he’s done enough that I lean toward him sticking in the rotation, too. Keegan Thompson didn’t dominate in the rotation like he did out of the bullpen, but the Cubs still see him as a guy who can be a successful starter and will likely keep giving him chances to prove it.

Drew Smyly and Wade Miley may not be back next season, but if either or both are, they’ll almost certainly be members of the rotation. Meanwhile, Adbert Alzolay will be back next year regardless of if he returns over these last few weeks of the season, and even though his splits against righties and lefties have been too far apart for sustained success as a starter, there’s still a chance he adds pitches to his repertoire and evens those out. Then you have Hayden Wesneski and Caleb Kilian, who are some of the Cubs’ top pitching prospects and could certainly be in that rotation when the season kicks off.

Overall, here’s a list of players currently with the Cubs who have a shot to be a part of the rotation to start next season if they’re all back with the club:

  • Stroman
  • Hendricks
  • Steele
  • Thompson
  • Smyly
  • Miley
  • Wesneski
  • Kilian
  • Alzolay

That doesn’t include pitchers like Adrian Sampson, Javier Assad and Alec Mills, who have pretty slim chances but could at the very least provide some depth if the rotation gets hit with injuries again. That also doesn’t include any free agents who get brought in.

The Cubs have a lot of options for their 2023 rotation already, and I think it’ll be among the most intriguing storylines to follow during spring training.

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Nick Madrigal’s season might be over now that he’s on the 10-day IL with a right groin strain.

A return hasn’t been ruled out, but considering that this is his third stint on the IL already this season and that there’ll be roughly two weeks left in the season when he’s eligible to come back, it wouldn’t be wise to rush him back if he’s not fully healthy.

If this really is the end of his 2022 season, it’s really disappointing. Until he made his return in early August, it’d been a difficult season for him. His numbers were so far below where they’d been every other year of his career. I talked to him multiple times throughout the year, and I know how badly he wanted to be healthy and go out there and prove what he could bring to this team. And before this latest injury, he was starting to do that.

In 28 games from Aug. 4 through Sept. 9, Madrigal recorded a .277/.348/.317 slash and a 93 wRC+. His strikeout rate (8.8 percent) was much closer to where it had been in the past, and he was walking more (8 percent walk rate) than he ever had. He wasn’t setting the world on fire with, but he was at least giving onlookers hope that he was getting back to that above-average hitter who could be a solid contributor in the lineup.

Regardless, getting healthy and having himself a productive offseason feels more important than getting him back for the last couple weeks of the season. He told reporters Sunday that he’d be making major changes to his nutrition and training programs this winter, and that’s for the best. After his season-ending hamstring injury in 2021, he’s struggled to stay on the field all this year.

So, I think it’s for the best that he figures out a new program that’ll help his body get through the grind of the regular season. He’s going to have to stay on the field if he wants to lock down a long-term spot on this team. If he’s healthy, I believe he can provide the kind of bat that’ll add something positive to the lineup. But that’s still a big if, and like he said, he does need to make some changes to make sure he can stay healthy enough to do it over a full season.

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I keep coming back to this quote from Ian Happ about one of the rule changes that’ll be going into effect in 2023:

“I hit a line drive up the middle [Thursday]; the shortstop was on the right side of the bag and caught it. Those things going away, I think it’s going to be a more visually appealing game. You’re gonna have a guy like [Kyle] Schwarber and [Anthony] Rizzo that smash the ball on the right side 115 miles an hour. Those are going to be hits again. Those should be hits. That’s a more appealing game than a guy smashing a ball and it looks like nothing because the guy in right field eats it up.”

(Here’s the play he was talking about if want to give it a look.)

I’ve got to say, I’m in complete agreement with Happ on this one. The rules to ban extreme shifts starting next will have the most positive effect on the game in my opinion. Just think about that play. Anyone who played baseball growing up or just understands the game knows that a ball up the middle, on the ground or in the air, is supposed to be a hit. Going up the middle is how players have always been taught to hit the ball. But in recent years, more and more of those hits have turned into seemingly easy outs. Shortstops will be able to stay relatively up the middle as long as they’re still on their side of second base, but a few feet can make a difference in getting some of those balls through to center field.

Same goes for shots to the right side from left-handed hitters. With the shift on, pretty much any ball pulled on the ground by a lefty has a much better chance of being an out. Remember Schwarber’s three-hit game in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series? Two of those balls were hit so hard that they managed to beat the shift, but with an infielder playing in shallow right field, they certainly could’ve gone for outs. And there have been plenty of examples of that over the last few seasons.

So I do like the rule to restrict the shift. Like Happ said, those should be hits. I get that baseball is a game of strategy, and this was just one strategy teams were taking advantage of. But I just think the game will look so much better without it. More offense is going to drive eyeballs to the game. Limiting the way defensive teams can shift is one way help with that. I know people will disagree with me, and that’s fine. But that’s my stance.

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A few of us reporters talked with Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts for the first time this season on Saturday, and as expected, he’s happy with the direction of the ballclub.

Despite their record this season, Ricketts believes the Cubs are on the right track. Here’s part of what he had to say about his own patience with the rebuild:

“Once you understand what you have to do, it’s not about patience or impatience. It’s really about just doing things the right way to build that core of players that will be part of the next great team, and then supplementing them with the right free agents at the right time. I’m extremely confident in our guys, that we’re doing smart things that will build a great team in the future. Now we just have to stay with it.”

Whether you agree or disagree with him, that’s the way he sees it. But now it’s about continuing down that path. He stated over and over again that roster decisions are going to come from president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer, and he’ll support those decisions if Hoyer thinks they’re the right ones at the right time.

I wrote about it on Saturday, but I still think the Cubs should be major players in the free agent market this offseason. A front-line starter and one of the All-Star shortstops expected to hit free agency should be at the top of the list, because those are the spots on the roster that right now would be most helpful in getting this team back to playoff contention.

I don’t think any additions will make the Cubs World Series favorites next season. But not going out and adding big-name free agents is one way to make sure they wont’t be.

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Let’s end this with something that does have to do with this season.

Taking a flyer on Franmil Reyes has turned out to be a smart move by the front office. Not only because he’s looked so much better in a Cubs uniform than he did with Cleveland this year, but because he’s such a positive presence in the clubhouse. We saw it the first time we talked to him after the Cubs claimed him off waivers. We’ve seen it basically every game since. And on Sunday, the whole country got to witness it on Sunday Night Baseball.

I don’t know that Reyes is going to be a middle-of-the-order bat when the Cubs are ready to win again. But someone who provides such a big, fun personality throughout a season is someone worth keeping around as long as his on-field play is good enough.

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In case you missed them, here are some Cubs articles from the past week:

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