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What's going on with the Cubs' rotation?

Ryan Herrera Avatar
March 21, 2022

PHOENIX — When Wade Miley was claimed off waivers in early November by the Cubs, it was assumed he’d be firmly in the rotation once the 2022 season started.

That plan hasn’t changed, but what has is how ready he’ll be when the season is finally underway. The 99-day lockout pushed back the start of spring training, and Miley didn’t get down to the Cubs’ complex in Mesa, Arizona, until last Monday. That’s already a late start for any pitcher, but at 35 years old, Miley’s ramp up schedule is getting a slower burn out of the gate.

“He’s still building up,” manager David Ross said. “I mean, he’s a veteran guy, kind of on his own pace. Getting feedback daily as he throws, just still moving. He’s gonna be, obviously, part of the rotation, and we’ll still build him up and get him in some games here soon.”

Taking it slow makes sense, because the Cubs don’t want to rush Miley (or any pitcher on the roster, really) into the season and then risk injury. But as pitching coach Tommy Hottovy revealed, a recent bullpen Miley threw was just 15 pitches. Though Hottovy said Miley looked “just phenomenal,” a 15-pitch bullpen still feels a bit low at this stage of spring training.

Now, Hottovy did point to the fact that Miley has had previous springs in which he was throwing around 45 pitches in games at the end of spring and then makes a huge jump in pitch count at the start of the regular season. So it’s possible that he can quickly get to that point and be ready for whatever set number of innings Chicago’s staff decides is right for him.

Ross said there are no injury concerns, so maybe he’s really just getting that “established vet” treatment.

“Really just trying to give him that runway he needs,” Hottovy said. “We understand the beginning of the season is going to be unique, and we also don’t want to rush if we feel like there’s something we can lose. I think the biggest thing is, we want to make sure that he’s ready to go, that we hit that point, that he’s the best version of himself. We don’t want to compromise anything in that way.”

“He’s just that old veteran that will move along at his pace,” Ross said.

That still will put a bit of a wrinkle in the way the pitching staff is constructed. Ross has shied away from committing to a six-man rotation anyway, but that doesn’t mean the Cubs won’t have more than five starters on the roster.

Alec Mills, who took the bump against the Dodgers at Camelback Ranch on Sunday, has historically been used by Chicago as both a multi-inning reliever and a spot starter. Ross said early last week that the plan was to fully build up Mills into a starter.

Coming into camp, there were really only three locked-in rotation pieces: Miley, Kyle Hendricks and Marcus Stroman. The other spots were up for grabs, and though Mills has seemingly locked down one of them, there’s still time for someone else to emerge and for those plans to change.

“I’ve done some things in the past I feel like have warranted me a chance of being a starter, but it’s a ‘What have you done for me lately?’ business,” Mills said following his two-run, two-inning outing. “So obviously, I need to keep pitching well and keep showing them that I deserve to be a starter.”

Behind those four current starters, there are others with prior experience that could compete for the job, a list that includes Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson, Drew Smyly and Daniel Norris. Each will have the chance this spring to show the coaching staff that they have what it takes to fit in this rotation.

All surely want that spot again, but they’ve also been receptive to pitching in whatever role Ross sees fit.

Said Steele: “For right now, I’m built up to like three innings. I guess I’m starting now, I’m not real sure, but I’ll do whatever they tell me to do.”

Said Smyly, who the Cubs officially signed on Saturday: “They know I want to start and I think I’ll get that opportunity to start, but I know I have a lot of value in other areas, too. So just depending on what the team needs, I’m open for it.”

Said Norris, who Chicago also officially signed on Saturday: “Ultimately, (starting is) what I would love to do, but at the same time, I think I can do whatever. So I’m gonna compete the best I can, and whatever they choose is what they choose, and I’ll be excited regardless.”

Now, if Ross sticks to that five-man rotation and Mills sticks as a starter, there’ll only be one spot up for grabs. Any of those four could realistically get that spot, but there are specific issues that could take them out.

For Smyly and Norris, they really just got to Mesa. Both have said they’d been building themselves up (Norris said he’s even been throwing some sim games), but neither have thrown any live bullpens in Cubs camp. It’ll take some time for Ross and Hottovy to evaluate where they’re at, and with their late starts to spring training, the likelihood that either is in the rotation come April 7 is probably small.

However, Ross also talked on Sunday about having pitching depth, and one of the ways to keep potential rotation pieces on a starter’s schedule is by optioning them to the minors. That’s where Steele and Thompson come into play. The Cubs spent 2021 getting them big league experience in the bullpen, sent them back down to get stretched out, and after the trade deadline sell off, gave them opportunities to start.

Chicago still sees them both as starters, and that’s why they’re spending spring training building up as starters. But the Cubs could also option either of the two (or both) to Triple-A Iowa, allowing them both to continuing starting while awaiting another call-up to Chicago.

Teams still don’t know what size their rosters will be this season, but Chicago is operating under the assumption that it will be the same 26-man, 13-pitcher roster sizes from last year. In the likely scenario that none of the Cubs’ starters are built up enough to go more than five or six innings the first run through the rotation, the team would be best served keeping multiple multi-inning arms in the bullpen.

In that scenario, one of those four would get the fifth starter spot, while the other three act as those multi-inning pitchers. Though they wouldn’t be starting, they could easily work in piggyback situations where the starter goes five or six innings and then a multi-inning arm finishes off the remaining innings. That’s certainly been an idea that’s floated around the Cubs’ camp.

“The way I look at it is, we’re trying to ramp everybody up the same, knowing that if we do have extra guys, then we can back off some guys from volume,” Hottovy said. “If we don’t, then we’re gonna keep pushing the volume until we get to a point where we feel comfortable that our starters are in a good place.”

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