23 for ’23: Which young Cubs pitcher will take the next step this season?
Between position battles, roster additions and new rules, there are plenty of questions surrounding the 2023 Cubs. We attempt to provide answers for 23 of the most intriguing questions heading into the season.
MESA, Ariz. — Thanks to the continued development of young pitching, the Cubs have quite a few options who could be the answer to this question:
Which young Cubs pitcher will take the next step this season?
Keegan Thompson and Justin Steele put themselves on the map with strong 2021 seasons and enjoyed true breakout campaigns last year — Steele as a starter and Thompson mostly as a multi-inning weapon out of the bullpen.
Brandon Hughes burst onto the scene in mid-May and spent the rest of the season working his way into a high leverage role in the bullpen. Rookie starters Javier Assad and Hayden Wesneski settled into fill-in roles in the rotation down the stretch and impressed at every turn.
There are a number of young arms in the bullpen that could break through in 2023 (including Jeremiah Estrada and Cam Sanders) but for this exercise, we chose to focus on two of the other names listed above.
Steele has already enjoyed his breakout, but he could take another leap forward in 2023.
The southpaw’s overall numbers were solid last season — 3.18 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 126 strikeouts in 119 innings — but he missed the last month of the regular season with a back injury.
Prior to going on the IL, Steele was actually on a tear and sported the best ERA in the National League over a 2-month stretch. His 1.47 mark from June 25 through Aug. 21 was second among all MLB starters, trailing only Dylan Cease of the White Sox.
“Last year after the run I went on, it just kinda showed me I’m capable of doing it and definitely put my mind in a different spot coming into this Spring Training,” Steele said. “Definitely a different spot than I was last Spring Training, I would say.
“It definitely gave me a ton of confidence in what I’m doing and showed me that I was capable of doing it.”
Steele has already teased his potential and if he can stay healthy and put it all together for a full season, the sky is the limit for the 27-year-old.
To help build on his career momentum, Steele moved his family to Arizona in the offseason so he could work out at the Cubs complex five days a week throughout the winter.
“He looks great, put in the work,” David Ross said. “I think there’s a lot of things that he learned last year that he is looking to build upon. We’ve talked a little bit about adding the changeup and that thing being better.
“If he continues to build off just having that 4-seam, slider, in to righties and away to lefties and building off that, he’s pretty darn valuable and had a really good season on that.”
Steele knows that, too. He doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel to take the next step in his development.
“I just think improving on what I’m really good at and keep adding to what I have to complement what I do well already,” Steele said.
Those are the categories Wesneski currently leads among Cubs pitchers in Cactus League play so far this spring (through Sunday’s game). He has not allowed a run yet in 8.2 innings and has 11 strikeouts compared to only 2 walks.
That includes Saturday, when Wesneski tallied 4 perfect innings against the Dodgers.
WesNASTY. pic.twitter.com/M7Zibp4nJS— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) March 13, 2023
Wesneski is in a battle with Assad and Adrian Sampson for the final spot in the Cubs’ Opening Day rotation and while Spring Training stats don’t mean much, they’re not completely useless, either.
Couple his success this spring with an impressive run in September and October last year (3-2, 2.18 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 33 strikeouts in 33 innings) and it’s hard to argue with the 25-year-old’s recent track record.
“I think Hayden is a hard worker that’s very smart in knowing the information, knowing what he does well, likes to compete, is not afraid of the moment,” Ross said. “Knows he belongs but he also has a way about him that he’s not, ‘I’m the 5th starter, I’m this or that.’
“He knows that this is a process and it’s very much a veteran way about him. The way he works and knowing his body. He’s definitely got that ‘it’ factor that it doesn’t feel like things speed up on him at times. He’s got some grit to him. You feel a little bit of that just toughness about him.”
Acquired in the Scott Effross trade with the Yankees last year, Wesneski looks like he can be a big piece of the Cubs’ rotation in the years to come.
Steele was a shining example of some going from prospect with questions to a bonafide starter in the Cubs rotation. This year, they hope Wesneski makes a similar jump, with Steele continuing to cement his role near the top of the Cubs’ rotation.
23 for ’23 series
What will the Cubs’ new era at catcher look like?
What is the Cubs’ plan at third base?
Who steps up in the wake of the Seiya Suzuki injury?
What role will Christopher Morel have on the 2023 Cubs?
Who will win the Cubs’ 5th starter spot?
Where does Nick Madrigal fit on the roster?
Who will close for the Cubs?
What kind of impact will Dansby Swanson have in his first season in Chicago?
What is the plan for Matt Mervis?
Who are some under-the-radar players that could make the Opening Day roster?
What will Trey Mancini and Eric Hosmer bring to this team?