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23 for ’23: Who will win the Cubs’ 5th starter spot?

1 year agoTony Andracki

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. — David Ross and the Cubs coaching staff didn’t wait long to start settling roles in this spring. 

With Kyle Hendricks still recovering from his shoulder injury and expected to miss at least the first few weeks of the 2023 season, the Cubs had a few in-house options for the final spot in the rotation.

Shortly after pitchers and catchers officially reported to Spring Training, Ross whittled the list down to Hayden Wesneski, Adrian Sampson and Javier Assad. Adbert Alzolay and Keegan Thompson will work out of the bullpen and Caleb Kilian will likely begin the year in Triple-A after an up-and-down season in 2022 that included his first taste of action in the majors.

So who out of that trio will emerge and claim the final rotation spot behind Marcus Stroman, Justin Steele, Jameson Taillon and Drew Smyly?

The 31-year-old Sampson might have a slight edge over the pair of youngsters because of his longer track record in the big leagues. The veteran right-hander came out of nowhere to post a solid stretch for the Cubs late in the 2021 campaign and followed that up by impressing again over a longer runway in 2022.

In total, Sampson is 5-7 with a 3.03 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 139.2 innings with the Cubs.

Prior to his time in Chicago, Sampson had a career 5.71 ERA in 153 innings. He has bounced around to several different organizations and even had a stint in Korea in 2020. 

With his success the last couple years, Sampson has probably earned an opportunity to prove that he’s for real in the rotation but he also has experience working out of the bullpen.

Wesneski and Assad are both young and the Cubs could decide to stash them in Triple-A to get more experience and serve as depth. But both right-handers have turned heads in Cubs camp so far this spring and are making it a close competition with Sampson.

Wesneski struck out 4 in 2 shutout innings Wednesday against the Mariners and will start again on Monday (also against the Mariners).

He performed well in 6 appearances (4 starts) down the stretch last season with a 2.18 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 33 strikeouts in 33 innings.

Ever since he arrived in the Cubs organization in the Scott Effross trade, Wesneski has impressed the coaching staff with his poise and demeanor.

“I think he really believes in himself,” Ross said. “He knows he’s gonna be a big leaguer for a really long time and understands if he keeps taking care of the things that he needs to take care of, things are going to fall into place for him.

“Just a mental toughness early on that feels like he wants to just help the team win and he knows the best way to do that is putting himself in the best spot to help and compete and himself have success.”

Wesneski admitted he always feels like he has something to prove and that mindset could serve him well in this spring’s competition.

Assad has only allowed 1 baserunner in 4 innings this spring with a couple of 2-inning relief stints. Friday marked his final Cactus League game for a little while as he now heads to join Team Mexico in the World Baseball Classic.

Assad, 25, also made his MLB debut late last season and went 2-2 with a 3.11 ERA and 1.46 WHIP in 9 games (8 starts). After getting a taste of the big leagues, he has come into camp even more focused this spring.

“You look at the work he’s put in this offseason,” Ross said. “Yesterday he was touching 95, 96 [mph]. He knows how to pitch. He knows how to handle himself. He showed that last year and the uptick in velocity is what got him called up because of the success he was having. That’s even trended up more this year.”

Wesneski and Assad are just beginning their careers and could be long-term parts of the Cubs rotation for years to come. Even if they don’t make the Opening Day roster, they will almost assuredly make a start at some point in 2023. 

Last year, the Cubs used 17 different starting pitchers and they used 12 in 2021. 

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?

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