23 for ’23: Will the Cubs pitching staff pick up where it left off late last 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.
Baseball has changed so much throughout the years and this year, it will look as different as ever with the new pitch clock and other rule changes.
But there has been one constant through the years — many people still believe the best path to a championship is pitching and defense.
Count David Ross among that camp.
The Cubs proved it in 2016, with a historically dominant defense and a pitching staff that was head and shoulders above the rest of the league (3.15 ERA).
Late last season was another strong example. The Cubs obviously didn’t win a championship in 2022, but after the All-Star Break, they went 39-31 and much of that success can be attributed to a pitching staff that ranked Top 5 in baseball for more than two months (3.30 ERA).
The starting rotation was even stronger, with a 2.89 ERA that came in 3rd in Major League Baseball behind only the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers.
The most impressive part of the Cubs’ success during this stretch was the absence of key arms. Kyle Hendricks didn’t pitch at all in the second half due to a shoulder injury while Justin Steele, Wade Miley and Keegan Thompson each missed more than a month with injuries of their own. The Cubs also traded away the entire back half of their bullpen at the deadline (David Robertson, Chris Martin, Scott Effross, Mychal Givens).
Veterans Marcus Stroman and Drew Smyly helped anchor the rotation with Adrian Sampson and rookies Javier Assad and Hayden Wesneski while Ross and Co. pieced together the bullpen with a bunch of young, inexperienced arms.
The Cubs set about improving the lineup this offseason but they didn’t rest on the success of the second-half pitching, addressing the staff as well.
Jameson Taillon has had a solid career to this point and the Cubs hope he can tap into his full potential in Chicago. Michael Fulmer and Brad Boxberger have strong track records and experience closing while waiver pickup Julian Merryweather has tantalizing potential.
In an effort to maintain stability in the rotation, the Cubs also brought back Smyly on a 2-year deal in December. The veteran southpaw missed six weeks with an oblique injury in the middle of the year but performed well when he was on the field, including a strong end to the season with a 2.28 ERA over his final 9 starts.
Given the uncertainty surrounding Hendricks’ timeline, Smyly gives the Cubs another reliable option in the rotation.
“I think just knowing that you have guys that can solidify a part of the rotation, can pitch big innings for you,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “We saw what he did last year when he was healthy and gets on a nice run. He’s not just an innings-eater pitcher. He’s a pitcher that’s gonna go out there and give you some really quality innings.
“Getting him back and knowing that he can start but also he’s willing to do whatever he has to do to help the team win and can eat up innings and a lot of different roles. Knowing where we were with Kyle and knowing where things were, having him back and having him to solidify some stuff — especially early in the season — is gonna be huge.”
The Cubs signed Smyly to start, but throughout his 10-year career, he has also shown the ability to pitch in relief. He was in the Braves’ bullpen throughout their 2021 World Series run.
Beyond the new additions, the Cubs are excited by the young arms coming up through the system.
Wesneski and Assad have been impressive again this spring and the farm system looks to be on the cusp of rolling out reliever after reliever with high-quality stuff. There is true pitching depth in the system for the first time in a little while.
The X-factor that could help take the pitching group to the next level might be the catchers working behind the plate. Yan Gomes earned rave reviews for his work with the pitching staff last season and saw a lot of time behind the plate in the second half as the Cubs found a lot of success on the mound.
With Willson Contreras leaving in free agency, the Cubs doubled down on the defensive and game-calling aspect of the catching position by signing 2-time Gold Glove winner Tucker Barnhart to be a co-starter alongside Gomes.
The Cubs feel confident that the catching tandem can help get the absolute most of the pitchers on the mound.
“You feel comfortable no matter who’s behind the plate that the pitching and defense is gonna be a priority, which it is for us,” Ross said.
Hottovy was a big fan of Gomes last season, comparing the veteran catcher to a coach on the field. The Cubs pitching coach has been equally as impressed with Barnhart in the early going this spring.
“They do all the little things that you would want guys to be able to do,” Hottovy said. “The communication, the way they go about their business, the prep they do — even before bullpens. It’s impressive. And it’s not a fake thing. They do it because they know it’s gonna help the pitchers be the best version of themselves.
“As a coach, that is an insane thing to be able to have in your organization with guys that are committed to getting the best out of the pitchers no matter what. As a coach, it’s like having coaches on the field. The communication has been awesome.”
On top of the catching duo, the Cubs also upgraded their defense across the board. Dansby Swanson, the reigning NL Gold Glove winner at shortstop, was the big signing but Cody Bellinger (2019 Gold Glove) and Eric Hosmer (4-time Gold Glove winner) also help enhance the defense. Swanson’s signing also moves Nico Hoerner to second base, giving the Cubs pitching staff possibly the best defensive middle infield in the game.
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?
Which young Cubs pitchers will take the next step this season?
What can we expect from Kyle Hendricks when he returns this season?
What does the Opening Day bullpen look like?