An early look at how the Cubs’ 2024 rotation will shake out
Craig Counsell isn’t one to let bias affect his decision-making process.
It’s part of what made him so appealing to Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer and general manager Carter Hawkins. Counsell’s ability to take in information from a plethora of sources, then comb through it and come to the best decision is what made him such an attractive hire.
It’s that type of approach that’s guiding him as he ramps up preparation for his first Spring Training as Cubs manager. He’s not mapping out a rotation based entirely on who did or didn’t do something in the past. Counsell is entering spring with an open mind.
“When you’re in one place for a long time, you take that for granted a little bit,” Counsell said during his panel at Cubs Convention earlier this month. “I think the best thing — really the conversation in my head has been, ‘How much do I want to know about the players and how much do I wanna see for the first time when I get down to Mesa and see them play and not make any judgements and just really see them with my own eyes and not be biased about anything?”
That’s why, when it comes to the Cubs’ rotation, it’s not fair to make assumptions on how the back end of it may look. The core is pretty set in stone — Justin Steele, Kyle Hendricks, Jameson Taillon and free agent signing Shōta Imanaga will carry the bulk of the workload in some capacity. But beyond that it’s open — and that’s where Counsell’s unbiased approach could benefit them.
From the outside, the easy solution would be to think that Jordan Wicks, the 2021 first round pick who debuted last year to a 4.41 ERA in 7 starts, could be team’s fifth starter. Javier Assad (3.05 ERA, 109.1 IP) would be an option, too, given his success in a multitude of roles last year.
But Counsell’s fresh look, coupled with spring performances should create plenty of opportunities for players to take a job and run with it. Beyond Wicks and Assad, there’s plenty of in-house options that can compete for a rotation spot.
Drew Smyly opened 2023 in the rotation and through May had a 3.15 ERA in 11 starts, including carrying a perfect game into the 8th inning against the Dodgers. The lefty struggled after that, moved to the bullpen and was a reliable left-handed option in relief late in the season. He’ll be stretched out in Spring Training, but his experience could give him an opportunity to be in the rotation mix.
If he struggles, the Cubs could still shift him into the bullpen, where Luke Little and Bailey Horn — who has yet to debut in the major leagues — represent the only left-handed options on the 40-man roster.
For the Cubs and Smyly, it’s simpler to stretch him out as a starter in Arizona and shift him to a bullpen role than to do the reverse, so Smyly will figure to see some starts in Cactus League action.
The most intriguing options for the rotation, though, lie in the form of the Cubs’ young arms. Wicks and Assad were mentioned and figure to be in play, but there’s a group beyond that pair that will likely make starts throughout 2024 for the Cubs.
Hayden Wesneski was on the team’s Opening Day rotation last season and looked poised for a breakout campaign. But he struggled, posting a 5.03 ERA in his first 8 starts, was optioned to Triple-A and shifted into a reliever role at the end of the season. He had a 3.57 ERA out of the bullpen compared to a 5.51 ERA as a starter last season. But, again, that doesn’t mean Wesneski is bound for a relief role in 2024.
“I can’t wait to see Hayden Wesneski throw a baseball,” Counsell said, unprompted, at his panel at Cubs Convention. “I’ve always been kind of interested in him and he’s always excited me. But I almost don’t want to hear about last year cause of that.”
Wesneski could be the ultimate beneficiary of a fresh look in 2024.
“Man, I’m excited about it,” Wesneski said on Cubs 360 last week. “I’m excited to go down here and get to work … It was a really cool thing to see and hear from guys that he’s excited to see me throw.”
Ben Brown and Caleb Kilian will get looks in spring. Kilian has struggled in his time in the major leagues but was a top prospect that still has an intriguing pitch mix. Brown was well on his way to a major league debut in 2023, before injuries ended his season early. Top prospect Cade Horton could debut in 2024, too.
If there’s one thing to take from a baseball season, it’s that the 5-man rotation isn’t limited to that quintet that opens the first five games. Eleven different players made a start for the Cubs last season and eight made at least 7 starts.
Hoyer and Hawkins weren’t really active in the top-end of the starting pitching market, but that’s in part because of the confidence they have in the young nucleus of pitchers. Signing a veteran, proven starter might’ve created more certainty in the short-term, but it would take away opportunities from some of the young pitchers who the Cubs’ brass believe can contribute now and in the future.
The Cubs will have to rely on some of these young arms to make starts, but there’s learning curves, as Wesneski showed. So, having that stable base of experience in Steele, Hendricks, Taillon and Imanaga will help shoulder the load for those young arms.
The hope is that foursome, will provide enough cover and coupled with the volume of raw talent in pitching prospects, the Cubs will have the depth and skill to take a step forward in 2024 and buy-in from those young arms will help that.
“The Cubs need to win this year and we need to win, and we think we can win,” Wesneski said. “So, if that means throw in the bullpen, throw in the bullpen. If it’s being a starter, it’s being a starter.”