State of the Cubs: How starting rotation is shaping up for 2023 season
The 2022 season is over and the Cubs are facing one of the most important offseasons in recent memory. Before the stove starts heating up, we examine where the Cubs depth chart stands at each position and where the holes might be for Jed Hoyer’s front office to fill.
Next up: Starting rotation
1. Marcus Stroman
2. Justin Steele
3. Kyle Hendricks
4. Keegan Thompson
5. Adrian Sampson
6. Hayden Wesneski
7. Javier Assad
8. Adbert Alzolay
9. Alec Mills
10. Caleb Kilian
11. Anderson Espinoza
The Cubs are in a much better spot with their pitching situation than they were a season ago and that’s due in large part to organizational development.
For most of the first decade of Hoyer and Theo Epstein’s tenure in Chicago, the Cubs struggled to develop homegrown starting pitchers that could make an impact at the big league level.
That is no longer the case.
The Cubs entered 2022 with plans of a veteran-laden starting staff but injuries to Stroman, Wade Miley and Drew Smyly altered that idea. The depth was tested and the rotation initially struggled but by the end of the season, it was a completely different story.
Even with Hendricks, Steele, Thompson and Miley out for much — or all — of the second half, the Cubs turned in the 3rd-best rotation ERA (2.89) in all of baseball, behind only the Astros and Dodgers.
The success came from unlikely heroes as Sampson (3.11 ERA), Wesneski (2.18 ERA) and Assad (3.11 ERA) stepped up big time while Stroman settled in after a pair of stints on the IL to post a 2.56 ERA over his final 16 outings.
“I think a lot of the things we saw in the second half of this year, a lot of the success we had in the minor leagues throughout the year — those are seeds that were planted several years before,” Hoyer said. “That’s just the nature of our job that a lot of times the things that we’re watching right now are things that we’ve been planning for a bunch of years.
“We’re really proud of that pitching infrastructure.”
The Cubs’ second-half rotation success was a far cry from 2021 when the team ranked last in the National League with a 5.99 starter’s ERA after the All-Star Game.
Stroman is returning and Hendricks is aiming to right the ship after a pair of up-and-down seasons. Steele enjoyed a breakout campaign in the rotation, including an NL-best 1.49 ERA after June 25 (though he missed the final few weeks with a back injury).
That trio should be locked into the rotation in 2023 and the Cubs have a plethora of options for the other spots.
Starting pitching is arguably the most fascinating position group of the Cubs’ offseason, right up there with what the team decides to do on the shortstop front.
Hoyer’s front office has the opportunity to add impact talent atop the rotation, which is especially important for a team with eyes on the postseason (as we have seen again this October with the Phillies and Astros).
The free agent market will likely see multiple ace-level arms available (Jacob deGrom, Carlos Rodón, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander) and there are several other very good options (Taijuan Walker, Chris Bassitt, Tyler Anderson, Nathan Eovaldi, Martín Pérez, etc.).
While Hoyer and the Cubs are proud of the strides the organization has taken in the pitching department, they understand there is no such thing as too much starting pitching.
The Phillies, Padres and Yankees — all teams who made the League Championship Series — had at least 10 pitchers make a start for them in the regular season.
“There’s no finish line [with pitching development],” Hoyer said. “You can never have enough and we need to talk about augmenting it through external transactions. We need to talk about how we can continue to make the guys we have better.
“It was a good feeling for a few months to watch those guys come up and succeed and the game planning, the execution of what we were trying to accomplish was really good. Now, we need to continue to prove that year after year and continue to build on that.”
This could also be an area where the Cubs bolster their roster for the present and future via trade. Hoyer and Co. have built up a nice stable of young talent in the farm system and the front office could turn that prospect currency into a long-term answer in the rotation.
The Cubs could bring back one of the veteran southpaws as Smyly (team option) and Miley (free agent) impressed both in the clubhouse and on the mound in 2022.
As for the in-house options, Hendricks represents one of the biggest question marks. He didn’t pitch at all in the second half of the season as he dealt with a shoulder injury and the Cubs opted to shut him down to focus on getting 100% healthy for next year.
Assuming Hendricks is healthy next year, another important question remains: How will he pitch? He has had some good stretches over the last two years but overall posted a 4.78 ERA in 48 starts. He had a 3.12 career mark entering 2021 and twice earned Cy Young votes (including 2016 when he led the NL with a 2.13 ERA). The veteran turns 33 in December and if he can return to form, it would be a big boon to the Cubs rotation.
Thompson and Alzolay could be ticketed for the bullpen to start the year but both pitchers will be stretched out in Spring Training and available to step into the rotation if the need should arise. Sampson could be in the same boat while Assad might start the year in the Triple-A rotation.
Wesneski is the really interesting option here. He turns 25 in December and was very impressive down the stretch in 4 starts and a pair of relief appearances. The Cubs acquired the right-hander from the Yankees for Scott Effross at the trade deadline and he represents one of the organization’s most promising young arms.
The Cubs could give Wesneski more seasoning in the minors to begin 2023 but if he couples his big late-season performance with a strong spring, it would be hard to keep him off the Opening Day roster.
Mills and Espinoza could both be roster casualties next month as the Cubs look to clear up room on the 40-man roster. Mills will turn 31 in November, is out of minor league options and was limited to only 17.2 innings in 2022 due to injuries.
Kilian entered 2022 as the organization’s top pitching prospect and made his MLB debut in June but he also experienced some growing pains (10.33 ERA in 3 MLB starts).
The Cubs’ pitching turnaround is the No. 1 reason for optimism surrounding the team’s future in 2023 and beyond. Between the emergence of young pitchers and the organization’s ability to get the most out of veteran arms, the Cubs look primed to be in a good spot with their rotation — especially if they add impact talent this winter.