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Cubs Spring Training Notebook: Battle for fifth spot in rotation, bullpen roles defined, big next step for Kyle Hendricks 

1 year agoAndy Martinez

MESA, Ariz. — David Ross acknowledged Saturday there is competition for the team’s fifth starter position.

Adrian Sampson, Hayden Wesneski, Javier Assad and “some [non-roster invitee] guys” are in the mix for that position.

But he doesn’t want that changing how they go about their work.

“I’ve just said, ‘Hey you’re in the mix for the fifth spot, go out and prove yourself,’” Ross said. “But the messaging to those guys is just go out and be yourself and do your thing. That’s gonna be our messaging for everybody a lot. It’s like, we want you to pitch to your strength, compete, getting ready for the season and let us make those decisions, you just go out and be yourself.”

The announcement wasn’t too much of a shock — Marcus Stroman, Jameson Taillon, Drew Smyly and Justin Steele were all locks for the rotation and with Kyle Hendricks still recovering from the capsular tear in his right shoulder, the fifth spot was wide open.

All three of the named candidates made starts for the Cubs at some point in 2022 and were effective in those appearances. Sampson posted a 3.28 ERA in 19 starts with a 1.267 WHIP, Assad had a 2.95 ERA in 8 starts and Wesneski posted a 1.85 ERA and 0.945 WHIP in 4 starts.

There are several intriguing non-roster invitee guys, too. Like Roenis Elías, who is being stretched out to start for Cuba in the World Baseball Classic and posted a 0.92 ERA in 7 starts in the Dominican Winter League this offseason.

Ross shared his plans for the bullpen, too — with Keegan Thompson and Adbert Alzolay filling reliever roles this upcoming season. Both had come up through the Cubs system as starters but have found a niche in the majors as multi-inning relievers or “weapons” as Ross has called them in the past.

Thompson has a 1.95 ERA and 1.100 WHIP in 73.2 innings as a reliever, compared to a 4.94 ERA and 1.521 WHIP in 94.2 innings as a starter. Alzolay has a 2.32 ERA and 0.961 WHIP in 42.2 innings as a reliever versus a 5.19 ERA and 1.254 WHIP as a starter.

Hendricks recovery update

Next Friday could be a big day in Hendricks’ recovery.

The veteran righty is scheduled to throw his first bullpen since his injury last season and the next step in his recovery process. It also marks a big next step of reworking the delivery in his arm path.

“I’ve been picking up the intensity, stepping out a little more and the patterning and the arm action feels great,” Hendricks said.

Through his injury process, Hendricks noted his desire to correct his arm path — he knew his arm was extending out more than it had in the past during his delivery, something he thought would benefit him if he corrected it.

Hendricks was using a connection ball, a softer yellow ball that he would hold in his armpit area while he mimicked a delivery. If the ball fell too early, the delivery was off. If it fell when his arm was in the right position, he would know it was right. It was a step-and-repeat process until the motion became second nature.

Friday will be a good measuring stick in terms of recovery and the arm delivery process.

“Having a connection ball, just giving you some feedback of where you’re at in space with your arm, then you take it away, and then repeat it and pattern it,” Hendricks said. “It’s really good for just feeling where you’re at in space and then kind of translate that out to the field. And that was probably my favorite [drill].”

Identifying bench pieces

The Cubs’ signing of Edwin Ríos gives Ross and the organization another depth option and look offensively.

The corner infielder is a power-type hitter from the left side, something a little unique to the Cubs’ current 40-man options. It’s what Ross is searching for as he rounds out his bench options.

“You definitely don’t want all the same hitters sitting over there,” Ross said. “I think if you need a crooked number, you could go to a guy who that’s got some power over there … If you need contact, man at third, less than 2 outs and you need a base hit and need to pinch hit for a matchup, then contact matters, putting the ball in play. All those things are the way we kinda think about it.”

That’s why both the Cubs’ 40-man roster and list of non-roster invitees is crucial — some players with different skillsets might play themselves into a spot, others that might struggle and have redundancies with other players could be left out. It’ll be a storyline to watch over the next six weeks.

“We haven’t even gotten everybody in camp yet, so won’t start defining roles of where everybody fits on the roster,” Ross said. “As many as talented players as we can bring in here, the better.”

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