Cubs Spring Training Notebook: Fifth starter battle continues to intensify
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — David Ross likes tough decisions.
“The more tough ones we have, that’s a good thing,” he said Saturday morning.
The three candidates he has competing for the final spot in the Cubs’ rotation are making that a reality for Ross, Jed Hoyer and the rest of the Cubs’ brass.
Hayden Wesneski has posted a 3.00 ERA across 4 starts with 17 strikeouts and a .200 batting average against. Javier Assad has been stellar for Mexico in the WBC, pitching 5.2 scoreless innings against deep lineups from Team USA and Puerto Rico.
And, on Saturday, Adrian Sampson had his best outing of the spring — striking out 6 and allowing just 2 hits, a walk and 2 runs (1 earned) over 4.1 innings.
All three are in contention for the final spot in the Cubs’ rotation, but how the competition shakes out has ramifications up and down the roster. When one is named that fifth starter, could the Cubs opt to move one or both of the others to the bullpen as a long reliever? Or could they opt to keep one, sending the other to Triple-A? Or would they send both to the minors?
Just a few days ago, the Cubs seemingly had two multi-inning relief options in Keegan Thompson and Adbert Alzolay, but the Cubs are monitoring Thompson’s velocity dip, and he’s only pitched 1 inning in each of his three Cactus League appearances. So, if there’s a bigger concern there, the Cubs might have to fill not only the fifth starter spot, but a bullpen role as well. Assad has thrived in that role for Mexico.
How that all plays out is a question the Cubs will have to answer in just a short period of time.
“I think it’s also one of those things that just because one guy’s the fifth starter on [Opening Day], doesn’t necessarily mean it’s gonna be like that all the way through,” catcher Tucker Barnhart said. “I think all 3 of those guys that are in position to be the 5th starter are going to have a major impact for us this year. I think they all, hopefully, know that and don’t get discouraged by whoever isn’t that starter.”
The mental side of the competition bodes well not only for all three players, but for the Cubs as well. It shows the depth of their starting pitching — because beyond those three are a handful of other young or experienced arms that can make starts for the team if needed throughout the season, like Caleb Kilian, Ben Brown or Roenis Elías.
“When these guys are pitching well and their confidence is high, it’s great for the Cubs; we wanna win,” Sampson said.
Assad dazzles, again
Near the back of the Cubs’ clubhouse at Sloan Park, there’s a trio of lockers that sit next to one another — they belong to pitchers Manuel Rodríguez, Alzolay and Assad.
“We spend a lot of time together,” Alzolay said of the close friendship amongst them. “My wife [Diana], [Rodríguez’ girlfriend Makayla and Assad’s wife Melissa] — everyone gets along well. That’s a positive because we get together a lot and spend time together.”
Friday night they were cheering along as Assad delivered on a global scale — again. The Cubs’ rookie pitched 2.2 scoreless innings against Puerto Rico in a come-from-behind win in the quarterfinals of the World Baseball Classic. Assad came in relief of starter Julio Urías, who had given up 4 runs over 4 innings.
“He had come off throwing some good innings against the United States, I knew that he’d have good results,” Rodríguez said. “You could see it. You could see what he did. He enjoyed the game. The game turned out well and it’s a success for him and for us.”
In a raucous loanDepot Park in Miami, Assad stymied a potent Puerto Rican offense, striking out 4, allowing 1 walk and inducing 4 groundballs. He’s pitched 5.2 scoreless innings across 2 relief appearances with 6 strikeouts and just 2 hits and a walk allowed. His performance on Friday night kept Mexico in the game as they completed the comeback.
“First of all, I loved how he controlled the game,” Alzolay said. “He controlled his emotions even being in, probably, the most electrifying game of his career up to this point.”
Mexico advanced to the semifinals of the WBC for the first time in their history. And Assad, who is eligible to pitch in the historic game against Japan, will have his two hermanos — brothers — watching back in Arizona.
“Amongst us, we’re always supporting one another, always talking about the good moments, about things that happened in game,” Alzolay said. “Honestly, that’s a beautiful communication that we have.”
The Cubs host the Padres on Sunday afternoon at 3:05 p.m. Justin Steele is scheduled to start for the Cubs, opposite Julio Teheran.