Cubs Spring Training Notebook: Ripple effects of rotation decisions, injury updates and roster moves
MESA, Ariz. — As rewarding as it was for David Ross and Tommy Hottovy to deliver the good news to Hayden Wesneski that he was the team’s 5th starter, it was just as difficult letting Adrian Sampson know he didn’t make the Opening Day rotation.
“It’s a tough message to give and it’s a tough one to hear,” Ross said. “None of them wanna hear that. Everybody wants to be in the big leagues and make the team on Opening Day, no matter who comes in there.”
Sampson was optioned to Triple-A on Saturday morning. He’ll be in Iowa’s rotation to start the season and serve as depth for the Cubs. The righty had a strong 2022 for the Cubs, posting a 3.11 ERA and 1.227 WHIP across 21 games (19 starts). He was stellar for them in September and October last year, posting a 1.63 ERA in 7 starts and 38.2 innings during that time.
“I think the messaging for him was simple: he’s earned a lot of trust around here with his performance in the big leagues,” Ross said. “I think the great thing about Adrian is he’s done this for us before and being a guy that was off the roster and earned that, so this is just that much easier of a call for us to make, should something happen that is unpredictable. So, for him to be ready and stretched out and pitching well, all those things are really important.”
Much of the talk this spring was about the battle for the 5th starter spot between Sampson, Wesneski and Javier Assad, a competition in which Wesneski’s strong spring pushed him to the forefront. But, while there’s a certain sense of pride and desire to be on the Opening Day roster and rotation, the fact of the matter is the Cubs will use plenty of starters beyond the quintet of Marcus Stroman, Drew Smyly, Jameson Taillon, Justin Steele and Wesneski.
Last season, the Cubs had 17 different pitchers make a start for them. The Dodgers, baseball’s best team in 2022, had 12 different starters and 10 that made 6 or more starts. Depth is valuable and real, and the Cubs feel like they have that at the minor league level now.
Sampson and Caleb Kilian (2.25 ERA, 0.50 WHIP in 4 innings this spring) are two options on the 40-man roster who will be at Triple-A. Assad is “still in the mix” for a bullpen spot for the Cubs, a role he thrived in with Mexico at the WBC, but he could start for them, too.
Ben Brown, who is on the 40-man roster and will likely start the season at Double-A and could be depth, too. There’s a handful of non-roster invitees like Roenis Elias and Vinny Nittoli (who was reassigned to minor league camp on Saturday) who could be depth options if they stay in the organization.
So, the door on Sampson is not shut — far from it, actually.
“A really important to piece to us,” Ross said. “I wanted him to feel that and know that he’s gonna help us for big stretches this year in some capacity.”
Suzuki takes BP
As Ross walked over to speak to reporters on Field 1 at Sloan Park, he made sure to have his back to the field where Seiya Suzuki and Ian Happ were taking batting practice.
Suzuki, taking batting practice on the field for the first time since he suffered a left oblique injury, was crushing baseballs thrown to him by bench coach Andy Green.
“It’s loud out there, huh?” Ross said to the assembled media. “I needed to close my eyes that’s why I came over here to talk to you guys.”
It’s a big next step for Suzuki as he nears a return to the Cubs. Ross said Suzuki would take at-bats against live pitching until after the team leaves for Chicago early next week. The plan is for Suzuki to play just defense in a minor league Spring Training game soon to build his endurance and be on his feet for an extended period.
By not playing him in a Cactus League game, the Cubs can theoretically backdate his IL stint, too — meaning he would be away from the team for the first seven days of the season versus the first 10, provided he’s recovering well enough.
Ross has said that some combination of Trey Mancini and Patrick Wisdom could play right field while Suzuki recovers. But who serves as the fourth outfielder on the roster to cover days off for Happ or Cody Bellinger? That’s still undetermined.
Mike Tauchman has looked impressive in camp this spring and added a double Saturday afternoon against the Angels, but he’s not on the 40-man roster and the Cubs would have to trade or pass someone through waivers to add him.
“I don’t know that I wanna list off all the factors that go into decision making, but there are a lot of them,” Ross said. “Whether you are trying to put somebody on the roster that’s not on there or trying to fill a gap for 10 days, it’s a big deal and it’s a big decision.
“We have so much talent, a lot of depth this year, we would like to keep as much as we possibly can because of the long journey we’re about to start. So, his progression is important to some of those decisions, for sure.”
Other injury updates
- Brandon Hughes threw a light bullpen/pitch lab session at Sloan Park on Saturday morning as he works through left knee inflammation. Hughes wore a brace on the left knee under his pants while he pitched.
“Just trying to give him some more support,” Hottovy said. “He feels like, just talking to him, that it almost gives him a little more confidence, you know, and it doesn’t restrict him in anyway. Still bouncing around and feeling good.”
Hughes hasn’t pitched since March 16 and is the only lefty reliever on the Cubs’ 40-man roster. Ross said the hope is for him to pitch in Monday’s Cactus League Game against the White Sox.
- Nico Hoerner was scratched from Saturday’s game with left biceps tightness. He was also scratched from Thursday’s game with the same designation.
Ross was not too worried about him and said the hope is for him to play on Sunday and Monday.
“If it was in season, [he’s] probably playing through this whole thing,” Ross said. “Right now, it’s like — when in doubt, take an extra day, in my mind.”
The Cubs host Kansas City on Sunday afternoon at 3:05 p.m. at Sloan Park. Steele will take the bump in his last start of the spring.