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How the Cubs are viewing a pair of young pitchers after 2023 struggles

3 months agoAndy Martinez

A year ago, the Cubs felt strongly about the ability of a pair of young pitchers to contribute in 2023.

Hayden Wesneski and Keegan Thompson were coming off promising flashes in 2022 and there was hope that the success would spark each to be an integral piece of the 2023 pitching staff.

That never materialized.

“I don’t think either guy had the year they wanted,” Jed Hoyer said at last week’s Winter Meetings at the Opryland resort in Nashville, Tenn.

That doesn’t mean the Cubs have lost faith in either pitcher.

Hoyer and Theo Epstein have both preached that development and success aren’t always linear. Not every player is going to simply improve and develop year over year without some hiccups or regression. It’s the nature of the game. As an internal example, Justin Steele had an ERA north of 5 at the end of May in 2022, his first full season in the majors and second as a big leaguer. By the end of June, he had lowered that a full point to 4.39 and would build on that, finishing the 2022 season with a 3.18 ERA.

That’s not to say Wesneski or Thompson will turn in seasons that have them in discussions for end-of-season awards, but it doesn’t mean to write them off, either.

“I just think that that’s the nature of young players at times,” Hoyer said. “If you told me both guys came back next year and had really good seasons, it wouldn’t surprise me.”

It’s why keeping them around was paramount — and why it could be even more crucial now for the Cubs.

With the Dodgers’ reportedly on the brink of acquiring Tyler Glasnow from the Rays, the Cubs’ choices to augment their pitching staff diminish — they’re not likely to be involved in the higher-end of the starting rotation market. The last big trade piece that could be available is Cleveland’s Shane Bieber, but there’s no guarantee he’s even on the market.

Improvement and progression from young arms like Wesneski could be crucial to augment some of the innings the Cubs will need. With or without outside additions to the rotation, the Cubs are going to need some sort of influx of innings from their homegrown arms. In 2023, 8 different pitchers made at least 7 starts for the Cubs and 11 pitchers were part of the rotation throughout the year.

Currently, the Cubs’ starting options include Steele, Jameson Taillon, Kyle Hendricks, Drew Smyly, Javier Assad, Jordan Wicks, Wesneski and Caleb Kilian. Prospects like Ben Brown and Cade Horton could figure into the mix, too.

“The hard thing with pitching is you need a lot of it,” Hoyer said. “Writing out your 5 guys in your rotation — it feels like those days have gone away as an industry. As a team you just don’t do that anymore. You just gotta have a lot of guys and realize that we gotta have 1,400 quality innings somehow. That’s kinda how we focus on it.”

Some of those 1,400 quality innings could come from improvements internally, but like with Thompson and Wesneski, that’s not always a given. Success from last season doesn’t guarantee sustained success, but the Cubs hope they’re at a point with their pitching infrastructure where they can help mitigate any valleys they may face in their development.

“It takes a long time to get to that established place where your performance is fairly stable,” Hoyer said. “Both guys are really talented. I think we expected them to have a probably bigger impact on us last year and they didn’t, but that doesn’t preclude them to having the same impact last year.”

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