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Spring Training Notebooks

Spring Training Notebook: Cubs rotation set ahead of Opening Day, move veteran to bullpen

4 months agoAndy Martinez

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Javier Assad was called into Craig Counsell’s office Thursday morning, hoping to hear the news he’d been working towards all offseason and spring.

He walked out with confirmation that he’d be joining the Opening Day rotation with Justin Steele, Kyle Hendricks, Shota Imanaga and Jordan Wicks. Wicks and Assad were confirmed as the final two starters on Thursday by  Counsell. Lefty Drew Smyly will start in the bullpen for the Cubs.

“I was really happy,” Assad said. “It was one of my goals this offseason and thankfully I was able to reach it.”

Assad and Wicks had been competing with Smyly and righty Hayden Wesneski for the final rotation spot. Jameson Taillon (back) is likely to start the season on the IL, meaning a second starter was needed at least for the first week-and-a-half of games while Taillon builds back up.

Wicks had family around the Cubs’ complex last week and introduced them to Hall of Famers like Fergie Jenkins and Lee Smith. He also had the opportunity to share the special news that he had made the Cubs’ rotation.

“It was nice to be able to spend it with them, tell them and share that moment together,” Wicks said. “For me it’s like, enjoy it, but then move on [because] there’s work to be done.”

Assad made 10 starts last season, posting a 3.02 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP. It was a nearly identical line to what he did coming out of the bullpen, where he had a 3.07 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. There was some thought that versatility would mean Assad could start in the bullpen and transition in and out of both roles as needed in the season.

“He’s a really valuable pitcher in any team,” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “He’s really proved himself very valuable and I think it’s nice to have some depth, knock on wood. But I think he sort of emerged as the right choice.”

Instead, Assad will man the final spot — and both he and Wicks will try to hang onto it when Taillon returns to health. Performances will dictate that for the pair and other young arms.

“For guys in that position, you get the next chance by getting people out,” Counsell said. “I think at the stage that guys like Javi and Wes that they’re at right now, like the challenge is to get major league hitters out.”

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Smyly in relief

Smyly was scheduled to start Thursday’s game against the Rockies, but the Cubs pivoted, starting reliever Yency Almonte and bringing in Smyly in relief. The lefty threw 2 innings, allowing 2 runs on 3 hits with a pair of strikeouts. He allowed a 2-run home run to Charlie Blackmon in the 3rd.

“I’m excited for the opportunity to help the team,” Smyly said. “I think it’s something I can be really good at, something I can thrive in.”

The Cubs liked how Smyly pitched in relief at the end of last year. When the Cubs bullpen dealt with injuries, Smyly was moved to the bullpen and served as both a lefty reliever and a long-relief option.

“I think he did well in that role at the end of the year, and sort of putting him in that role to start as opposed to bouncing made some sense,” Hoyer said.

Counsell has been open in noting that pitchers like Smyly and Wesneski will make starts at points this year. But Smyly in relief allows Counsell to use him in a multitude of ways like last season — against pockets of left-handed hitters or to cover innings.

“I think, maybe right now my game plays better as a reliever,” Smyly said. “I don’t think it’s something [like] I’m sad I’m not starting, I started 10 years in the league and I don’t think I’m closing the door on that.

“We have a good team where the goals are to win. That’s the team you want to be on … I’ve been saying this whole spring, I don’t care what role I’m pitching in. I wanna be able to help the team win.”

Roster cuts

Beyond the rotation news, the Cubs made a series of roster cuts, trimming the number of players in camp to 37. The most notable of those was righty reliever Daniel Palencia, who was optioned to Triple-A Iowa.

“I mean the message is essentially, today, we got a couple of pitchers ahead of him,” Counsell said. “You’re gonna pitch for the Chicago Cubs this year. It could be soon. So, it’s a disappointing day but as the Triple-A season starts, it’s important that you be locked in because it could be any day.”

That’s the message Counsell has been preaching all camp long — the 26 players that break camp and go to Texas aren’t the only people that will be contributing to the team over the course of a 162-game season.

“They’re going to be part of the team at various points this season,” Counsell said. “They’re part of the team in that sense, because you know they’re gonna be part of the team.”  

Right-handed pitcher Colten Brewer, left-handed pitchers Thomas Pannone and Richard Lovelady and infielder David Bote were all re-assigned to minor-league camp. Additionally, Counsell said catchers Joe Hudson and Jorge Alfaro were informed they weren’t making the Opening Day roster but would remain in big-league camp.

Next Up

The Cubs have split squad action Friday, as they host the Giants at 3 p.m. at Sloan Park with Steele getting the start on Marquee Sports Network. It should be his final start before Opening Day. Assad will start the other game in Scottsdale where they play the Giants at 3 p.m.

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