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State of the Cubs

State of the Cubs: Key roster decisions will impact 2024 starting rotation

9 months agoAndy Martinez

The 2023 season is over and after narrowly missing out on the playoffs, the Cubs are staring down a pivotal winter. Before the stove starts heating up, we analyze the Cubs depth chart at each position and how Jed Hoyer’s front office might address the team’s needs.

Next up: Starting Rotation

DEPTH CHART

  1. Justin Steele
  2. Kyle Hendricks
  3. Jameson Taillon
  4. Marcus Stroman
  5. Jordan Wicks
  6. Drew Smyly
  7. Javier Assad
  8. Hayden Wesneski
  9. Ben Brown
  10. Cade Horton
  11. Caleb Kilian

ANALYSIS

A pair of decisions after the World Series could determine whether the Cubs’ rotation is a solid piece heading into the offseason or one of their biggest question marks. The Cubs hold a club option on Kyle Hendricks and Marcus Stroman has a an opt-out in his contract that could shape the Cubs’ starting pitching staff in 2024. If both return, the Cubs’ starting staff starts to feel like a unit that can build upon some of their success in 2023 that nearly resulted in a playoff berth. Losing the pair or even one and the Cubs could be left scrambling to piece together a staff that can help them contend.

The Cubs are likely to pick up Hendricks’ option and president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer even hinted at possibly extending the veteran to a longer-term contract. That would give the Cubs’ a solid base of Justin Steele, Hendricks and Jameson Taillon.

“[Hendricks] does whatever the team needs and it’s a joy to have him around,” Hoyer said at his end-of-season press conference. “Obviously not gonna negotiate anything with you guys right now but certainly we want to keep him as a Cub for next year and beyond.”

Steele, a Cy Young candidate in 2023, would headline the group with the Cubs hoping Taillon could build off his stellar end to the year — he had a 2.56 ERA in his final 7 games (6 starts). Steele’s emergence this past season as the team’s ace was one of the storylines of the year for the Cubs, who had struggled to develop homegrown pitching.

“What an exceptional season and every time he took the mound, I thought we’re gonna win and that’s the best thing you can probably say about a starting pitcher,” Hoyer said. “I know he felt great and felt strong at the end of the year. I think that he’ll keep working out like that in the offseason. I think he’s a great example for all young players that you can take yourself from really good to great through hard work.”

Stroman had a 2.28 ERA in his first 16 starts and was looking like a bonafide Cy Young candidate. But injuries and struggles hampered him down the stretch — he had just 1 quality start from June 25 to the end of the year. If he opts in and can return somewhere near that first-half version, it’s a boon to the Cubs’ staff. 

Stroman and Hendricks’ return would leave the Cubs with just one rotation opening and plenty of in-house options to fill them.

Jordan Wicks, the Cubs’ first round pick in 2021, reached the majors in August and had a 3.00 ERA in his first 6 starts of the season and could be a factor for the 5th spot in the rotation. Drew Smyly, who has a $10 million player option for 2024, figures to return. He was a key piece of the first half rotation, but struggled down the stretch as a starter before succeeding as a reliever for the Cubs late in the season. What route they choose to take with Smyly will affect the rotation, too.

Javier Assad made the Cubs’ Opening Day roster in the bullpen, was optioned to Triple-A, returned in the bullpen, filled in the rotation in the second half and then ended the year in the bullpen. He posted a 3.05 ERA in 32 games (10 starts) for the Cubs and could be in competition for the Cubs’ 5th starter role. Hayden Wesneski won the Cubs’ 5th starter job out of camp this season but struggled in the rotation and ended the year in the bullpen.

Any one of those four (Wicks, Smyly, Assad, Wesneski) figure to be in the mix when Spring Training opens up in February. 

WHAT’S NEXT?

Ben Brown, acquired for David Robertson at the 2022 trade deadline from the Phillies, is one of the Cubs’ top pitching prospects and there was some thought that he could have reached the majors in 2023 but an oblique injury at the end of the year shot that dream down. Brown posted a 4.27 ERA in 92.2 innings across Double-A and Triple-A this year. There was belief within the Cubs’ organization that had he been healthy at the end of the year, he would have been the one called up in August to make the starts that Wicks did. If he’s healthy when spring opens up, he could be in the factor to make starts for the Cubs.

The Cubs had 11 different players make starts in 2023 — 2 of them, José Cuas and Michael Fulmer, as openers. They’ll need plenty of starting depth injuries throughout the season, beyond the 5 that make the rotation out of camp.

Another one of the Cubs’ best prospects could factor into their rotation at some point next season. Cade Horton, the Cubs’ 2022 first round pick and a consensus Top 100 prospect, dazzled across Low-A, High A and Double-A in 2023. Horton posted a 2.65 ERA in 88.1 innings with a 0.99 WHIP and 117 strikeouts to 27 walks. He could start the 2024 season in Double-A and follow a similar trajectory to Wicks and Brown.

If everybody’s back, the Cubs likely won’t wade into the free agent waters for a big-name starter this offseason. But if Stroman leaves, could the Cubs shop near the top of the market to provide some cover to young arms instead of counting on them to shoulder the innings load of a team expected to compete for a playoff spot?

Hoyer was in Japan earlier this year, scouting Japanese pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto. Would he be the type of arm that could offer that? The Cubs could also look to add cover in the form of other free agent starters who might be looking for a “prove-it” contract, a la the Cody Bellinger situation a year ago. Jack Flaherty (4.99 ERA, 1.58 WHIP) and Lucas Giolito (4.88 ERA, 1.31 WHIP) are a pair of free agents who could fit in that mold.

BOTTOM LINE

The Cubs’ starting rotation should begin to take shape almost immediately after the World Series — the decisions on Stroman and Hendricks should paint the picture of what the Cubs’ rotation could look like beyond Steele and Taillon. Beyond those four, the Cubs have plenty of young arms that could be options in the long-term.

State of the Cubs series

Catcher
First Base
Second Base
Third Base
Shortstop
Left Field
Center Field
Right Field
Designated Hitter
Starting Rotation
Bullpen

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