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‘Undervalued’ Javier Assad showing Cubs he can handle whatever is thrown his way

11 months agoTony Andracki

Javier Assad is coming into his own in the Cubs bullpen, but is that the long-term role for the young right-hander?

It has been an up-and-down year for Assad, who will turn 26 next week.

He made his MLB debut late last season and impressed in the rotation with a 3.11 ERA in 9 games (8 starts).

Over the offseason, he worked on increasing his velocity and pitched for Team Mexico in the World Baseball Classic, where he put himself on the national radar with 6 strikeouts in 5.2 shutout innings.

That work earned Assad a place in the Opening Day bullpen, but he struggled out of the gate, allowing multiple runs in each of his first 3 outings of the season.

He has already been optioned to Triple-A Iowa three separate times this year but the last couple of months have brought stability for Assad.

Since June 16, Assad carries a sparkling 0.54 ERA after allowing only 1 run in 16.2 innings across 6 outings. He has 17 strikeouts in that stretch working as a long reliever in the Cubs bullpen.

On Thursday, he stopped the bleeding and shut down the Cardinals offense over 4 shutout innings. On Sunday, he got the last 5 outs of the game and allowed only a lone hit, bringing his season ERA down to 3.65.

“I just feel like he’s found his rhythm and gotten to a nice, comfortable role down there and picking us up,” David Ross said. “And takes pride in that and understands it’s just about going out and doing the best he can in those types of games where we’ve used him.

“He’s really valued in the organization and an arm that we can use down there. … It’s a pretty good string of outings he’s put together and some good numbers against some really good teams. Love to see some 96 mph, 95s out of him. The stuff’s ticked up within that role as well. He’s an important piece.”

The Cubs began the year with both Assad and Keegan Thompson filling multi-inning roles in the bullpen. But Thompson has fallen on tough times and is currently in the minor leagues.

Hayden Wesneski has also served as the long man at times this season but he is currently being stretched out as a starter with Triple-A Iowa.

Assad’s success in that role is a welcome development for the Cubs simply because they’ve needed it. But does that mean his future is in the bullpen?

“No. He’s definitely undervalued in that role,” Ross said. “What we’ve needed down there as a whole that’s solidified our bullpen to be able to pitch a little bit better was having a guy that can suck down some innings when things don’t go right. Him being able to build upon that, you’re just trying to find other opportunities for him.

“I think we still see him as a legit starter. We have some young starters coming. He’s a guy that did really nice in that role.”

The Cubs’ rotation right now is filled with veterans like Marcus Stroman, Kyle Hendricks, Drew Smyly and Jameson Taillon. Taillon is signed through 2026 and Smyly is under contract through next season. Stroman can opt out after 2023 and Hendricks has an option for 2024.

Justin Steele earned his first All-Star bid this summer and can’t become a free agent until after the 2027 campaign.

There has not been much room in the Cubs rotation this year, though that might change at the trade deadline or if injuries strike.

Long-term, Assad will have to compete with the likes of Wesneski and prospects Ben Brown and Jordan Wicks (among others) for rotation spots. There is no clear path but Assad can force the issue with continued success at the big-league level.

Ross believes part of his solid run lately has been relying on his fastball more. For his part, Assad believes it’s simply about confidence and improved comfort pitching as a reliever.

He has leaned on his fellow bullpen mates and learned that he needed to adjust quicker in games since he no longer has the luxury to ease into outings like he did as a starter.

“One thing they’ve told me is the key is to come out and try to throw that first strike and try to get that first batter out,” Assad said through team translator Fredy Quevedo Jr.

Long-term, Assad would prefer to be a starter. But right now he’s just happy to help the team however he can.

“I do see myself back in the rotation,” he said. “Would love to go back in the rotation. I would definitely like to be a starter but whatever opportunity and whatever the team needs from me, I’m willing to fill in that role and just do my best.”

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