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Where Cubs rotation stands after Shōta Imanaga signing

1 month agoTony Andracki

A week into the offseason, the Cubs’ vision for the winter was clear.

The 2023 team missed the playoffs by a single game and the two main losses from that roster were slugger Cody Bellinger (free agent) and starting pitcher Marcus Stroman (opt-out). Jed Hoyer’s front office was tasked with not only replacing those two star players but also working to improve a roster in both the short- and long-term.

This week, the Cubs addressed the rotation opening by inking Japanese starter Shōta Imanaga to a 4-year, $53 million deal with potential opt-outs after the second and third year, per ESPN’s Jesse Rogers. The team made the move official Thursday morning.

Imanaga, 30, is nearly 3 years younger than Stroman (who will turn 33 in May). The Cubs are also hoping the left-hander will be an upgrade to the rotation beyond 2024.  

It’s hard to pinpoint what level of success Imanaga will have in Major League Baseball, but he was one of the best pitchers in the NPB in Japan. In 2023, he went 7-4 with a 2.80 ERA, 1.054 WHIP and 174 strikeouts in 148 innings.

[MORE: Shōta Imanaga Scouting Report]

Obviously there will be a transitional period moving to a new league — and a new country — but Imanaga’s skillset could help out. He misses bats with a large repertoire of pitches and also has impeccable control.

There’s also a recent precedent of pitchers coming over from Japan and finding immediate success as Kodai Senga flourished in his first season with the Mets in 2022.

All things considered, there’s a reasonable possibility the Cubs’ 2024 rotation is better than it was in 2023. Stroman had a Cy Young-caliber first half but dealt with injuries and ineffectiveness in the season’s final three months.

If Imanaga can find success in his first year in America, that would go a long way for this Cubs rotation. But even if he doesn’t quite live up to his promise, there’s still plenty of reason for optimism. 

Here’s how the rotation shakes out entering Cubs Convention weekend:

  1. Justin Steele
  2. Kyle Hendricks
  3. Shōta Imanaga
  4. Jameson Taillon
  5. Drew Smyly/Jordan Wicks/Javier Assad/Hayden Wesneski

The Cubs also have impressive depth in the minors, as Cade Horton is developing into one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball while Ben Brown flashed his potential in Triple-A last season.

Caleb Kilian also represents depth while the Cubs added 22-year-old right-handers Porter Hodge and Michael Arias to the 40-man roster this past fall.

Hoyer and Co. know the Cubs will need more than 5 starters to get through a full marathon season (11 different players made a start in 2023). 

Steele emerged as a Cy Young candidate last year and Hendricks enjoyed a bounceback campaign after a serious shoulder injury and several seasons of inconsistency.

Taillon struggled in his first year in Chicago (4.80 ERA) but he had a career 3.84 ERA in 6 seasons prior to 2023 and he was able to right the ship in the second half (3.38 ERA from July 7 on). 

Smyly provides a veteran presence who started the year off hot before running into some struggles in the middle of the summer and bouncing between the bullpen and rotation. He ultimately ended 2023 as one of the team’s most trusted relievers and his versatility will be an asset to the pitching staff in 2024.

Wicks impressed in his first few starts in the big leagues while Assad also found success as both a starter and reliever in 2023. Wesneski initially won the final rotation spot last spring but struggled and was sent back down to Triple-A before returning as a reliever.

There are certainly question marks, but new manager Craig Counsell will have plenty of options at his disposal in the rotation as the Cubs continue to try to build their team around pitching and defense.

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