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With depth tested early, Cubs formulating new pitching plan

2 weeks agoTony Andracki

The Cubs spent all spring formulating a pitching plan for the 2024 season only to watch it go up in smoke the moment ace Justin Steele crumpled to the ground in the middle of the game on Opening Day.

Already without veteran Jameson Taillon due to a back injury, the Cubs are now left to piece together a rotation for the next few weeks and likely the entire month of April.

To make matters more complicated, the Cubs have a gauntlet of playoff-hopeful teams throughout the first few weeks of April featuring the Dodgers, Padres, Mariners, Diamondbacks and Astros.

“We have to figure it out,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said before the home opener Monday. “No one’s gonna feel sorry for us. You do need depth.

“We didn’t hope to be tested this early but we are going to be. Some guys are going to have to step up.”

The Cubs entered spring under the impression they had one open spot in the rotation with rookie Jordan Wicks competing against Drew Smyly, Javier Assad and Hayden Wesneski.

When Taillon went down and it became clear he would not be ready for the start of the season, the Cubs pivoted and had Wicks and Assad join the initial rotation alongside Steele, Kyle Hendricks and Shota Imanaga.

The Cubs’ immediate solution in the wake of Steele’s injury was to call up one of the organization’s top pitching prospects in Ben Brown.

Brown has experience pitching out of the bullpen and that’s how he was utilized in his MLB debut Saturday in a multi-inning stint.

The Cubs can continue to utilize Brown as a reliever with some length and move Smyly into the rotation or have Brown make a start here or there.

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Assad is slated to start Tuesday’s game but the Cubs have not announced a starter for Wednesday, when Steele’s turn in the rotation comes up.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about how we’re gonna deploy that spot in the rotation,” Hoyer said. “Still working through it. I think Ben is going to be part of the solution but we have some other options as well.

“It somewhat probably depends on how we get to [Wednesday], whether [the pitching staff] is fresh or not fresh. Some days, we might piece things together and some days we might not. Still working on that but Ben’s definitely going to be part of that solution.”

Brown was charged with 6 runs allowed in 1.2 innings Saturday night. In 2023 at Double-A and Triple-A, he had a 4.27 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in 26 games (19 starts) while striking out 12.6 batters per 9 innings.

Smyly threw the last 2 innings of Monday’s win over the Rockies. He needed only 19 pitches so it’s possible he could be part of the pitching equation on Wednesday.

The Cubs could opt to utilize the 5th spot in the rotation as a de facto “Bullpen Day” but they are cognizant of taxing their relief corps too much, especially this early in the season.

“We gotta be able to get deeper into games,” Hoyer said. “You can’t get 12 to 15 outs a night. It’s too much. So our depth is going to be tested and we’re gonna have to pitch deeper in games.”

Imanaga helped his team out in his debut, tossing 6 scoreless innings against the Rockies Monday. That meant only 3 innings — and 9 outs — for a bullpen that was forced to get 15 outs during Sunday’s win.

One feather in the Cubs’ hat as they navigate these new pitching plans is manager Craig Counsell, whose mettle is being tested early in his Chicago tenure.

“I think all of us view it this way but he’s even better than most, emotionally,” Hoyer said. “Whether it’s Day 1 or Day 50, you’re gonna deal with these things all year, right? That is baseball in 2024. You’re gonna deal with injuries. You’re gonna deal with poor performance.

“Things are not gonna go as planned. Part of what makes him a really successful manager in a good way is he’s a flat-liner on stuff like that. Like, ‘OK, what’s the solution? Let’s figure this out.’

“We knew we were going to need a lot of starting pitching to get through the year and now we’re faced with it right away. I think he does a really good job of that. Very quickly after the game [on Opening Day], there’s no bemoaning or lamenting. It’s like, ‘OK, what do we need to do for tomorrow?’ I think that’s just his personality.”

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