Column: Chicago Cubs rotation picture appears clear after another strong performance from rookie Hayden Wesneski
David Ross confirmed the worst-held secret in Chicago Cubs camp Thursday when he announced Marcus Stroman as his opening-day starter.
“He will take the bump opening day, yes sir,” the Cubs manager said before an 11-1 win against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Stroman took the liberty of announcing the news Wednesday on Twitter, spoiling an ill-advised marketing plan by MLB to get teams to announce all 30 starters Friday to help promote opening day.
Memo to MLB: Opening day needs no help getting attention.
Ross said several factors went into the Stroman decision, but one reason stood out.
“Stro deserved it,” he said. “He earned it last year. Probably one of our better pitchers on the back half. He’s got a presence about him and he’s a guy that’s expected to pitch big innings in this rotation we have throughout the season.”
Ross declined to spell out the rest of the rotation order among Drew Smyly, Jameson Taillon and Justin Steele or name his fifth starter.
So what’s the plan?
“I’ve got a good idea who that will be,” a salty Ross said. “We’ll let that guy know and then fill you guys in.”
Some mysteries are best left unsolved for now, even if the clues are there to see.
What is known is that rookie Hayden Wesneski went 3-1 with a 2.12 ERA in six spring starts, which seemed good enough to earn speculation as the odds-on favorite for the No. 5 spot, especially after the strong numbers he put up as a late-season call-up in 2022.
Wesneski allowed no earned runs on four hits over five innings Thursday, striking out five in a lopsided win before a sun-baked crowd of 13,792 at Sloan Park. He knows what’s at stake.
“I know they say spring training is time to work on stuff,” Wesneski said. “And everybody is like, ‘Oh, it’s just spring training.’ I didn’t treat it like that. I can’t treat it like that. I’m not in that position. It’s been in the compete mode the whole time.”
Javier Assad, who pitched well for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic, is scheduled to throw in relief on Friday against the Texas Rangers. Assad should make the roster even if he doesn’t start because of his value as a multi-innings reliever.
“I’m here to help the team the best way I can, whether that’s starting or relieving,” Assad said.
The third candidate, Adrian Sampson, has struggled this spring, serving up eight home runs in 12⅓ innings.
“They’re both great teammates and good dudes, and I couldn’t ask for better competition,” Wesneski said. “I want all three of us to make it, but that’s not how this game works.”
Wesneski’s fastball touched 97 mph Thursday. He said it was the best he’s felt all spring.
Kerry Wood is the only Cubs pitcher to win the Rookie of the Year Award, in 1998, though Wesneski would have to be considered an early candidate if he were to join the rotation and pitch this way. He said feels no pressure but admits to having some anxiety.
“I’m terrified of talking, everything,” he said. “But you do it enough, you start to figure it out. ... I get really nervous, but that has nothing to do with it.”
Stroman, meanwhile, makes his final Cactus League start Friday. He takes the spot that was reserved for Kyle Hendricks the last three opening days.
Hendricks hasn’t pitched in a game since July 5 after a capsular tear in his right shoulder that led to surgery and will not be ready for the start of the season.
“I’m so happy for him, he deserves all of it,” Hendricks said of Stroman. “He was such a big foundational piece for us last year, just consistent for us, there every fifth day giving us a chance to win and keeping us in ballgames. The guy just goes out and competes. He knows how to win and can handle any moment, pitching in the WBC and everything he’s been through in his career.
“It just sets the tone for the team. I’m so pumped that he got it.”
Hendricks confirmed he’ll remain in Arizona for a couple of weeks when the team heads north, continuing his rehab from the shoulder injury. A minor-league rehab stint at a site to be determined will follow.
All in all, Hendricks has been happy with his progress.
“I saw this as an opportunity to get better,” he said. “What can I attack? What can I get better at to be a positive for me in the long run. Cleaned up some things in my arm action, in my delivery. Just focused on getting back to the foundational pillars of what makes me good, getting strong in all the right places. I feel really, really good about my routine.”
If the Cubs are to compete for a postseason spot, their starting pitching and defense will have to lead the way. The rotation isn’t expected to be among the league leaders in strikeouts, though Taillon has struck out 18 in 13⅓ innings this spring, well above his career average of 8.1 strikeouts per 9 innings.
It’s a small sample size, and Ross wasn’t jumping the gun.
“I expect Jamo to be the guy that he’s been and (to) improve,” Ross said. “I don’t think there’s been any great expectations to all of a sudden have a high punchout rate at the start. ... The thing that he’s worked on I think will increase some of the swing-and-a-miss (stuff). But I wouldn’t say there’s going to be any drastic change.”
The Cubs finally have some depth in the rotation. If Hendricks can return to form at age 33, there’s reason to believe they can back up their words.
“We’ll make our identity as the season goes on, what we’re all about,” Ross said. “I like where we’re at. I love that we’re built on pitching and defense. ... We’ve got some guys with something to prove and chips on their shoulders.”
Ross added they still have to prove it on the field. Asked if “Prove It” could be the Cubs’ new marketing slogan, Ross told a reporter for The Athletic to talk with president of business operations Crane Kenney.
“Give Crane a call,” he said.
Sounds like a plan.