With left-hander Shota Imanaga poised to join Justin Steele, Jameson Taillon, and Kyle Hendricks in the Cubs’ rotation in place of Marcus Stroman this season after the veteran righty signed with the Yankees last month, one spot remains open in the club’s starting rotation with pitchers and catchers set to report to camp for Spring Training next week. While it’s not impossible to imagine a surprise trade for or signing of an arm such as Shane Bieber (who the Cubs were connected to earlier this winter) or Jordan Montgomery, all indications point toward the Cubs turning their attention towards a reunion with Cody Bellinger at this point in the offseason.
Should Chicago enter the 2024 campaign with only their internal rotation options, here’s a look at who could be under consideration to join the starting five:
The 34-year-old left-hander, in some ways, appears to be the obvious choice for the final spot in the Cubs’ rotation. Signed to a two-year, $19MM contract last winter, Smyly started 23 games for Chicago last year and enjoyed a great deal of success early in the season, including a 10-strikeout game in late April where the southpaw came fell just four outs short of a perfect game. Through 15 starts, Smyly had a strong 3.38 ERA and a decent FIP of 4.33, though his strikeout rate of just 19.9% raised some eyebrows.
Unfortunately for Smyly, the wheels came off from there for him. He posted a 9.00 ERA and 6.88 FIP in 35 innings of work across his next eight appearances and found himself demoted to the bullpen, where he found some solid success in short relief. In sixteen relief appearances from August 13 onward, Smyly dominated with a 1.13 ERA in 20 2/3 innings of work and a 33.7% strikeout rate. Those strong relief outings didn’t translate to better performance out of the rotation, however, as Smyly surrendered 10 runs in just four innings of work across his final two starts of the season on August 22 and October 1.
Given Smyly’s superlative results out of the bullpen late in the season and his pronounced struggles as a member of the rotation, it seems unlikely that the Cubs would offer Smyly the inside track to the fifth starter role entering the 2024 campaign, though it’s possible he could earn the role through a combination of strong performance this spring and injuries to other options.
Wesneski won a camp battle for the club’s fifth starter spot last spring, beating out veteran right-hander Adrian Sampson for the role. Wesneski’s opportunity in the rotation came on the heels of a stellar debut late in the 2022 season, shortly after Chicago acquired him from the Yankees at the trade deadline in exchange for sidearming reliever Scott Effross. In six appearances down the stretch for the Cubs that year, Wesneski dominated to a 2.18 ERA and 3.20 FIP while striking out 25% of batters faced.
Unfortunately, Wesneski’s 2023 audition for a rotation job did not go nearly as well, as he allowed a 5.33 ERA and 5.96 FIP across 50 2/3 innings of work over 11 appearances (10 starts) to open the season. Wesneski was moved to multi-inning relief shortly there after and would make just one start (which lasted only two innings) the rest of the season, posting a respectable 3.72 ERA and 4.86 FIP in 38 2/3 innings of work over his final 23 appearances. It’s not hard to imagine Wesneski returning to the starting rotation at some point in the future, as the 26-year-old remains under club control through the 2028 campaign, though it appears likely he has been surpassed by other youngsters on the rotational depth chart for the time being.
The most experienced arm on this list outside of Smyly, the 26-year-old Assad made his big league debut in 2022 and pitched decently in a nine-appearance cup of coffee where he posted a 3.11 ERA and 4.49 FIP over 37 2/3 innings of work. Assad competed with Sampson and Wesneski for the fifth starter role out of camp last year, though his bid for the role was complicated by a detour to participate in the World Baseball Classic for Team Mexico.
Assad’s time in the tournament saw him dazzle with 5 2/3 scoreless innings of work as a multi-inning reliever. He struck out six on just two hits and a walk while touching 97 with his heater. The strong performance in a relief role led the Cubs to enter the season with Assad in that role, though he struggled to a 9.82 ERA in 7 1/3 innings across his first three appearances for Chicago last year, prompting the club to option him to Triple-A.
Upon returning to the majors in early May, Assad dominated out of the bullpen for the next three months, posting a 2.11 ERA in 42 2/3 innings of work across 16 appearances despite a 4.01 FIP. The Cubs then moved him to the rotation for the majority of the stretch run, and the right-hander held his own in the role with a 2.88 ERA and 4.25 FIP in 59 1/3 innings of work across the season’s final two months. Assad’s quality work in the rotation down the stretch with Chicago last summer should give him the opportunity to earn the final spot in the club’s rotation this spring, though its possible the Cubs value his versatility as a player who’s had success swinging in and out of the rotation throughout his young career.
Chicago’s first round pick in the 2021 draft, Wicks has the most impressive prospect pedigree of any of the club’s likely fifth starter options this spring. The southpaw has quickly climbed the minor league ladder and reached the majors last year with just 48 starts in the minor leagues under his belt, leading to some top 100 prospect buzz this winter with ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel ranking Wicks as the #41 prospect in the entire sport, just five spots behind Kyle Harrison of the Giants. That impressive ranking is largely backed up by Wicks’ performance on the field. In 20 starts split between the Double- and Triple-A levels last year, Wicks posted a 3.55 ERA in 91 1/3 innings of work while punching out 26.5% of batters faced.
The lefty’s major league debut went nearly as well, as he posted a 3.00 ERA with a 3.95 FIP in 33 innings of work across his first six starts in the big leagues, though he struck out just 17% of batters faced during that time. Unfortunately, Wicks suffered the first blow-up start of his big league career in his final start of the season, surrendering six runs on six hits and one walk in just 1 2/3 innings of work against the Brewers. That left him with a uninspiring 4.41 ERA and 4.70 FIP across his first taste of big league action, though he did generate grounders at a solid 46.8% clip during that time.
Given the success he’s flashed in the majors and his prospect pedigree, it would hardly be a surprise to see the Cubs hand Wicks the keys to the final spot in Chicago’s rotation this spring, though its possible his low strikeout rate in the majors and ugly final start last year lead the club to believe the 24-year-old southpaw, who has pitched just 33 innings at the Triple-A level to this point in his career, needs more time to develop in the minors before joining the rotation full time.
The aforementioned four arms appear to be the most likely internal options for the Cubs’ fifth starter spot to open the season, though there are at handful of dark horse options worth a mention as well. Top pitching prospect Cade Horton was the club’s first round pick in the 2022 draft and is generally regarded even better than Wicks after he dominated the lower minors to the tune of a 2.65 ERA in 21 starts last year. With that being said, the 22-year-old has no experience above the Double-A level, where he made just six starts last year, and has not yet been stretched out to the level required for a big league starting pitcher as he topped 75 pitches in an outing just three times last year.
Ben Brown is another prospect who has gotten top-100 buzz for the Cubs. Unlike Horton, he’s already on the 40-man roster and has reached the Triple-A level, though he struggled to a 5.33 ERA at the level last year while walking 15.8% of batters faced at the level. Porter Hodge and Caleb Kilian are two other starting pitching prospects already on Chicago’s 40-man roster, though Hodge has yet to pitch above the Double-A level and Kilian has struggled to a 12.42 ERA across six appearances in the majors, leaving each far more likely to open the season in the minors.