HomeMLB RumorsCubs To Begin Season With Wicks, Assad In Rotation; Smyly In Bullpen

Cubs To Begin Season With Wicks, Assad In Rotation; Smyly In Bullpen

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With Opening Day now one week away, the Cubs made some decisions on their starting pitching plan to begin the year. Manager Craig Counsell told members of the club’s beat, including Meghan Montemurro of the Chicago Tribune, that left-hander Jordan Wicks and Javier Assad will have rotation jobs to open the campaign. Veteran lefty Drew Smyly, meanwhile, will head to the bullpen. In a separate tweet, Montemurro confirms that righty Jameson Taillon will start the season on the injured list. In terms of the catching group, Maddie Lee of the Chicago Sun-Times relays that both Jorge Alfaro and Joe Hudson have been told they won’t make the team but are staying in big league camp for now.

The Cubs came into camp with a front four of Justin Steele, Kyle Hendricks, Shota Imanaga and Taillon, with one spot available for guys like Wicks, Assad, Smyly, Hayden Wesneski or Caleb Kilian. In early March, Kilian was diagnosed with a teres major strain and will be out for several months, taking him out of the competition.

Taillon was dealt much smaller issues but they nonetheless slowed his progression. He initially had some soreness is his calves and that was followed by some lower back tightness. He still has not appeared in an official Spring Training game and will begin the season on the IL. He told Bruce Levine of WSCR on the weekend that he was planning to throw off a mound this week, which shows some progress, but he’s likely still a few weeks away from readiness.

With Taillon out of action, there were two open spots at the back of the rotation, which will go to Wicks and Assad. Wicks is one of the club’s top pitching prospects and he made his major league debut last year with a 4.41 earned run average in seven starts. In 91 1/3 innings of minor league work, he had a 3.55 ERA, 26.5% strikeout rate and 8.6% walk rate.

He only struck out 16.3% of hitters in his first taste of the majors, but in a fairly small sample of 34 2/3 innings. For what it’s worth, he’s posted a 2.60 ERA this spring, though with a modest 16.9% strikeout rate. But he has also limited his walks to 2.8% and it’s a small sample of 17 1/3 innings. He’ll get a chance to take a step forward at the major league level to start the season. He still has a full slate of options, so the Cubs could easily send him back to the minors when Taillon is healthy if they so choose.

Assad has a bit more experience, having served in a swing role for the Cubs over the past two years. He has a 3.06 ERA in 147 innings over 41 appearances, including 18 starts. His 20.2% strikeout rate and 9.9% walk rate are both slightly worse than league average but he’s kept 44.7% of balls in play on the ground and was in the 78th percentile of qualified pitchers last year in terms of average exit velocity. He has allowed seven earned runs in nine innings this spring. He has a couple of options and could wind up in the minors later but the Cubs have used him as a long reliever out of the bullpen in the past.

That long relief role could perhaps be taken by Smyly, who was also in that role for a time last year. The Cubs signed him to a two-year, $19MM deal last offseason but he struggled in 2023 and wound up moving to the bullpen on multiple occasions. He finished last year with an even ERA of 5.00, but it was 5.62 as a starter and 2.51 out of the ’pen. That latter number was in a small sample of 28 2/3 innings but the Cubs will be hoping his stuff will play up in shorter stints. Spring results are to be taken with a grain of salt but he hasn’t done much to win back a rotation job lately, with a 7.71 ERA, 15.1% strikeout rate and 9.4% walk rate in 11 2/3 innings.

His past experience as a starter could have him working multi-innings stints as a reliever, but he could also be utilized as a situational lefty. The only other southpaw reliever currently on the roster is Luke Little, who has just 6 2/3 innings of major league experience and notable control issues in the minors.

As for the catchers, it’s not too surprising they won’t make the club. The Cubs have Yan Gomes and Miguel Amaya set to be their primary catching tandem. Gomes is a 12-year veteran coming off a solid season while Amaya has been a notable prospect for a while and made his major league debut last year. It’s unclear if either Alfaro or Hudson have opt-outs in their minor league deals, but it seems they will be staying in camp for the time being.

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