The Rundown: Rotation Battles Highlight of Camp, Wesneski Impressive in First Outing, Steele Set to Make First Start

“The clouds prepare for battle in the dark and brooding silence. Bruised and sullen storm clouds have the light of day obscured.” – Rush, Jacob’s Ladder

The battle for the fifth starter role is going to be the talk of camp until the team heads north in four weeks. Just when I thought I was in love with Javier Assad, Hayden Wesneski changed my mind. Adrian Sampson is also in the mix, but he trails the blossoming stars right now. Kyle Hendricks will command a spot in the rotation once he returns. I never thought I’d see the day when the Cubs had too many good pitchers.

If the second half of 2022 is a true indicator, the Cubs could have six or seven starters who have better than even odds to win a ballgame whenever they take the mound. It kind of reminds me of the heady days of Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano, Matt Clement, and Shawn Estes. Yes, we are “celebrating” the 20th anniversary of that fateful 2003 season this year. My, how time flies. Kids who were born that year will be building Old Style cup snakes in the bleachers next season.

The 25-year-old Wesneski understands the task in front of him and sounds ready to seize the reins.

“My whole life, you prove and you prove and now it’s like, OK, I actually have a chance,” he said. “It’s weird because you’re in the spot where you actually have a chance now. It’s a different mindset but I kinda go back to just doing [my] job. I make a pitch at a time and if I don’t make it, I did what I could.

“I’m always trying to prove something. I’m not supposed to be here. Sixth-round guys, yeah it’s a higher draft pick but if you look at the percentages and stuff, sixth-round guys don’t make it to the big leagues very often. I’m still trying to prove things.”

Jed Hoyer, Carter Hawkins, Tommy Hottovy, and David Ross must be absolutely giddy with the way Chicago’s pitching has developed in just two years. When the Cubs traded Yu Darvish to the Padres for Zach Davies, Owen Caissie and a couple of other prospects, a strong staff seemed a billion miles away. With a number of prospects knocking at the door, an elite rotation is right at our doorsteps.

In case you haven’t noticed, Chicago has some big arms in camp. Nick Burdi hit 100 mph five times the other day and Julian Merryweather was consistently registering 98. Those guys aren’t even on your 2023 Bingo card, but they’ll probably be part of that minor league shuttle this season. Burdi might be the team’s closer someday, though Jeremiah Estrada should emerge from the pack as the eventual stopper.

The rotation spot that is up for grabs is what’s worth keeping our eyes on. I’d say Wesneski has the inside track, but don’t sleep on Assad or Simpson. With Chicago’s improved defense up the middle, a run at a playoff spot behind this pitching staff is no longer a pipe dream. The reinforcements will be coming in waves, including Caleb Kilian, Ben Brown, Cade Horton, and Jordan Wicks, possibly as soon as this season. It’s enough to make Brewers fans jealous.

Cubs News & Notes

Odds & Sods

Julio Rodríguez walked away with an expression of extreme awe at Wesneski’s offerings.

Climbing the Ladder

“Why don’t we turn the clock to zero, honey? I’ll sell the stock, we’ll spend all the money. We’re starting up a brand new day.” – Sting, Brand New Day (the harmonica by Stevie Wonder on this track is sublime).

The Cubs threw eight pitches of 98+ mph in 2022. That’s the whole season. I’m guessing they’ll top that this year if some of their prospects spend any time on the big league roster. I haven’t even mentioned Daniel Palencia, who has arguably the best fastball (80-grade) in the system. Palencia is the team’s No. 14 prospect according to Baseball America. Here’s the skinny according to BA:

“Palencia’s arm strength is unmatched in the Cubs system. Though he’s short, he has a strong, powerful build and generates triple-digit fastballs with ease. His fastball sits 98-99 mph and routinely reaches 101-102 with explosive late life up in the zone. He leans on his fastball heavily, but he also has a low-90s vertical, power slider that has become a plus pitch he can land for strikes or get chase swings with. His firm, upper-80s changeup is an average third pitch. Palencia is a good athlete for his size, but he has struggled with a series of minor injuries–including foot and oblique injuries in 2022–and has below-average command and control, especially of his secondaries. He rarely completes five innings and is best in short bursts.”

How About That!

Phillies prospect Andrew Painter has some ungodly stuff.

Edwin Díaz, Emmanuel Clase, Josh Hader, and Devin Williams are expected to be the top closers in 2023. Don’t sleep on Estrada.

Francisco Lindor is a fan of the new shift rules as a hitter, but he’s unhappy he can’t line up defensively on the outfield grass anymore.

Major League Baseball added three executives to its new local media department as it prepares for a possible takeover of local broadcasts for 17 teams amid the financial deterioration of the Bally and AT&T SportsNet regional sports networks.

It probably doesn’t make Rob Manfred and the league owners very happy, but the bursting of the RSN bubble is baseball’s biggest story right now.

Manfred still believes that radical rule changes will attract a younger fanbase. He’s failing to understand the harsh reality that that’s never going to happen as a standalone. Parents pass the legacy of the game on to their children, and it’s been that way for 150 years. If baseball better targeted the age 28-35 demographic, I believe it would yield greater success. Shrinking the number of minor league teams isn’t helping either, as those teams have been extremely adept at promoting to young fans.

A tiny, seaside Italian town has been obsessed with baseball for over 80 years.

Apropos of Nothing

I was against the pitch clock but now I love it. I grew up watching Bob Gibson and Fergie Jenkins regularly finish games in under two hours. It took a week for me to embrace the new rule, but now I hope it never goes away.

Thursday Morning Six-Pack

  1. Jalen Carter, a potential top 2023 NFL draft pick, has been charged with reckless driving connected to a fatal crash that killed a teammate in January. Carter is often mentioned as a player the Bears like.
  2. Salesforce slashed 8,000 jobs this year, but it pays more than $10 million per year to actor Matthew McConaughey to be a “creative advisor.”
  3. Havana Syndrome, the strange acoustic sensations that afflicted US government workers abroad, was not caused by the actions of a foreign adversary, a new US intelligence report said.
  4. I’ve got the broad strokes of time travel and quantum physics for all y’all this morning. That’s how much I love you.
  5. Joe Biden with a mullet looks like the would-be star in a Road House movie franchise.
  6. We can all sleep better tonight. The FBI has finally arrested that seditious panda.

Extra Innings

Happy Birthday, Harry Caray! He is still the only ex-Cardinal that Cubs fans truly love.

They Said It

  • “Hayden is a hard worker that’s very smart in knowing the information, knowing what he does well, likes to compete, is not afraid of the moment — [that’s] what stands out. Knows he belongs but he also has a way about him that he’s not, ‘I’m the 5th starter, I’m this or that.’ He knows that this is a process and it’s very much a veteran way about him. The way he works and knowing his body. He’s definitely got that ‘it’ factor that it doesn’t feel like things speed up on him at times. He’s got some grit to him. You feel a little bit of that just toughness about him.” – Ross
  • “I don’t know anybody that hit the ground running as fast as [Barnhart] that I’ve ever managed. When he signed with us, he was watching videos of all the pitchers and calling, wanting to be on the pitching group text. He’s all in on that pitching group and it’s a really comforting feeling for me.” – Ross
  • “[Gomes and Barnhart] are so invested to the defensive side of catching and calling games and getting to know their pitchers. Once you get with him a couple of times, this is just going to be like second nature. He’s reading my mind and vice versa. [Tucker] and Yan together is just a great combo.”Drew Smyly
  • “I think the most important thing with our direct-to-consumer is we just want to do it right the first time. We want to make sure when we do have it out there, it’s a good value to the fans. We realize that the way people consume the game is changing. We want to make sure we accommodate that. But it’s kind of like a measure-twice-cut-once thing for us. We want to make sure we do it right, and that may mean it’s not 100% ready to go for Opening Day. But we’ll see where it goes.” – Tom Ricketts

Thursday Walk-Up Song

A happy Thursday morning to each of you. And if any musicians are reading, this is a great song for sampling.

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