Hayden Wesneski Running Away with Rotation Race, Cam Sanders Making Case for Bullpen Role

Though I have been riding the Adrian Sampson train for a while now, it’s become exceedingly clear that Hayden Wesneski is the only real choice to be named the Cubs’ fifth starter. That number is only indicative of his inclusion in the group of five rotation members because he’s probably more like No. 2 or 3 at worst right now. With four perfect innings against the Dodgers Saturday afternoon, the 25-year-old righty out-dueled Noah Syndergaard and all but ended any competition with Sampson and Javier Assad.

This is a situation in which spring results do matter, especially when Wesneski has been fully aware of the gravity of his performance. In addition to the pressure coming from opposing hitters, the weight of expectation lies on his slim shoulders with every outing. Yet each time he steps onto the mound in Cactus League action, he shrugs all of that off like a warmup jacket and goes about his business.

It’s that obvious swagger that makes his incredible stuff play up to such a high level. Many young pitchers could easily get caught up in trying to make things happen, but Weneski appears to let his game unfold with an ease bordering on nonchalance. Whether it’s truly that simple for him, and I suspect it’s not, his ability to excel as the stakes rise is admirable.

“It’s one of those things, it’s weird, because you’re in a spot where you actually have a chance now,” he shared with reporters recently. “It’s a different mindset, but I kind of go back to just doing [my] job, right? I’ve got to make a pitch at a time. And then if I don’t make it, it’s, ‘I did what I could.'”

I am very much looking forward to seeing his signature K-strut with great frequency every fifth day during the regular season. Another pitcher I’d like to see in Chicago is Cam Sanders, son of former Cubs great Scott Sanders. Okay, “great” is doing some heavy lifting there, but the elder Sanders did throw his last MLB pitch in a Cubs uniform back in 1999.

Now the doting dad is cheering his son’s exploits as he makes his own way to the Show. If all goes well, the 26-year-old righty will be there soon.

The younger Sanders has made four Cactus League appearances this season, the most recent of which closed out Wesneski’s start with three consecutive strikeouts of left-handed batters. The last of those came on a full-count changeup that he shook to get to, displaying supreme confidence, but I’m really loving the bowling ball hard stuff that kisses triple digits. He’s also got a slider he loves to bust in on the hands of lefties.

Or is it a cutter? Both? Is the change actually a splitter? Sanders can call any of his pitches whatever the hell he wants as long as they’re as nasty as he’s been displaying so far. He has clearly figured some things out this spring with seven strikeouts in 5.1 innings, but the real improvement has been the lone walk. His walk percentage has always been in double digits and a 14.9% at Triple-A last year didn’t inspire a ton of confidence.

That’s a big part of the reason why Sanders was on the periphery of the bullpen picture heading into camp. Well, that and not being on the 40-man roster. But each day that passes without the Cubs adding a lefty reliever in free agency means Sanders has a better shot of breaking camp with the big club. Though he’s obviously not a southpaw, that performance on Saturday showed that he may not have issues with platoon splits.

Along with dialing in his repertoire, a lot of Sanders’ success stems from embracing a relief role after spending most of his career as a starter. He started 20 of 21 appearances for High-A South Bend in 2019, then started all 18 games he played with Double-A Tennessee in 2021. After six more starts to open the ’22 season in Kodak, Sanders was promoted and started 11 games at Triple-A Iowa before being moved to the arm barn.

There wasn’t some kind of lightbulb that went off or anything, no discernible shift in results that showed he was born to be a reliever. But now it appears working shorter outings really allows him to let it eat, which is great for someone who’s still got a starter’s full bag of tricks. Though this isn’t as clear a case as Wesneski’s for the rotation, Sanders looks like he could be a valuable member of the 26-man roster.

And that, folks, is how you know the Cubs have done an excellent job of boosting their pitching infrastructure over the last few years. That neither of these pitchers has a definitive role secured with the big club is evidence that an abundance of talent is coalescing at the highest levels of the organization, and that’s really damn fun to see.

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