Chicago Cubs Lineup (3/28/24): Steele Making Opening Day Start, Madrigal at Third, Morel DH

Opening Day 2024 is finally upon us! I’m finishing this post up from the Texas Live! complex immediately adjacent to Globe Life Field, and the excitement is palpable. That would be the case regardless, but things are ratcheted up because the Rangers will be receiving their World Series rings prior to the game. The gates actually open three hours early and I’m planning to be there in plenty of time to see the Cubs take BP.

I’ll also get an early look at the Rangers’ uniforms, which will have gold highlights for the first three games. They’ll also have Energy Transfer advertising patches on the sleeves as yet another team takes that route for revenue. You may recall that the Cubs appeared to be primed for their own ad patches, but those have not yet materialized.

Justin Steele ascended to the role of staff ace last season and he will be on the mound tonight, just six days removed from an abbreviated spring start. The lefty pitched just one inning and had to exit in the second frame after taking a comebacker to the leg, but everything seems to be fine for this one. The only issue may be that he’s not fully stretched out, which shouldn’t be a problem with tomorrow’s off day giving the bullpen early rest.

Ian Happ will lead off for the Cubs tonight playing left, he’s followed by Seiya Suzuki in right, Cody Bellinger in center, Christopher Morel at DH, and Dansby Swanson at short. Michael Busch gets his first start as a Cub batting sixth playing first, followed by Nico Hoerner at second. Getting the start at third and batting eighth is Nick Madrigal, which is somewhat surprising given all the talk this spring about Morel playing the hot corner. Rounding out the order, Yan Gomes will bat ninth playing catcher.

Going for the defending champs is 34-year-old righty Nathan Eovaldi, a pretty unlikely Opening Day starter for a club that features a few big arms. Injuries and age have taken their toll, though, so this move makes sense. Eovaldi knows a little something about injuries after a 14-year MLB career in which he’s surpassed 30 appearances only twice.

His results are a little odd given the mid-90s fastball firm splitter that put him in the 97th percentile of pitch value last year according to Statcast. Though his heater is a couple ticks down from a few years ago, Eovaldi still sits 95 mph with a little cut. His splitter drops almost straight down and tends to stay a little more to the arm side to give him a very potent combo.

Those two pitches account for roughly two-thirds of his offerings, then his cutter takes up about 18% and gives a very different look from the splitter at similar velocity. The cutter stays middle-up in the zone and works across to the glove side, but Eovaldi will often take a lot off to spin his slider for more depth and sweep. The slider got pretty poor results last year and has been inconsistent, largely because hitters were spitting on it.

His last weapon is a 76 mph curve that moves in a 1-7 or even 1:30-7:30 direction, giving him one more way to mess with hitters in terms of both velo and location. Though he’s traditionally pitched to relatively neutral splits, Eovaldi was much tougher on left-handed batters last season and should be able to do it again if his secondaries work the same as they did.

Most of his success comes from limiting walks and getting a fair number of grounders, though he’ll give up plenty of hard contact on mistakes. Keeping the home runs down last year allowed Eovaldi to have a solid season despite an 8.1% walk rate that was nearly double his average from the three previous seasons. He’s hard to beat when he’s locating well, but a lack of called strikes can do him in.

Patient teams are able to grind Eovaldi down and run up his pitch count while forcing him to throw that fastball more often. Getting more of those four-seamers over the plate may be the recipe for the Cubs’ success in this one. On the other hand, offering early and letting him live on the edges might make this a very enjoyable night for the home team.

Time to see how things look for Craig Counsell‘s new team now that the games matter. First pitch is at 6:35pm CT on ESPN and 670 The Score.

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