The Cubs’ rotation right now, heading down the stretch here in 2023 and in the heat of a playoff chase, is far from settled. Justin Steele has been a lockdown option atop the rotation, but he’s already gone past his previous career high in innings (119 innings pitched last year, 121 already this year). Jameson Taillon has seemingly rediscovered himself thanks to a reworked pitch mix. Still, his massive first-half struggles raise questions about his ability to keep up his recent performance (2.67 ERA in five starts in July, 3.00 ERA in two starts in August) through the end of the season. Kyle Hendricks has been a highly valuable innings eater, but he’s coming off a capsular tear in his throwing shoulder and was ineffective over the previous two seasons. Beyond that trio, already littered with their own asterisks, the Cubs have a lot of questions to answer in their rotation.
Marcus Stroman started this year on fire, earning a deserved all-star selection for his first-half performance (2.38 ERA in 102 innings through June). But ever since the blister issue in London against the St. Louis Cardinals, he’s struggled mightily (he has a 10.13 ERA in just 16 second-half innings!), and now he’s on the IL with a hip inflammation issue that the Cubs are praying is the source of his downtick in performance. Drew Smyly similarly started the year hot (3.15 ERA in 60 innings in April and May), coming off a scorching second half-last season (2.83 ERA in 57 and ⅓ innings). However, he’s been absolutely torched recently, giving up a preposterously high 7.22 ERA since May 28. He’s also been almost unbelievably susceptible to the long ball, giving up 1.76 home runs per nine (which, among pitchers who have thrown at least 100 innings this year, ranks ninth-worst in all of baseball).
The Cubs are responding in accordance with all of this information, moving Smyly to the bullpen and giving long-man Javier Assad another chance to lock down a spot in the rotation. Assad has been exceptional in long-relief, but he’s generally been a two-pitch pitcher that will need to expand his arsenal beyond the fastball/cutter combo (and occasional slider and changeup) to make it through the second and third time in an order.
Beyond him, the Cubs have some intriguing, though perhaps not-quite-ready, options available in-house to try and fill the void at the back end of the rotation that currently exists.
Ben Brown. Brown was all but certainly the next man up following his dominant start to the year at Double-A Tennessee (0.45 ERA in 20 innings pitched there). However, his recent strike-throwing troubles at Triple-A (40 walks in 65 innings) suggest he still has some refinement to work through before he’s ready. It’s also possible he’d be better utilized out of the big league bullpen this year, given his incredible fastball/curveball mix. And, of course, he was just placed on the Injured List, squashing any chance of him contributing in the immediate future.
Jordan Wicks. Armed with a 60-grade changeup and above-average command, Wicks is the most MLB-ready pitcher in the Cubs’ system at the moment. He hasn’t been dominant at Triple-A this year (4.24 ERA in 23 and ⅓ innings, with some meh peripherals to match), but his profile and diverse arsenal of pitches could make him a viable fifth starter down the stretch.
Riley Thompson. This is a name you’ve probably heard here and there as he’s steadily climbed the ladder over the years, though he’s having a tough go of it in his first taste of Triple-A this season (4.95 ERA in 60 innings, with an ugly 6.10 FIP). He was an exciting prospect following two really strong seasons in A ball to begin his career, but he lost two crucial years to the pandemic and still has yet to regain his footing. Hopefully, the Cubs can help him get there because the fastball/slider/curveball combo is genuinely exciting. Still, it would take a catastrophe of biblical proportions to see him on the big league team this year.
Kohl Franklin. Full disclosure, I love this kid. In my eyes, he has a top-three changeup in the system, and he started the season in such an electric way at High-A this year (2.79 ERA in 19 and ⅓ innings, with a sizzling 13.97 strikeouts per nine innings). He’s hit a speed bump at Double-A, mostly because of a spotty walk rate (4.58 walks per nine innings) which has always been his most glaring issue. He’s a true starting pitching prospect, but he’s only listed here because he’s Rule 5 eligible after the season and will need to be put on the 40-man roster anyways over the offseason to be protected (if the Cubs feel the need to protect him, of course).
Cade Horton. He won’t get called up, having just made it to Double-A, and he’s already thrown 65 and ⅓ innings this year after barely pitching in college. However, his arm is undeniably special, and he will (hopefully) be a staple of future Cubs rotations. He just won’t be able to help out this year, unfortunately.
On top of the guys listed, Hayden Wesneski and Caleb Kilian are already in the big league bullpen assisting as openers and in long-relief. With Smyly moving out of the rotation, chances are one of them could join Assad in the rotation, at least until Stroman returns.
The Cubs will need a strong effort out of whatever five they choose to start in the hunt for a playoff spot. However, it’s fair to lob a little criticism at the front office for not trying to plug this hole with a rental starter at the deadline (when the Stroman and Smyly issues were already apparent and actively hurting the team).
Who do you want to see the Cubs give a chance to this year? No pressure on answering that question. It’s only a spot in the playoffs on the line.
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