Cubs Pitching Puzzle Coming Together as Smyly, Steele Expected to Make Rotation

The construction of the Cubs’ pitching staff this offseason has been entropic, which is exactly the kind of weather Jed Hoyer will be enjoying this fall if things don’t break the right way. Or if they continue to break the wrong way, literally, since several would-be key players have been lost to injury for at least the first month of the season. The additions of Wade Miley and Marcus Stroman would have made an otherwise solid rotation into an excellent one, but the Cubs were “simply not good enough” in 2021.

“If you sort of look at the whole season, there’s no question that we have to acquire more pitching, better pitching this year,” Hoyer admitted last October. “I think that’ll be the No. 1 priority because that, said simply, was the downfall of this season was that our rotation was short and we weren’t effective enough in terms of run prevention.”

Adding the 5-foot-8 Stroman isn’t going to help a short rotation get taller and Miley’s fastball (89.8 mph) isn’t helping to improve the lowest average velocity among all MLB rotations. Setting jokes aside, the apparent lack of even a passing attempt to make good on addressing the club’s biggest need has left the Cubs with a lot of questions. I’ve harped on this for months now, but I still can’t get over the way the front office seemingly went in the opposite direction of their words.

“You need power pitching,” Hoyer said. “You need power arms to win in today’s game. You need to be able to miss bats. The makeup of our staff this year was too contact-oriented, so to speak, and that’s something that needs to change.”

The Cubs do have a good number of hard-throwing prospects at various levels of the minors, but whether and when they’ll come up to help the big club remains to be seen. In the meantime, the team is going with more of a volume-based approach that will require nearly everyone on the staff to pitch to the best of his potential on a daily basis. That goes double for the rotation, which is starting to come into focus with the regular season just over a week away.

“There’s pieces missing, you’re trying to find them on the floor,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy explained this past weekend. “It’s gonna come together. To say each piece is gonna fit perfectly in the puzzle is still to be determined.”

Stroman, Miley, and Kyle Hendricks were the only sure bets headed into camp, but the former Red has yet to appear in a Cactus League game as he ramps up from nagging injuries. Even if Miley throws live in Mesa before the end of spring training, his status for the regular season is up in the air. The Cubs won’t have any shortage of lefties, though, as David Ross confirmed Tuesday that Drew Smyly will be in the rotation and indicated that Justin Steele will join him.

“There’s a strong chance that [Steele will] be in the rotation,” Ross said. “He’s looked really good, building off last year. Ball’s coming out nicely, looks like he’s healthy and gonna give us some really good starts.”

This is where the two extra roster spots are really going to help out in those first few weeks. Ross has already said he’ll use both spots for pitchers, though exactly how the Cubs will choose to allocate them may not yet be known. One would imagine they’d opt for pitchers who can go multiple innings, whether that means starters or tweener relievers.

Even if Ross doesn’t go with a set piggyback day or employ an opener, he’s going to have to be flexible and creative following a shortened spring in which not everyone got stretched out. Scott Effross seems like a no-brainer in that case, though I believed he should break camp with the Cubs even before considering roster expansion. Ethan Roberts is another who has looked good and could serve as part of a relief platoon that handles the late innings.

We’ll get further clarity when the Triple-A roster is announced and those players assigned to Iowa depart camp on Thursday. Even that will only be good for a limited time, as we could see the Cubs get close this year to the MLB-record 69 players they used in ’21. That’s 13 more than the previous record set in 2013 and the 44 players to make their Cubs debut last season broke the old record, also from 2013, by 10.

The hope is that in all that expected turnover, the organization is able to give its younger pitchers more experience while also moving on from low-ceiling veterans to clear a path through the system for impact prospects.

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