The Cubs currently have four pitchers locked in for the rotation, with Marcus Stroman, Justin Steele, Jameson Taillon, and Drew Smyly handling a lion’s share of the starts. Kyle Hendricks could join that group once he’s ready to return from the capsular tear that shut him down last July, but he has yet to throw from a mound since then and he’s at least a month behind his normal schedule. That leaves several options to take the fifth spot, though neither Keegan Thompson nor Adbert Alzolay will be among them.
David Ross told reporters as much on Saturday, saying that Hayden Wesneski, Adrian Sampson, Javier Assad, and some non-roster invitees are all under consideration. The manager noted that Thompson has already been made aware that he’ll be working out of the bullpen and the same appears to be true for Alzolay, who Ross said will throw “big innings” this year.
That sounds kind of like what the Cubs were saying about Alzolay prior to the 2021 season, when they planned to use him in more of a swing role before deploying him mainly as a starter. The result was a career-high 125.2 innings and a shift back to the bullpen for the final month following an IL stint. Alzolay then missed most of ’22 with an injured lat muscle, coming back for just six appearances late in the season.
He and Thompson have both flashed as starters but can really empty the tank and let their stuff play up over shorter outings. Using them in the bullpen affords Ross a little more leeway to pull a starter if he gets into early trouble because the two righties can work multiple innings to spare other relievers. They can serve in high-leverage situations as well, ideally bridging the gap from starter to closer for 6-9 outs.
Alzolay’s ERA is nearly three runs lower as a reliever than it is as a starter (2.32 to 5.19), and his 5.00 K/BB ratio is almost twice as high as the 2.85 when he works out of the ‘pen. Thompson likewise has much better numbers as a reliever, boasting a 1.95 ERA and limiting opposing hitters to a .182 average (4.94 and .274 as a starter). While they could be decent in the rotation, they can be true weapons as members of the arm barn.
As for that final rotation spot, I will give the early nod to Adrian Sampson. Big changes to his repertoire have yielded tremendous results that appear to be sustainable, though he’s never going to be dominant in terms of missing bats. Wesneski has that potential with his nasty breaking stuff, I just think the Cubs are going to be willing to let him continue to gain more experience either in Triple-A or as yet another long reliever in Chicago for the immediate future.