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Chicago Sun Times
Chicago Sun-Times
25 Mar 2023

NextImg:Cubs name Hayden Wesneski fifth starter as Opening Day roster starts to come into focus

MESA, Ariz. – Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy pulled a bait-and-switch on rookie right-hander Hayden Wesneksi.

Hottovy told Wesneski they had to talk about his upcoming pitching schedule. So, Wesneski didn’t see it coming when he walked into manager David Ross’ office and got the news that he’d made the Opening Day roster as the Cubs’ fifth starter.

“It’s crazy,” Wesneski said. “You just don’t know what to say. Something you hope for.” 

The Cubs still need to make important roster decisions, centered around the bullpen and bench, before Opening Day Thursday. But with manager David Ross’ officially announcing Wesneski as the fifth starter on Saturday, the pitching staff has started to snap into place.

“He seems to be right where he left off [last season],” Ross said. “Throwing the ball really well, touched 97 [mph] the other day, so the arm strength’s there, executing pitches. He’s had a really, really nice spring.” 

Wesneski, who the Cubs acquired from the Yankees for reliever Scott Effross at last year’s trade deadline, made his MLB debut for the Cubs in September. He posted an impressive 2.18 ERA in six appearances, jumping off that performance into the rotation battle. 

“Last year, we saw just how talented he is and what he can do just from a stuff perspective,” Hottovy said, “but the work ethic, what he’s done to put himself in this position to not only go out and continue the success he had, but also handle what’s expected of him from a workload perspective, from a team’s perspective. And he’s lived up to all the things that we hoped he would be and put on his plate.”

Wesneski battled Adrian Sampson and Javier Assad for the last rotation spot.

“That’s why I love having competition in spring training,” Hottovy said, “because it puts a different level of urgency, expectation on yourself. And you get to know a lot about a person from how they handle some of that stuff.”

Wesneski thrived under that pressure, giving up just four earned runs over the course of five starts this spring. 

On Saturday, the Cubs also announced that they’d optioned Sampson to Triple-A Iowa, where he’ll stay stretched out as starting depth. Assad, with a strong start to Cactus League play and a dominant World Baseball Classic stint, has put himself in the running to claim a multi-inning bullpen role.

That makes the projected rotation order: right-hander Marcus Stroman, left-hander Justin Steele, right-hander Jameson Taillon, left-hander Drew Smyly, Wesneski.

The bullpen is more complicated to parse. 

“At the end of the day, some really good pitchers won’t make the team,” Ross said recently.

The Cubs, dealing with a 40-man roster crunch, will likely clear a spot by making the tough decision to put reliever Rowan Wick on waivers. 

Ryan Borucki is the frontrunner among left-handed relievers to make the team. But it’s unclear how many lefties will start the season in the bullpen. 

Brandon Hughes, who had meniscus surgery on left knee back in 2015, has been dealing with a flare-up in the same knee this spring. He threw a side session on Saturday with a new knee brace and is penciled in to pitch in the Cubs’ game against the Royals on Monday. 

“He’s feeling better,” Hottovy said. “So that’s the most important thing. We want to see how mechanically that is translating because it’s easy to form bad habits when you don’t feel good.” 

Right-handed relievers Mark Leiter Jr. and Tyler Duffey have opt-outs clauses centered around Opening Day, and if the Cubs don’t put them on the roster, they’ll likely lose them. 

On the position player side, the Cubs’ bench decisions center on how they want to handle the opening in right field. Seiya Suzuki (strained left oblique) is progressing well, hitting home runs in batting practice Saturday, but he’ll still start the season on the injured list.

“We have so much talent and a lot of depth here,” Ross said. “We would like to keep as much as we possibly can because of the long journey we’re about to start. So his progression is important to some of those decisions.” 

Non-roster invitee Mike Tauchman had a hot start to spring, but if Suzuki’s stint on the injured list won’t be long, the Cubs could get by with a rotating cast of versatile defenders in right field without having to clear a 40-man roster spot. Christopher Morel, Patrick Wisdom, Trey Mancini and Miles Mastrobuoni have also played right field in recent weeks. 

The Cubs will continue to make roster moves in the coming days, but their Opening Day squad likely won’t be finalized until crunch time.