Ross sheds light on fifth starter competition

Thompson, Alzolay to pitch in relief; Wesneski, Assad, Sampson competing for rotation spot

February 19th, 2023

MESA, Ariz. -- The Cubs are not expecting to be ready in time for Opening Day, but the team has built a rotation that should be deep enough to absorb that blow. That same depth has also helped Hendricks know he can take the time necessary to get his shoulder strong and mechanics in order.

"You want to get back out there as quick as you can," Hendricks said on Saturday morning. "But I'm going to focus on my process and go through it as I can, but it helps mentally -- to relax a little bit, for sure -- knowing what we put together here."

The front four of the rotation is likely to include Marcus Stroman, Jameson Taillon, Drew Smyly and Justin Steele. Without Hendricks for the start of the season, manager David Ross identified , and as the main candidates for the lone vacancy, along with some non-roster invitees.

The working assumption has been that righty would be in the bullpen, and Ross confirmed that thinking on Saturday. Ross also made it clear that right-hander -- who has worked as a starter and a reliever for Chicago -- will return to his role as a multi-inning relief weapon.

"He knows that," Ross said matter-of-factly.

Thompson, 27, was brilliant out of the bullpen last season, posting a 1.47 ERA with 42 strikeouts against 14 walks in 36 2/3 innings (12 appearances) for the Cubs. The results were more inconsistent when he moved to the rotation, where he logged a 4.83 ERA with 66 strikeouts and 29 walks in 78 1/3 innings.

Similarly, the 27-year-old Alzolay has turned in better numbers in his career as a reliever (2.32 ERA with 55 strikeouts and 11 walks in 42 2/3 innings) than as a starting pitcher (5.19 ERA in 27 games). Last year, Alzolay made only six appearances as he battled shoulder injuries, but finally took the mound in September and had 19 strikeouts and two walks with a 3.38 ERA in 13 1/3 innings out of the bullpen.

"He's definitely a guy that's in the bullpen mix," Ross said of Alzolay. "I expect big innings out of him this year."

Sampson, 31, had a 3.11 ERA with 73 strikeouts and 27 walks in 104 1/3 innings for the Cubs last season. The righty was particularly strong down the stretch, posting a 1.71 ERA in his last eight turns and a 1.34 ERA in his final six outings. Sampson signed a one-year, $1.9 million deal over the offseason to avoid arbitration.

The Cubs took a close look down the stretch at Assad and Wesneski, who posted ERA’s of 3.11 (nine games) and 2.18 (six games), respectively. Assad was one of stories of the Minor League season for Chicago, logging a 2.66 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A before getting the call to the Majors. Wesneski came to the Cubs from the Yankees in the Deadline deal for Scott Effross.

After a strong showing at Triple-A (3.92 ERA with 106 strikeouts and 36 walks in 110 1/3 innings) between the Yankees and Cubs, Wesneski was dominant in the final month for the Cubs last year. In recent years, he may have fit the mold of a multi-inning relief candidate, but that is not how Ross views the situation.

"He wants to help the team any way he can," Ross said. "I don't know that we're in a position this year that we have been in the past, where we'd have to put him in the bullpen. I think he's going to be a really valuable starter for us at some point, whether it's breaking camp or not.

“He gets outs. He's done a really good job. He can build off what he did last year. So I think we're, that [rotation mix] is definitely where I'd put him."