Cubs excited about mix of vets, homegrown arms in rotation

August 23rd, 2022

CHICAGO -- Inside Wrigley Field's interview room Monday afternoon, Cubs manager David Ross revealed that pitching prospect Javier Assad would be coming up from Triple-A Iowa on Tuesday and making his Major League debut against the Cardinals.

A few minutes later, veteran pitcher Kyle Hendricks took a seat in the home dugout, surrounded by media, to discuss the early end to his season due to a shoulder injury. It was the latest glimpse into this period of transition for the Cubs.

"I need to produce and perform to be a part of this," Hendricks said. "Those are the conversations we kind of had from the top down, that for everyone, no matter where this team goes, or the route, my value needs to be at its highest next year for any direction we're going to take."

In a 1-0 loss to the Cardinals, Cubs lefty Drew Smyly turned in the latest gem from a Chicago rotation that has been on its strongest run of the season. One Albert Pujols home run -- one that made Smyly the 449th pitcher to yield a blast to the living legend -- was the difference.

Going back to Aug. 5, which covers this recent 11-6 stretch for the Cubs, the starters have combined for a 2.57 ERA. Veterans like Smyly and Marcus Stroman have played a big role, while lefty Justin Steele has emerged as a trusted arm to firmly project as part of the 2023 staff.

When the 25-year-old Assad makes his debut in Game 1 of Tuesday's twin bill, he will become the 15th starter used by the Cubs in this trying campaign. The righty will also be the 11th player to make his MLB debut for the Cubs.

Assad is not on MLB Pipeline's Top 30 Cubs prospects, but there are 15 pitchers on that list. Nine in that grouping were either drafted by the Cubs in the 2021-22 seasons or acquired via trade in those seasons. Caleb Kilian (No. 14) made his debut earlier this year, and Hayden Wesneski (No. 12) has a chance to do the same before the end of the season.

"We keep talking about how in the past, it was maybe like one or two names," Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. "And now you're hearing three, four, five names. And then it's fun to get to go watch those guys perform and go compete."

The 32-year-old Hendricks has one year left on his contract and has said he would love to stay with the Cubs beyond '23. He knows health and a return to his expected production will impact that possibility. Hendricks is currently healing from a capsular tear in his shoulder, hoping to play catch before the end of the season in order to have a relatively normal offseason.

"Everybody thinks everything's going to be just fine," Ross said. "There's a lot of positives that he feels going into the offseason, but wants to make sure we're doing right and resting it the right amount of time on the front end."

Even while being out since early July, Hendricks has enjoyed seeing Steele and Keegan Thompson develop into rotation pieces this year, and the veteran has paid attention to the growing number of pitching prospects coming soon.

The last Cubs' core group was built around highly-touted position player talent. When Chicago was at the point of turning the corner from a rebuild to postseason contender, pitching was mostly obtained via trades or free agency. Homegrown arms were scarce.

"It's been awesome to see kind of the turnaround there," Hendricks said. "The value in that can't be overstated, just being able to home grow your guys, bring them up. And the [comfort] factor they have of knowing the organization, knowing the people they're coming up with, I think that's a huge part of it.

"But it just speaks volumes to the [player development and scouting] people we've brought in, the people at the top, and identifying these guys that we're going to be able to develop. The whole system behind the pitching really has taken a 180, and it's just super cool to watch."

Assad has posted a 2.66 ERA between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa this season, piling up 111 strikeouts against 35 walks in 108 1/3 innings. In his three most recent turns at Iowa, the righty has a 1.56 ERA with 19 strikeouts and two walks in 17 1/3 frames.

"He's added velocity this year," said Jared Banner, the Cubs' vice president of player development. "It's made him somewhat of a different pitcher, raised his ceiling a bit. I'm looking forward to seeing him."

The Cubs have not yet announced their planned starter for Wednesday's game against the Cardinals. Banner smiled when asked if Wesneski might be the next pitcher to make his MLB debut.

"I knew that was coming," said Banner, who would not tip his hand, but did praise another one of the Cubs' up-and-coming prospects.

"He's really talented," Banner said. "We're excited to have him in our system, working with our staff. And we expect him to be a big part of our future."