This Cub is making waves at the Classic

March 17th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Jordan Bastian’s Cubs Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

MESA, Ariz. -- It was only one pitch, but the fastball that left ’s fingertips also served as a statement. It showed how a young pitcher can put in the work, make noticeable gains and put himself firmly on the Major League radar. It also put the Cubs’ improved pitching depth on display.

“Really happy for him,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said via text on Sunday night. “That was awesome.”

In the fourth inning of Sunday’s World Baseball Classic game between Mexico and the United States, Assad sent a fastball zipping up and in to . One of baseball’s elite sluggers, Alonso took a mighty hack but whiffed on a pitch that registered at 96.8 mph on the radar gun, per Statcast.

It was an impressive strikeout that opened an eye-opening three-inning performance for the 25-year-old Assad, who entered spring as a contender for the lone vacancy in Chicago’s rotation. The righty held Team USA to a 1-for-10 showing -- the lone hit being a single off the bat of superstar .

Combined, the star-studded U.S. lineup Assad faced in Mexico’s 11-5 victory accounted for two All-Star Game MVPs, two Home Run Derby titles, two Rookie of the Year Awards, three batting crowns, four World Series rings, five league MVP Awards, 26 Silver Slugger Awards and 37 All-Star nods.

“I'm sure that juices were flowing,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “His offseason program obviously is paying off, and he’s in a really good spot early on. That was really impressive, watching him pitch and pitch for his country, that environment, against that lineup. I knew he's fearless, but you can see it in that environment.”

In the outing against Team USA, Assad averaged 95.1 mph with his four-seam fastball. Last year, when the right-hander logged a 3.11 ERA in 37 2/3 innings down the stretch for Chicago, 95.1 mph was his maximum velocity on any one pitch. The gains in that department have come after Assad worked diligently through a velocity program set by the Cubs.

The Cubs have always liked Assad’s ability to command his pitches, but the increase in pitch speed helped him climb to the big leagues last year. He was one of the farm system’s breakout performers in 2022, posting a 2.66 ERA with 111 strikeouts and 35 walks in 108 1/3 innings across Double-A and Triple-A en route to his promotion to Chicago in late August.

Through three outings this spring -- two Cactus League games and the relief showing for Mexico -- Assad has logged seven shutout innings with four strikeouts, one walk and one hit. Ross named Assad a contender for the rotation’s fifth spot, along with and .

“Sometimes,” Ross said, “there's names that aren't on the radar as much, that you don't hear about, that can be really good big leaguers and impact us winning, and put themselves on the map when an opportunity presents itself. And being ready for that is extremely important.”