Wicks, Assad round out Cubs' homegrown rotation

March 21st, 2024

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- was summoned to the office of Cubs manager Craig Counsell earlier this week and learned he would begin the season in the Opening Day rotation. received the same news on Thursday morning.

“It’s something I don’t take lightly,” Wicks said.

“I’m super appreciative, super happy,” Assad said via an interpreter.

Those conversations with Counsell put the finishing touch on the makeup of Chicago’s starting staff to open the campaign. And with the additions of Wicks and Assad, the rotation fielded on Opening Day will feature a majority of homegrown arms. And they each offer a much different development tale.

Lefty Justin Steele, who is set to take the ball on Opening Day against the World Series-champion Rangers, was a fifth-round pick by the Cubs in 2014. Steele overcame a variety of injury setbacks as a Minor Leaguer to eventually emerge as an aspiring ace. Assad was signed out of Mexico in 2015. Wicks was a first-rounder in 2021 and has climbed quickly to the big leagues while establishing himself as Chicago's No. 9-ranked prospect, per MLB Pipeline.

A knock against the Cubs throughout their last contention window was the organization’s lack of pitching developed from the inside. An overhauling of their player development structure and processes in the past five years -- combined with the recent rebuilding period that improved the depth of prospects -- has led to more internal arms impacting the MLB team (with even more rising up the pipeline).

“We obviously had a dry spell in that regard,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “We had to make some changes. I think both scouting and player development have done a really nice job with that, of making those adjustments. You have to have that in today's game.

“It's hard to rely on the free-agent market for enough pitching. It's really expensive and it's usually older [players]. Hopefully, we have some young arms that can help us.”

The Cubs’ rotation to begin this season is also set to include veteran righty Kyle Hendricks, who was acquired via trade as a Minor Leaguer in 2012, developed by the North Siders and has spent the past decade with Chicago. Lefty Shota Imanaga -- signed to a four-year, $53 million deal this past winter -- rounds out the staff.

There is also right-hander Jameson Taillon, who is entering the second season under the four-year, $68 million free-agent deal he inked with the Cubs two winters ago. Taillon is on the mend from a lower-back issue that interrupted his Spring Training, but his comeback will require a season-opening stint on the injured list.

Righty Hayden Wesneski and veteran lefty Drew Smyly were in the mix for the rotation openings this spring, too. Wesneski remains in camp with the Cubs and is now a possible fit for the bullpen. Smyly, who pitched two relief innings in Thursday’s 5-2 win over the Rockies at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, was informed he will begin the season in the ‘pen.

“I still think Drew will make starts at some point,” Counsell said. “Drew's been very open about the willingness to be versatile, about the willingness to, like, 'I'll do whatever you guys would want me to do.' I think that mindset is what's important to have success. And that's really helpful for me, for sure, and for us in kind of figuring out different ways to go with our pitching.”

Smyly posted a 5.62 ERA in 23 starts last season for the Cubs, but the lefty had a 2.51 ERA with 39 strikeouts and 13 walks in 28 2/3 innings (18 games) out of the bullpen. Given Counsell’s strong reputation for managing a relief corps, Smyly said he was looking forward to seeing how he could be utilized.

“I think it’s something I can be really good at -- something I can thrive in,” Smyly said. “I’m excited about it.”

The 24-year-old Wicks reached Chicago last year after moving through Double-A and Triple-A. He had a 1.99 ERA in his first four MLB outings before admittedly dealing with late-season fatigue (9.00 ERA in his last three games). Assad, 26, was a versatile piece to the 2023 puzzle. The righty showed poise in any role, logging a 3.02 ERA in 10 starts and a 3.07 ERA in 22 relief outings.

Counsell has raved about how both Wicks and Assad carry themselves like veterans on the mound.

“I like to call them calm, clear-headed competitors,” Counsell said. “I think that's what you feel from those guys when they're on the field. And that's just, in a lot of ways, it's a gift, right? It's one of their talents.”