Wicks relying on Counsell in bid to make Cubs' rotation

February 24th, 2024

MESA, Ariz. -- One of the advantages to bringing Craig Counsell into the fold as the Cubs’ new manager is the fact that he faced the North Siders for so many years with the rival Brewers. Plenty of Chicago’s players planned on using this spring to get feedback from Counsell on what he saw from the opposing dugout.

That applies just as much to a veteran like Kyle Hendricks -- who Counsell saw dozens of times in his near decade in Milwaukee -- or a rookie like lefty , who has exactly one outing under his belt against the Brewers. That start by Wicks last season has already come up in conversation.

“Yeah, we talked about that game,” Counsell said.

The Sept. 30 appearance in Milwaukee offered a glimpse into what Wicks needs to focus on in order to take the next step in his journey to becoming a part of the Cubs’ rotation. Wicks is armed with an elite changeup -- a pitch that has helped the 2021 first-rounder steadily climb up the organization ladder -- but needs to build a wide, trustworthy arsenal.

That was an area of emphasis over the offseason for Wicks, who started the Cubs’ Cactus League opener against the White Sox on Friday at Sloan Park. In the North Siders’ 8-1 win over their cross-town rivals, Wicks got the Cubs’ competition for the fifth rotation spot rolling, logging 40 pitches over 1 2/3 innings and testing his array of pitches.

“I think Jordan's probably been able to go through games and times with a fastball and changeup and that's enough,” Counsell said. “If you don't have one of those pitches, though, in a game, how do you survive, right? And I think that's what he's kind of talked about.”

The changeup will always be Wicks’ main weapon of choice, but the lefty spent time this winter working on his breaking pitches. The slider, in particular, was his primary project.

Wicks tweaked that pitch throughout last season -- the different baseballs used in Double-A and Triple-A necessitated grip changes -- and he did not have a comfort zone with the slider by the time he reached the Cubs in late August.

This offseason, Wicks wanted to identify a slider grip that worked best with his arm action and would be more reliable as a consistent part of his mix. Working with the Cubs’ pitching group, the lefty shifted his grip off the leather and along a seam and the results were promising out of the chute.

“That's the thing that's been the biggest surprise -- and the pleasant surprise this early into camp is how well the slider’s performed kind of in all three elements, as far as speed, action and command of it," Wicks said.

That included in his first outing of the spring.

“The second pitch to [Dominic] Fletcher was really good,” Wicks said. “We got him 0-2, and then we threw another slider off it that was a little bit more extended off, and that one was really good, too. We did what we wanted with it. I was really happy with that.”

In Wicks’ seven-start stay with the Cubs down the stretch, Statcast tracked a changeup (29.7% of the time), four-seamer (28.3%), sinker (19.6%), cutter (9.9%), curveball (8.4%) and slider (4.1%) from the lefty. He said having a slider he can trust more often will give batters one more thing to think about, especially on days his main offerings may be lagging.

While with the Cubs last year, the 24-year-old Wicks finished 4-1 with a 4.41 ERA and 24 strikeouts against 11 walks in 34 2/3 innings. That showing came after the lefty went 7-0 with a 3.55 ERA in 20 starts between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa.

“Honestly, Jordan [is a] tremendous guy [and] tremendous pitcher,” Cubs catcher Miguel Amaya said via translator. “His stuff is great. He can control every one of his pitches. He played a good role last year and what he has done this year, what I have seen so far, he’s even more prepared.”

Wicks struck out nine in his MLB debut in Pittsburgh on Aug. 26 and spun a 1.99 ERA in his first four outings with Chicago, but then yielded 12 runs in 12 innings in his last three turns. Six of those dozen runs came in 1 2/3 innings in Wicks’ season-concluding start against the Brewers with Counsell watching.

“It’s nice,” Wicks said, “because you can see from a manager that has faced you, ‘Hey, this is what we tried to do against you.’ It’s always good to have that information as a pitcher.”