Wicks finds value in facing Padres' top sluggers

March 4th, 2024

PEORIA, Ariz. -- knows the priority is to focus on his own stuff, but sluggers digging in at the plate are still sluggers, even in early March.

The left-handed Wicks made another bid to snare that Opening Day rotation’s fifth spot by allowing just one run over his 3 1/3 innings in a 2-1 loss to the Padres Monday at Peoria Stadium. He maintained that line while facing the likes of Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado.

“It’s a lot about my own work, but it’s also good to see guys like that, see that upper-level competition, those top-tier guys,” said Wicks, whom MLB Pipeline ranks as the Cubs' No. 10 prospect. “You know you’re going to see them during the season. I liked it a lot because I thought it was good competition.”

Tatis got the better of the matchup with two hits in two at-bats against Wicks, while Machado went hitless in two trips. Wicks walked one, hit a batter and threw a wild pitch.

After three Spring Training starts, Wicks is evolving from early camp workouts to more focused outings with 24 days until Opening Day.

“Early on, a lot of it is fastball [and] command. Getting that honed in,” Wicks said. “After that you start to tinker in the offspeed stuff. You like to see the shapes of everything early on. With offspeed stuff, execution is a little bit more like the last thing to come.”

A battle remains for Chicago's fifth rotation spot behind the forerunning foursome of Kyle Hendricks, Shota Imanaga, Justin Steele and Jameson Taillon. Wicks has a spring resume that sports a 2-0 record with a 2.25 ERA in three starts.

“I want to get myself in the best position possible for Opening Day and wherever that is, it is,” Wicks said. “Executing my pitches is only something I can control. A lot of things like results and things outside of myself I can’t control and I try not to worry about those.”

Cooper makes Cubs debut
Garrett Cooper made his first appearance for the Cubs since they signed the veteran first baseman to a Minor League contract on Feb. 29. Batting cleanup as the DH, Cooper struck out swinging in his first two at-bats, but in the fifth inning doubled home Christopher Morel.

A seven-year veteran, Cooper slashed .251/.304/.419 with 17 home runs and 61 RBIs in 123 combined games with the Marlins and Padres in 2023. The 33-year-old, an All-Star in '22, was particularly strong against lefties last season, with a .529 slugging percentage and .904 OPS.

Taillon watch
Taillon appears to be getting closer to making his first Cactus League appearance. He threw a live simulated game on Monday.

Taillon, who started 29 games last year, closed the 2023 regular season strong by going 5-4 after the All-Star break and shaving his opponents' batting average from .275 to .244 in the process.

Still no cuts
Although Major League teams had the ability to officially begin roster cuts on Sunday, the Cubs have yet to do so.

Whether it’s analyzing lefty-righty matchups or going with on-base guys versus power hitters, Cubs manager Craig Counsell isn’t hurrying to sort out any lineups at this point in the spring.

“I think we make too much of lineups, I will say that,” Counsell said. “Ultimately we want a lot of good hitters to go have great at-bats and that’s how we’re going to score runs. I do believe, yes, at points we’re going to line them up in a way where they can protect each other.”

Counsell also confirmed he is not yet ready to name an Opening Day starter for when the regular season begins on March 28 in Texas against the World Series champion Rangers. He wants to get through the pitching rotation one more time before committing to anything.

“We’re getting there. I think it’s earned, right? I really do,” Counsell said of naming an Opening Day starter. “I really look at it that way.”