Chicago Cubs promote top pitching prospect Cade Horton to Triple-A Iowa — setting up potential summer arrival

NEW YORK — Chicago Cubs top pitching prospect Cade Horton is another step closer to Wrigley Field.

The 22-year-old right-hander has been promoted to Triple-A Iowa following a stellar start to his season. The move sets up Horton to be a big-league option sometime this summer. Horton was lights-out in four starts with Double-A Tennessee, posting a 1.10 ERA. He gave up only two earned runs in 16 1/3 innings while walking just two hitters and striking out 18.

“The best part to me is just Cade’s off to a good start in the season, he’s off to a really good start which means he’s thrown the ball well, he feels good and now he’s got the next challenge in front of him,” manager Craig Counsell said Tuesday. “He’s ready for the next challenge so that’s the best part. I don’t think too far past that.

“He’s a young player and that experience and that challenge is going to be really valuable for him and you hope he succeeds and then when he starts having some success, then the (big-league) conversation starts to bubble up.”

Last year, the Cubs’ 2022 first-round draft pick climbed three levels from Low-A Myrtle Beach to Double A behind a 2.65 ERA in 22 starts spanning 88 1/3 innings. Horton’s electric stuff — featuring a fastball that sits at 95 mph and can hit the upper 90s, a nasty slider that was a standout pitch at Oklahoma, a changeup and curveball — lets the Cubs and fans dream big when it comes to his potential.

When Horton does earn his major-league call-up, the quality of hitters he faces will present the toughest test after making the jump from Triple A.

“It sounds simple, and it sounds like ‘Oh, no kidding,’ but the hitters are a lot better,” Counsell said. “Whether that’s a foul ball instead of a swing-and-miss then you’ve got to make another pitch, whether the mistakes get hurt a little more — instead of they hit a single, they hit a homer — just everything has to be a little bit better and that is harder.

“Getting outs in the big leagues is harder. We have this conversation about starting and relieving and getting a big-league out is harder than starting in Triple A, it’s just hard to get a big-league out.”

Horton’s promotion comes as the Cubs’ starting pitching depth has taken a hit in the first month of the season. Right-handers Ben Brown and Hayden Wesneski started the year at Triple A and are now in the rotation as left-handers Justin Steele and Jordan Wicks and right-hander Kyle Hendricks are all currently on the 15-day injured list.

Steele is slated to make a rehab start Wednesday at Iowa, with a goal of 60-65 pitches. Counsell said the Cubs will see where Steele is at afterward, but it’s possible he will not need another rehab start and instead returns to the rotation. Hendricks is trending toward a rehab outing later this week.

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The Cubs need to get the 2023 version of Hendricks when he is ready to come off the IL. He has a chance to work on the mechanical issues in his delivery and sequencing while on his rehab assignment, which can last as many as 30 days per the league rules.

But if Hendricks comes back and the results continue to mirror the 12.00 ERA and averaging less than five innings he put up in his first five starts, the team will face a difficult conversation. The Cubs say the innings Hendricks could give them, as long as his start days aren’t liabilities to the bullpen, are important with so many less-experienced pitchers on staff. The organization will monitor their workloads, especially right-hander Ben Brown, who is scheduled to start Thursday’s series finale against the Mets. Brown threw 92 2/3 innings in the minors last year and has never thrown more than 104 in a season (2022). Brown, 24, has pitched 23 innings in seven games (three starts) for the Cubs this year.

The Cubs will also be keeping an eye on Horton’s innings. Horton tossed 88 1/3 innings last year during his first professional season. He was limited to 53 2/3 innings in his final season at Oklahoma in 2022 after returning from Tommy John surgery.

Something the Cubs must weigh going forward: If Horton keeps pitching well, how many of the innings he could throw in 2024 should be allocated at Triple A versus the majors?

“Cases are different, clubs, situations are different, time of the year matters — everything,” Counsell said. “So I don’t think there’s a right answer to that. I think you have to just apply the best thing for the player that you have and for your team.”