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Taking stock of the Cubs' rotation: Where do things stand with Shota Imanaga, Javier Assad and the rest?

Chicago's pitchers are getting healthier, but questions remain after injuries and breakouts reshuffled the deck

Pitching injuries have defined the first month of the 2024 MLB season, and the Chicago Cubs are no exception. But the evolution of Chicago’s pitching staff over the past calendar year has been the product of more than just the names on the injured list. Free-agent signings and departures, unexpected internal breakouts, prospect development and veteran resurgences have brought the Cubs rotation to where it is today: a state of optimism and potential strength, yet with a steady dose of uncertainty for the months ahead. And yes, injuries have played a big part as well.

With news of Cody Bellinger joining fellow outfielder Seiya Suzuki on the injured list this week, the pressure is on the Cubs’ pitching staff to continue delivering quality starts while the offense searches for more reliable sources of run production beyond its injured stars. As the Cubs look to keep pace in an ultra-competitive NL Central, here’s one pressing question about each of their starting pitchers (healthy and hurt) and some thoughts on how the rotation could shake out as the season progresses.

Using almost exclusively a two-pitch mix of four-seamers and sliders, Steele authored one of the bigger breakouts of any starting pitcher in baseball in 2023, making his first All-Star team and finishing fifth in NL Cy Young voting. His ascent to the top of the Cubs starting pitching depth chart earned him the Opening Day nod in 2024, but his inaugural outing — one in which he looked tremendous through four-plus innings against the defending champs — was cut short when he strained his left hamstring fielding a bunt. It was an unfortunate start for both team and player, and it forced Chicago to dip into its depth far sooner than anticipated.

The good news is that Steele appears on track to return to the rotation in the near future. He threw a live BP session on Sunday and is scheduled to make a start at Chicago’s complex in Arizona on Friday. If all goes well, a rehab assignment and return to the roster in early May seem plausible and should provide a much-needed boost to this staff. There doesn’t appear to be any concern about the injury derailing Steele’s season further, but as with any injury, it’ll be interesting to see if the talented lefty can immediately get back to being awesome or if we’ll need to wait a bit before he’s back at his best.

Even if Imanaga didn’t have an ERA under 1.00, it seems pretty likely that he would’ve already become a fan favorite, considering the degree to which the Japanese lefty has embraced the city of Chicago in his first few months as a Cub. But in the wake of Steele’s Opening Day injury, Imanaga’s excellent first few outings have been especially appreciated by the Cubs faithful and certainly have the organization feeling good about its investment in the 30-year-old left-hander as one of its premier winter acquisitions.

Imanaga’s proclivity to surrender fly balls might prove to become more problematic as the weather warms up and the ball starts flying a bit farther at Wrigley Field. But so far, his four-seamer and splitter have worked wonders against big-league bats, and he has done an excellent job of limiting free passes (2.4% walk rate). If/when the league starts to adjust to Imanaga’s fastball and punish it more frequently, he might need to start deploying more breaking balls; his curveball and sweeper have accounted for only about 12% of his pitches through four starts, a sharp decline from the more than 20% usage of breakers he showed in Japan. It’s also possible that the life on his heater and how well his splitter plays off of it will be enough for him to keep getting outs without adjusting his usage too drastically. Either way, Imanaga has been a delight to watch and has thus far been a welcome, steady presence amid the injuries elsewhere on this staff.

Shota Imanaga headshot
Shota Imanaga
SP - CHC - #18
2024 - false season
53.2
IP
0.84
ERA
0.91
WHIP
58
K
9
BB

Chicago’s decision to pick up Hendricks’ $16.5 million option for 2024 made plenty of sense at the time. Not only had Hendricks just delivered 24 starts of mid-rotation quality (3.74 ERA, 3.81 FIP in 137 innings), but also Marcus Stroman’s decision to opt out of his contract made it even more important to secure a pitcher of Hendricks’ caliber for at least one more season at a reasonable cost. Besides, in addition to his fit on the roster, Hendricks is the Cubs’ longest-tenured player by far, a beloved figure on and off the field who is the last remaining connection to the 2016 title team. Chicago loves him, he pitched well enough to stick around, and the rotation needed him. Simple enough.

But five starts into the 2024 season, Hendricks’ future is suddenly somewhat uncertain. The 34-year-old righty was knocked around to an extreme degree — he allowed a staggering 28 runs on 37 hits, including eight homers, across just 21 frames — before hitting the IL due to a lower back strain. When Hendricks spoke to reporters earlier this week, he did not directly link his poor performance to the injury, but he acknowledged that an IL stint was necessary because “we just want to give myself a chance to get to 100 percent so I know there aren't any issues and strictly focus on the pitching."

Kyle Hendricks headshot
Kyle Hendricks
SP - CHC - #28
2024 - false season
32.2
IP
10.47
ERA
2.02
WHIP
26
K
12
BB

He fully acknowledged his immense struggles thus far and contemplated the possible causes:

"Definitely have some predictable usage in there, for sure. So I need to get back to being myself in those ways, using my full arsenal, mixing it in and out, changing speeds back and forth. Manipulate my fastball a little bit. I'm not getting outs with my fastball right now, bottom line. And so that's really what I have to rely on and get back to. No matter how my fastball is playing, I have to get outs with it to set up my other stuff. So yeah, look at a lot of stuff there. Focus on the fastball command and the movement, manipulating again, and I think that'll get me back to being myself.”

He also emphasized his intention to get back on track for a team with big expectations:

"I just want to be here for this team by the end of the year. We know where we want to go. We have the team to do it this year, and I obviously just want to be a big part of that toward the end of the season here."

This is exactly the mindset Hendricks should have, but there’s reason to wonder just how big a part he’ll be by the end of the season. Five starts isn’t nearly enough of a sample to declare him doomed to never again be a successful starting pitcher. But when you’re working with smaller margins the way Hendricks has for years, considering his well-below-average velocity, it can go bad in a hurry if/when things aren’t perfectly in sync.

On top of that, this latest injury scare, though not acknowledged publicly to be anything serious, is a tad ominous considering the persistent shoulder trouble Hendricks dealt with in 2022 and into ‘23. He’ll need to prove upon his return that he can be a serviceable and healthy starter again, especially with other attractive options on the depth chart. Otherwise, Hendricks’ fantastic Cubs tenure might come to an end earlier than anyone would like.

Developed exclusively as a starter in the minors, Assad has proven tremendously valuable to the Cubs for his ability to bounce between the rotation and the bullpen, particularly last year. He spent much of the first half of 2023 pitching multiple-inning stints in relief before transitioning to the rotation in early August, where he posted a 2.84 ERA in 50 2/3 IP across nine starts before returning to a relief role in September. His fastball tops out around 93-94 mph, but Assad’s pitch mix is plenty deep and balanced enough to keep hitters guessing and producing weak contact.

Jameson Taillon’s injury in spring training assured Assad a return to the rotation to start this year, and he has responded brilliantly (2.00 ERA in 27 IP), most recently in his duel with Justin Verlander on Thursday, in which he allowed just one run over 5⅔ frames in Chicago’s sweep-clinching victory over the Astros. The sample of success is fairly spectacular at this point: Among 66 pitchers who have thrown at least 100 innings since June 27, 2023, Assad’s 2.15 ERA in that span ranks first. Number one. The best. Mark Leiter Jr. wasn’t joking!

Javier Assad headshot
Javier Assad
RP - CHC - #72
2024 - false season
53
IP
1.70
ERA
1.11
WHIP
46
K
20
BB

At this point, it’s no longer the case that Assad is a viable option to remain in the rotation; he might be one of Chicago’s best options, full stop. In turn, it will be fascinating to see how the Cubs handle the eventual returns of Steele and Hendricks. Does Assad settle back into his bullpen role just because he is more comfortable making that transition than any of the other starters? Does Jordan Wicks get booted to Triple-A to clean some things up? Or is Hendricks the odd man out? We’ll find out soon enough.

The beginning of Taillon’s Cubs tenure (after signing a four-year, $68 million free-agent contract in December 2022) wasn’t the most inspiring. While it was safe to say he was signed more for his durability than his dynamite ace upside, Taillon was downright bad for the first half of 2023, not nearly living up to the mid-rotation standard he set the previous two seasons with the Yankees. Through his first 14 starts, Taillon had a 6.93 ERA, and opposing batters were hitting .296/.351/.519 against him.

Funnily enough, a dominant outing against his old team in the Bronx (8 scoreless innings, 1 hit allowed) seemed to turn his season around. Including that start, Taillon posted a 3.38 ERA with a .659 OPS allowed over his final 16 outings, a much stronger representation of his capabilities. His turnaround might have gotten somewhat lost amid a disappointing second half for the Cubs as a whole, but it was an encouraging development considering his entrenchment in the rotation as Chicago’s highest-paid pitcher.

While a back strain in spring training shelved Taillon for the first couple of weeks of the regular season, he has delivered two strong starts to open his 2024 campaign. After cruising against the lowly Marlins, Taillon pitched into the sixth inning Wednesday against a much more potent Astros lineup. His deep arsenal has evolved plenty over the years; he has leaned heavily into his cutter and sweeper usage as a Cub, in turn deemphasizing his sinker and changeup.

Jameson Taillon headshot
Jameson Taillon
SP - CHC - #50
2024 - false season
32.2
IP
2.20
ERA
1.19
WHIP
22
K
10
BB

His velocity might never again be what it was in his Pittsburgh days, but Taillon consistently pounds the zone and has sufficient stuff to eat a ton of innings when things are clicking. If he can carry the momentum from last year’s stellar second half into a more dependable first few months in 2024, it would be a massive boon for Chicago, considering the other injuries in the rotation. So far, so good.

When evaluating former first-round picks, there’s a higher standard for them to clear than simply reaching the big leagues. The hope is that these are the kinds of players an organization can depend on as fixtures of high-level production for the foreseeable future. But early returns on Wicks, the 21st pick in the 2021 draft, have been mixed so far.

After a relatively brief introduction to the big leagues in the second half of 2023, Wicks entered camp this year with an inside track on a rotation spot, one that became even more certain once Taillon hit the IL. Wicks spoke this spring about his intention to round out his arsenal with a more reliable breaking ball to pair with his trademark changeup, which has been an elite pitch for years.

So far in 2024, Wicks’ slider has demonstrated significantly more horizontal movement, but he’s still throwing it only 7% of the time, with his two fastballs and the changeup still accounting for well over 80% of his pitch usage. The results have been somewhat strange: Wicks has already racked up more strikeouts in five starts this season (28) than he did in seven starts last year (24), but his ground-ball rate has declined sharply, and he’s allowing a healthy amount of hard contact on the whole.

Jordan Wicks headshot
Jordan Wicks
IL15
SP - CHC - #36
2024 - false season
23
IP
4.70
ERA
1.52
WHIP
28
K
9
BB

It’s worth noting that he has faced some tough lineups — four of his first five opponents (TEX, LAD, ARI, HOU) rank in the top nine in MLB in team OPS+ — but Wicks might need to make some adjustments to get back to the best version of himself, one that can get whiffs and ground balls at an above-average rate. Whether that involves a more balanced pitch mix or improved command of his primary offerings remains to be seen.

Acquired from Philadelphia for David Robertson at the 2022 deadline, Brown quickly blossomed into an intriguing prospect in the Cubs' system, though his long-standing command issues (3.9 BB/9 in MiLB) and limited arsenal (98.6% of his pitches this year have been four-seamers or knuckle-curves) make it difficult to tell whether his best role moving forward will be as a starter or reliever.

The 6-foot-6, 24-year-old right-hander replaced Steele on the Cubs roster and made his MLB debut out of the 'pen. Then he slotted in for Steele for two turns through the rotation, both of which went well: 4 ⅔ scoreless at San Diego, 1 run allowed over 6 innings at Arizona. Brown has returned to a relief role since Taillon was reinstated from the IL, but it's fair to wonder if his brief cameo in the rotation was a matter of right place, right time, or if the Cubs believe in him as a starter for the long term.

Ben Brown headshot
Ben Brown
SP - CHC - #32
2024 - false season
39.1
IP
3.20
ERA
1.19
WHIP
45
K
15
BB

If they do, don’t be surprised to see Brown bounce back to Triple-A to continue building up innings and working on deepening his repertoire. That said, I have a feeling the Cubs might just have him focus on maximizing his high-powered two-pitch mix out of the bullpen, where he can meaningfully impact the big-league team in 2024.

Here’s where things really get fun. Beyond Paul Skenes, Horton has a case alongside Detroit’s Jackson Jobe as the second-best pitching prospect in baseball, and he’s off to a nice start, with a 1.59 ERA through three outings in Double-A. While there remain a handful of starters on the depth chart ahead of him in Triple-A, I would hardly be shocked if Horton gets a call-up later this summer, assuming his development continues to the point that he proves himself to be one of the organization’s best options on the mound — a realistic scenario considering his talent.

But after he threw just 88 1/3 innings in 2023, it’s difficult to imagine the Cubs wanting to ramp up Horton’s workload too dramatically this year. Might we see him in a David Price-esque relief role down the stretch to leverage his talent at the big-league level without pushing his innings too far? Or could another rash of injuries necessitate an even earlier call-up to fill a rotation spot amidst a playoff race? There’s a chance that there’s enough depth ahead of him for Horton to stay in the minors all year and compete for a rotation spot in 2025. But for a team with so much uncertainty at the back end of the rotation, it’s hard not to dream bigger with one of the game’s best pitching prospects knocking on the door.