Ryan Jensen – Picture by Todd Johnson

When the Cubs placed pitcher Ryan Jensen on the 40-man roster last November, it sent a signal that the Cubs still think they have something there. And that something is probably a starting pitching role. It’s easy to say that now because before the Cubs made the 40-man announcement.

Jensen was taken by the Cubs in 2019 in the first round out of Fresno State. Behind the scenes, things were apparently up in the air as he was not their first choice as the player the Cubs thought they were going to take backed out of the deal at the last minute and the Cubs plucked Jensen instead. He debuted that summer and spent a few innings dazzling us on late night Twitter at Eugene.

After the pandemic, he was sent up to High-A South Bend where he had probably one of the strangest seasons I’ve ever seen in a pitcher. I first saw Jensen pitch on a cold and rainy night in Beloit and he was dazzling. His fastball had incredible movement. His slider looked really good. I thought that the Cubs had gotten something right.  As that season went on, Jensen was inconsistent from start to start. You could tell that in the middle of June, the Cubs were definitely working on something with him, and that something was a new curveball. Rather than take time and go on the development list, the Cubs worked out the new curve that month and he was dominant and won Pitcher of the Month. I last saw him dominate the eventual league champion Quad Cities Bandits with 10 Ks and just 1 run on a hot August night. He was shipped off to Tennessee the next day and he looked good in just a few starts that summer.

But it was in the Arizona Fall League that some red flags popped up when the Cubs tried to incorporate a new slider. To put it mildly, Jensen got roughed up. When he showed back up to Tennessee the next spring, things still weren’t as they should’ve been and then Jensen spent about six weeks on the development list. When he reappeared in the middle of June, Jensen looked a lot different as he had a much shorter arm delivery, which eliminated a lot of moving parts on all his pitches.

The Cubs kept him on a short leash his first three starts back and he did not allow an earned run in eight innings last June. He made five starts in July where he struggled the more he was stretched out. But by August, those fears were gone. Over his last 14 innings, which was over four starts, he allowed just three earned runs (1.93 ERA) and struck out 18. Jensen did not pitch in the playoffs for the Smokies but he continued doing work in Arizona which the Cubs felt strongly enough to give him that 40-man spot.

With all that history the past two years, thufir2020@yahoo.com asked us: Jensen – how much more rope are the Cubs going to give him before he goes to the pen?

It’s a great question, and also a very pertinent one, considering that he was just placed on the 40-man roster.

Just a reminder, Jensen will be 25 years old for the entire 2023 season.

Greg Huss

The starter vs. reliever debate with Jensen has gotten interesting to me over the past couple years. Because nearly all of his negatives stem from his inability to work on the edges of the zone (pitches floating to the middle of the zone or missing big), I don’t think it really matters what role he ends up in. If he has a starting role, you hope that he can find the edges enough over the course of 6 innings. If you trot him out as a reliever, you hope that you don’t get the bad version of him in any given outing.

I’ve been arguably the biggest Jensen believer for over a year now. I think he can still begin this 2023 season as a starting pitcher in Tennessee before eventually making his way to Chicago late ’23 or sometime in 2024 with a role in the Keegan Thompson/Justin Steele “we just called you up because you’re talented enough for the big leagues but not quite ready for the rotation yet.” Whether he finds his way back to the rotation in Chicago will be a debate for the 2025 version of this mailbag.

Greg Zumach

I don’t think Jensen is a starter for much longer and I hope that doesn’t come off as a negative. I believe Ryan Jensen gets opportunities at the major league level this season and gets his feet wet as a multi-inning reliever. Jensen made significant improvements to his arsenal this season and could really benefit going 4S fastball, cutter, and slider for 2-3 innings. I think we’ll see him coming out of the pen this summer at Wrigley.

Todd Johnson

You can look at the addition of Jensen to the 40-man in a couple of different ways. One, it shows the confidence the Cubs have in Jensen as a person and as a baseball player. Two, they still believe there’s something there that they can tap into as a player. But if you’re looking for a timeline, 2023 could be it. That doesn’t mean they’re going to drop him off the 40-man if it doesn’t work out as a starter. Rather, he’s got this year to prove that all the changes that they’ve made for him will pay off this season. I’m curious as to how it’s all going to go down. The key for Jensen is always going to be him putting the baseball where it needs to go. He doesn’t need pitches that come back over the plate or that bleed out of the zone. That’s pretty much been his downfall. He has nasty stuff, it’s just a matter of putting the pitch in its best possible location.