Cade Horton – Picture by Todd Johnson
This is probably the hardest storyline post to do this off-season because of just exactly what the big league club is going to do when it comes to starting pitching. The Cubs could go out and acquire a couple of big arms from the Japanese market as well as through trades. I’d like to think that Jordan Wicks and Javier Assad have earned the right to compete for a rotation spot in spring training, but we’re not really going to begin to answer that question, probably until late December depending on how fast the free-agent market and trading goes.
Let’s break it down by affiliate starting in Triple A.
Just like the hitting storylines, the starting pitching question in Iowa is who’s going to be left after this off-season?
The Cubs do have plenty of right-handed starting pitching that they could use in trades this off-season that other teams would consider to be near MLB ready. Ben Brown, Caleb Kilian, and Hayden Wesneski should be in Iowa to start next year. Some of the trio could have new homes on other teams or they might find a way to make it as a bullpen arm in Chicago. In making an educated guess, Brown is a possibility for the bullpen as is Wesneski. I am not so sure which Caleb Kilian is going to show up to start 2024.
The second question/storyline for next season is which pitchers are coming up from Tennessee?
With the roster pretty much cleared out after minor-league free agency, there are going to be spots. Cade Horton is going to have one of those spots. And it’s unclear how long he’s going to have that spot before he heads to Chicago. if I had it my way, he’d be up in Chicago by June. That would be a pretty aggressive promotion. But then again, he has his stuff.
Walker Powell is another arm who has earned the right to start the year in Iowa. He’s an innings eating machine who had an outstanding run at Tennessee in the second half as well as the playoffs. Chris Kachmar might be another guy with an outside chance. At this point, Kohl Franklin is probably going to start the year in Tennessee and could move quickly depending on what happens in the Rule 5 Draft. That was his trajectory last year, where he started the year in South Bend and dominated. Then, he was promoted fairly fast.
Who goes where?
There’s just not a lot of separation between a lot of pitchers that are slated to be at both places. I really like Brandon Birdsell for Tennessee. I think he could be at Iowa fairly quickly, depending upon the roster situation there and in Chicago. If Luis Devers is healthy to start next year, he’s definitely a guy I could see in the rotation for the Smokies. Richard Gallardo could also get an opportunity at Tennessee, depending on how he bounces back from an ankle injury Chris Kachmar is also in play here, but he may be a long man in Iowa. There’s a lout of arms here including Manny Espinoza, Connor Noland, and Tyler Santana.
The wildcard here for me is Michael Arias, who might be this year’s Luke Little. He could be a guy that’s moved to the pen and then who could move extremely quickly with an upper 90s fastball and a nasty slider. Not really sure if he has the endurance or physical build to go 120+ innings in a starting role.
As for South Bend, there might be one or two holdovers from the end of last year like Grant Kipp. But the top story lines in South Bend are going to involve are some of the Cubs youngest teachers in Jackson Ferris, Drew Gray, Luis, Rujano, and Koen Moreno.
The main question is, are the Cubs going to give these young pitchers free reign from the get-go or will they be on innings limits?
I have mixed thoughts on this. I’d love to see Jackson Ferris come out on opening night in Davenport and shove for five innings and throw 80 pitches. But knowing that it’s probably gonna be cold, and the Cubs are known to treat their young pitchers with kid gloves, I would also not be surprised to see him limited to three innings a pop the first few weeks until it warms up. Knowing that Gray and Ferris s are gonna throw career highs of 90 to 100 innings, my bet is that we are going to see a lot of piggybacking going on in April and early May before they get stretched out from 50 pitches on up to 85 to 90.
The big question or storyline in the Carolina League is how many of last year‘s draft picks are going to be in the rotation to begin the year? And the follow up should be, how many of those same draft picks are going to be in South Bend in the middle of the year?
The weakest part of the Cubs’ system last year was the Arizona Complex League team. The pitching struggled across-the-board. It didn’t matter if it was a starting pitcher or a reliever, there was just not a lot of success happening. Mason McGwire struggled along with every other Starting pitcher. As a result, I am leaning towards a lot of last year‘s draft picks to get in the rotation, along with some guys returning off of Tommy John surgery like Will Frisch..
That means Will Sanders could start 2024 in Myrtle Beach. Like Cade Horton was, Sanders is probably too advanced for that level. If he does start there, I don’t expect him to be there very long. I would rather he start the year in South Bend. The same is true for Nick Dean, the Cubs 19th round pick whose pitchability would be too much for Low-A.
With second round pick Jaxon Wiggins coming off of an injury, the Cubs are likely to take it slow with him. Other possible starters include Ty Johnson from Ball State. McGwire, Carlos Garcia, and possibly Kevin Valdez. Although, I thought Valdez pitched well enough last year at Myrtle Beach to find a way to get to South Bend. There might not be a spot for him there.
As a result, this is probably going to be the most uncertain of rotations we’ve seen in a while, and Buddy Bailey should have his hands full figuring out who belongs in the rotation, who belongs in the pen, who should probably be an South, Bend, and who should’ve stayed in Mesa.
Now in Mesa…
The question is: How many guys are going to come north from the Dominican?
Success in the Dominican does not necessarily mean that you’re going to be successful in Arizona. With the Cubs currently having 19 positions open on the stateside roster as of today, I doubt if we see any of these guys come north to work in Mesa this winter as an official pitcher. The two names that I’m going to keep an eye out for are lefties Miguel Cruz and Zhiorman Imbriano as possible names to make it to Arizona this winter, “unofficially.”
In examining all these possible rotations, there’s a lot of stuff that’s going to happen this off-season in terms of adding strength, learning new pitches, adjusting grips, as well as some new leadership in place of Craig Breslow. The success the Cubs have had the last couple years under Breslow has totally revamped the organization. We shall see how they do in year 1 A.B.