Short spring, flurry of roster moves raise Cubs rotation questions

The Cubs’ rotation picture changed when they signed left-handers Drew Smyly and Daniel Norris on Saturday.

SHARE Short spring, flurry of roster moves raise Cubs rotation questions
Cubs right-hander Alec Mills started against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Camelback Stadium in Glendale, Arizona on Sunday.

Cubs right-hander Alec Mills started against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Camelback Stadium in Glendale, Arizona on Sunday.

John Antonoff/Sun-Times

GLENDALE, Ariz. — In the span of a week, the Cubs have gone from too few pitchers to carrying over a half-dozen camp additions on the staff. Now the club has to figure out where they all fit. 

“What we look like April 7 may be completely different two weeks into the season,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said Sunday.

The Cubs’ options for the back end of the rotation, specifically, have multiplied in the last couple days. They signed left-handers Drew Smyly and Daniel Norris on Saturday. They also added Adrian Sampson and Robert Gsellman on minor-league deals with spring-training invitations. 

“It’s very unique,” said Alec Mills, who started against the Dodgers on Sunday. “Obviously, everything happened really fast. But that’s baseball. We all want to win, and we’re going to get the best team [together] as possible. It’s a flurry of events, but we’ll take it as best we can, in stride.”

From last year’s rotation, Mills, Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson could compete for one or two open spots in the rotation. 

Cubs manager David Ross said last week that he was planning for Mills to be a starter. Steele is also building up to starter’s innings, but Ross added that the Cubs would evaluate whether they’d use that length in the rotation or as Triple-A depth.

“We’ve got a lot of those guys in that boat that have option [years],” Ross said, “so we’ll see where everybody’s at.”

The unsettled nature of the rotation picture was a draw for a free agent such as Norris. A two-hour presentation from Hottovy and members of the front office sealed the deal. 

“It was cool to still be thought of as a starter,” said Norris, who moved to the Tigers’ bullpen in 2020. “Ultimately, that’s what I would love to do. But at the same time, I think I can do whatever [they ask me to].”

Coming out of a condensed spring training, the Cubs are expected to dedicate more roster spots to multi-inning pitchers than usual. Piggybacking starts at the beginning of the year is one way the Cubs could manage their starters’ workloads. 

In terms of building up, veteran lefty Wade Miley, who is penciled into the rotation with Kyle Hendricks and Marcus Stroman, is behind his fellow starters and has yet to make a spring-training start. Ross said he didn’t have any injury concerns.

“That’s the norm talking to him and what he’s used to,” Ross said of Miley.

Miley, 35, is scheduled to throw a bullpen session Monday. In a recent 15-pitch bullpen, Hottovy said, Miley looked in midseason form. But it was “hard to say” how many pitches Miley could realistically build up to over the course of spring training. 

“You look at him in the past, there are springs where he’s thrown like 45 pitches in spring games, and then throws 75 as soon as the season starts. So it’s more about just checking the boxes for him, which are: I feel good, I’m healthy, I’m ramping up.”

Take last season for example. In three spring-training starts, Miley built up to four innings. Then, in his first regular-season game, he threw 78 pitches over six innings. 

There’s also a chance that the Cubs get another roster spot to work with. Though the new collective-bargaining agreement sets the roster limit at 13 pitchers, except in September, -Major League Baseball has not ruled out expanded rosters to start the season, amid injury concerns.

“We’re trying to ramp everybody up the same, knowing that if you have extra guys, then we can back off some guys, from [a volume standpoint],” Hottovy said. “If we don’t, then we’re going to keep pushing the volume until we get to a point where we feel comfortable that our starters are in a good place.”

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