How signings, Kyle Hendricks’ health affect Cubs’ pitching projections in 2023
This pitching staff’s greatest strength is an element they lacked early last season.
Veteran right-hander Kyle Hendricks and young reliever Codi Heuer — both of whom are rehabbing arm injuries — arrived at the Cubs’ spring-training facility in Mesa, Arizona, around the same time in the fall.
‘‘I got to know [Hendricks] pretty well throughout this process,’’ Heuer said on the phone this week. ‘‘And he’s been a guy I can lean on a little bit, an older guy that I can bounce some stuff off of if I’m feeling down or whatever it may be.’’
Battling monotony can be one of the biggest challenges in coming back from an injury such as Heuer’s. He had Tommy John surgery in March. Hendricks hasn’t been sidelined quite as long, but he missed the last three months of last season with a capsular tear in his right shoulder.
Hendricks’ and Heuer’s health might sway the pitching staff’s projections heading into the 2023 season on opposite ends of the equation.
Predicting Heuer’s rehab schedule is more straightforward. He remains on track for a return in late June or early July, 15 to 16 months after his surgery. He’s poised to provide a midseason boost to the back end of the bullpen.
Hendricks’ timeline — and his performance when he eventually steps on the mound again — will affect the order and depth of the rotation.
Hendricks, who finished the season rehabbing at the Cubs’ spring-training complex, didn’t hit his goal of throwing by the end of the season, instead focusing on mechanics and building strength. But pitching coach Tommy Hottovy told the Sun-Times this week that he’s encouraged by Hendricks’ progress. Hendricks is on a regimented throwing program and now is playing catch on flat ground.
‘‘I’m so overly focused on getting Kyle back to being the best version of himself and not rushing it, not pushing it,’’ Hottovy said in a phone interview. ‘‘Because we all know what Kyle can do when he feels great, when he’s healthy, when he’s locked in.’’
In a ‘‘best-case scenario,’’ Hottovy said, Hendricks will feel great in spring training and be ready to be in the Opening Day rotation. But the Cubs aren’t going to speed up that process for the sake of starting the season with him. They see the depth they’ve built through their farm system and free agency as a means to cover innings if Hendricks needs more time (or in case of an injury to any other starter throughout the season).
If Hendricks isn’t ready by Opening Day, that leaves right-handers Marcus Stroman and Jameson Taillon to serve as the veterans at the top of the rotation. Left-hander Justin Steele, who will be entering his second season as a major-league starter, is set to carry his developmental strides from 2022 into 2023 and play a pivotal role.
The greatest strength of the staff is an element the Cubs lacked early last season: a large group of pitchers who can start, throw multiple innings in relief or, in some cases, serve as depth in Triple-A.
‘‘Where we are right now compared to where we were even a year ago, I feel like we’re starting to have a lot more of a foundation of consistency of guys that we know can go out there and compete, win ballgames,’’ Hottovy said. ‘‘[We’re] starting to build that championship mentality in that championship group.’’
Veteran left-hander Drew Smyly, whom the Cubs re-signed to a two-year deal in recent weeks, has a good chance of beginning the season in the rotation. But he also has experience in the bullpen. Last season, right-hander Keegan Thompson showed value in a multi-inning relief role and growth as a starter.
Right-hander Adbert Alzolay told the Sun-Times at the end of last season that he has enjoyed serving as a high-leverage long reliever. Hottovy said he still ‘‘100%’’ believes in Alzolay’s ability to start, but the multi-inning reliever role makes sense for managing his innings and health.
As the rotation faced injuries last season, right-handers Adrian Sampson, Hayden Wesneski, Javier Assad and Caleb Kilian filled in, all but Sampson making their major-league debuts. As new Cubs catcher Tucker Barnhart said this week: ‘‘There’s no experience like pitching at the major-league level.’’
The Cubs also claimed left-hander Anthony Kay off waivers from the Blue Jays and protected pitching prospects Ryan Jensen and Ben Brown from the Rule 5 Draft by putting them on the 40-man roster.
The offseason isn’t over yet. The Cubs might add more pitching via free agency, and the trade market has yet to pick up. But the most glaring holes on their roster are at the back end of the bullpen.
The team began the process of filling out the bullpen by signing veteran Brad Boxberger to a one-year deal last month. Rookies Brandon Hughes and Jeremiah Estrada showed promise last season. Still, even with Heuer progressing toward a return, expect bullpen additions.
In the meantime, the Cubs’ spring-training complex is buzzing already, and pitchers are well-represented. Heuer arrived in September to throw for the first time in six months — or, as he put it, ‘‘actually feel like a baseball player again.’’
Along with him and Hendricks, at least 10 other pitchers on the 40-man roster are based in Arizona or are regulars at the facility.
It’s a mix of a few veterans and a lot of up-and coming pitchers, much like the pitching staff as a whole. And as helpful as it is for the young pitchers to learn from those with more experience, Hottovy sees the dynamic going both ways.
‘‘A lot of the younger guys are probably a little bit more willing to push the envelope to try some new things,’’ he said. ‘‘And I think that’s good. It’s a really good mix to have.’’
NOTE: The Cubs announced a series of roster moves Friday. Catcher P.J. Higgins and first baseman Alfonso Rivas, who were designated for assignment in recent weeks, cleared waivers. The Cubs outrighted Higgins to Triple-A Iowa and granted Rivas his unconditional release.
The team re-signed reliever Brad Wieck to a two-year minor-league contract. Wieck was sidelined all of last season with an elbow injury, undergoing Tommy John surgery in July. He has battled a slew of injuries and has had two heart procedures in his career.
The Cubs also signed catcher Dom Nunez to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training.