Cubs’ Javier Assad ‘crisp’ as he competes for rotation spot, Justin Steele scratched

Steele was dealing with general arm fatigue, according to the Cubs.

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Right-hander Javier Assad throws a live batting practice at Cubs spring training. He started Sunday against the Dodgers.

Right-hander Javier Assad throws a live batting practice at Cubs spring training. He started Sunday against the Dodgers.

John Antonoff/For the Sun-Times

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Right-hander Javier Assad wasn’t originally scheduled to start Sunday, but he took the ball after the Cubs scratched lefty Justin Steele due to what they called general arm fatigue.

Then, Assad retired six straight batters in his two innings on the mound.

“It’s early in spring, sure, but there’s things that you can see that are just going to continue to translate over,” catcher Tucker Barnhart said after the Cubs’ 9-4 loss to the Dodgers. “Whether it’s the fastball playing up in the strike zone, the slider being good down, the action on the slider being good — whether it’s early in spring or not, those things translate, for sure.”

Assad is competing for the fifth spot in the rotation, along with Adrian Sampson and Hayden Wesneski.

The Cubs aren’t expecting Steele’s arm fatigue to alter the rotation. It cropped up Saturday, manager David Ross said, the day after Steele threw a light bullpen. The Cubs are planning to let him recover for a few days, throw a bullpen and then make his next start.

“Probably erring on the side of caution,” Ross said. “He’s thrown a lot so far.”

Steele estimated that he’d already thrown 15 bullpens before camp opened.

Assad, too, came into camp ahead of schedule, necessitated by his participation in the World Baseball Classic. He’ll be representing Mexico.

“Just really happy, emotional, proud,” Assad said recently through an interpreter. “And now that it’s arrived, a little bit anxious and getting ready to start. But mostly it’s just a fulfillment of a dream to be playing for my country.”

Mexico is in a pool with the United States, Canada, Colombia and Great Britain. And he doesn’t have to go far. Pool play is in Arizona. He said he has to report on March 6.

“There’s a lot of experience on that Mexican team, so I hope to take away a lot of wisdom through conversations, watching my teammates pitch,” Assad said. “Those are the biggest things that I’ll be able to take away, just soaking everything in and as much as possible.”

He’ll also be testing the results of a velocity program and a couple mechanical adjustments he implemented over the offseason.

His velocity program incorporated a core velocity belt, weighted PlyoCare balls, lifting and running. And when he threw, he was focussed on staying closed and driving off his back foot.

Those kinds of subtle tweaks wouldn’t be something Barnhart would be zeroing in on this early. The Cubs signed the two-time gold glover to a two-year, $6.5 million contract this winter. So he’s only caught Assad once before, in a live batting practice session. But Barnhart complimented Assad for being a “strike-thrower.” Assad struck out two Dodgers and induced three groundouts and one flyout Sunday.

“What I can say is that all his pitches were crisp today and very consistent, and he executed just about everything,” Barnhart said. “So generally when that happens, guys have to be right mechanically.”

Assad said his performance last season, when he recorded a 3.11 ERA in his first nine MLB games, and being told he was up for a starting role gave him “a lot of confidence” entering camp.

“I’m coming in really with a strong mentality,” he said, “knowing I’m fighting for that spot.”

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