How Cubs are balancing hot bats in Triple-A, limited starting options on mound for Thursday

In the upper levels of their farm system, the Cubs, who snapped a three-game skid by beating the Nats, are strong on the hitting side but taking blows on the pitching side.

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Cubs GM Carter Hawkins (left) and president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer have plenty to weigh when deciding whether to call-up a prospect.

Cubs GM Carter Hawkins (left) and president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer (right) have plenty to weigh when deciding whether to call-up a prospect.

John Antonoff / for the Sun-Times

WASHINGTON — In Cubs general manager Carter Hawkins’ experience running the Guardians’ farm system, he consistently saw one truism play out:

“It’s always feast or famine,” he said in the visitors’ dugout at Nationals Park before the Cubs’ 5-1 victory Monday that snapped a three-game losing streak. “There’s never an in-between stage where you’re like, ‘Oh, this is nice.’ It always feels like you have too much or you have too little.”

The Cubs are dealing with some of both. In the pitching department, they’re in a famine stage, with limited options to start Thursday. In the hitting department, they’re in a feast stage, with more hot bats in Triple-A than they have roster space for in the big leagues.

Manager David Ross said even if all goes well in Jameson Taillon’s high-intensity bullpen session Tuesday, he will not be in the mix to start Thursday. Recovering from a strained left groin, Taillon is eligible to return from the 15-day injured list Tuesday. But it doesn’t appear to be a minimum stint.

Taillon first threw off a mound again Saturday. The feedback from that 25-pitch bullpen session was “really good,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said.

With Taillon out of the picture for Thursday, the Cubs’ starting options are limited.

“I don’t even know who it is,” Ross said.

Javier Assad isn’t eligible to be recalled again until Saturday, unless it’s for a player going to the IL. Adrian Sampson has been sidelined for three weeks with right scapula inflammation, according to the Cubs. Kyle Hendricks (strained right shoulder) is scheduled to make his second rehab start in Triple-A on Tuesday, progressing to a target of four innings and 60-65 pitches, but he’s not ready to return quite yet.

“Assad’s eligible to be called up here pretty soon, and he’ll be stretched out, Taillon comes back, Sampson gets healthy in the next two weeks, and, all of a sudden, you have three major-league starters in Triple-A that we feel really good about,” Hawkins said. “And we’re back in this feast stage.”

Meanwhile, utility man Christopher Morel and first baseman Matt Mervis are making their cases for call-ups whenever an opportunity presents itself.

Morel leads the minors in OPS (1.298) and home runs (11). In the I-Cubs’ blowout win Saturday, Morel drove in seven of the team’s 18 runs. He’s also on the 40-man roster, has had success at the major-league level and can move around the field.

Mervis has continued to build on his 2022 season, when he was named the organization’s minor-league player of the year, and has a slash line of .296/.407/.580. The Cubs would need to clear a spot for Mervis on the 40-man roster to promote him.

“Obviously, there are some guys down in Triple-A right now that are really hard to ignore,” Hawkins said. “So we’re talking about them every day and what’s best for them and what’s best for the Cubs.”

They’re weighing things such as projections, the moves they would have to make, the playing time available.

There’s no saying when more playing time will be available. Outfielder Nelson Velazquez took advantage of opportunities opened in part by Seiya Suzuki’s oblique injury to start the season and Cody Bellinger’s three-day paternity leave to carve out a bench role for himself.

The Cubs carried three catchers for the first month of the season, and three days after they designated Luis Torrens for assignment, Yan Gomes left the game Monday after being hit in the helmet with a back swing in the first inning. The Cubs did not put him in concussion protocol right away but will continue to evaluate him.

The upper levels of the farm system won’t be bursting at the seams with major-league-ready talent at every position all the time.

“It’s so important to try to maintain this [needle] a little more on the feast mode than the famine mode,” Hawkins said.

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