Cubs ready to push pitchers with open competition in spring training

Ace Kyle Hendricks and the newly acquired Zach Davies are the only shoo-ins for spots in the rotation. Competition will have to take care of the rest.

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It has been well-documented how difficult the 2020 season was for players mentally and physically, but with what appears to be a 162-game season on the horizon, getting the body back to normal after adjusting for a two-month sprint will be vital to staying healthy in ’21.

Spring training will be different for Cubs pitchers this year. Not only will the team be assembling a rotation for the first time in several years, but each pitcher will enter camp under a different set of circumstances because of the nature of last year’s pandemic-shortened season.

“We have guys that trained for a full season and made 10 or 11 starts [last year],” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “We had guys that trained for a full season, competed in South Bend at the alternate site and had the ability to work on things but never really pitched in games. And we have guys that trained from home all year-round.

“There’s really not one way to handle this, just because there are so many different scenarios of guys coming to camp this year and [we] really have a wide range of these guys coming off injuries, guys come off the ‘normal’ season we had last year, guys who opted out and guys who didn’t compete.”

Even though the Cubs will be watching each pitcher closely as they ramp up their activity, this year’s open competition for spots in the rotation will be something to watch throughout camp.

The rotation only has two locks in right-handers Kyle Hendricks and Zach Davies. Adbert Alzolay and Alec Mills both have a shot at spots, and new arrivals Kohl Stewart, Trevor Williams and Shelby Miller also will be looking to contribute. Even young pitchers such as Tyson Miller and Cory Abbot have an outside shot to help the staff.

Despite the team’s desire to ease pitchers back into a regular routine, the Cubs aren’t going to be afraid to push them as they search for the group who will ultimately be in the rotation and the bullpen.

“The guys that didn’t have a chance to compete in a season, didn’t get a chance to actually face hitters in a game scenario, now have all these games,” Hottovy said. “All the work guys put in during the season last year, whether guys opted out or were in South Bend competing or even at the major-league level but only pitched maybe 15 games, how do we get that to translate into competition?

“One of the big phrases I’m gonna talk a lot about in spring training is, ‘What does it mean to compete?’ Because for the last year, most of the guys, all they’ve been doing is competing against themselves. They competed against themselves in Rapsodo data, mechanical work and weight-room work, and all that’s great. But what does it mean to compete and translate that to an actual game?”

Even before the Cubs’ run of success started in 2015, their starting pitching always has had some level of experience. This season, the Cubs likely will have to rely on younger players who haven’t reached that level of success in the big leagues. But trial by fire might end up being the best way to find the next wave of stability.

“If we don’t push the envelope in terms of getting what [these guys] worked on and getting it into competition and stress testing it, then what guys will end up doing is all that work that they put in, they’ll just revert back to their old self,” Hottovy said. “So I think that’s [going to be] the hardest part, that transition into spring training for guys. You did all this work last year. Let’s continue to test it, continue to trust it and give it time to kind of take.”

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