Chicago Cubs Walk Off: What to Make of the Starting Rotation Heading Into Opening Day

Craig Counsell's first big decisions as manager are the Opening Day lineup and the starting rotation.
Craig Counsell's first big decisions as manager are the Opening Day lineup and the starting rotation. / Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the Chicago Cubs starting rotation for 2024: Kyle Hendricks, Javier Assad, Justin Steele, Jordan Wicks, and Shota Imanaga.

Home Grown

The first thing that stands out with the Cubs starters is that this is a fully homegrown group of players. Justin Steele was a fifth round draft pick in 2015. Wicks was a first round selection in 2021. Assad was an international signing out of Mexico in 2015. Hendricks came to the Cubs in a minor league trade in 2012 (almost purely home grown). Imanaga, of course, was the Cubs big signing out of Japan this year, but the Cubs will be his first MLB team.

General managers, Directors of Pitching, and organizations in general take pride in developing players from within. They get to mold the development, standardize the strategy, and take the financial savings with the rookie contracts.

Does it really matter?

Not really.

Fans don't necessarily care how the team gets built as long as it is a winning team. The Dodgers might have a great farm system, but they didn't develop Freddie Freeman, Mookie Betts, or Shohei Ohtani out of that system. The Yankees have built many World Series championships on the back of free agency.

It is fun and entertaining for fans when a draft pick hits the MLB like Christopher Morel or Javier Assad that has a ton of energy and just lights up the stadium. In the end, and even after a couple of years, that fades and fans just care about winning.

Is it the Right Five?

Manager Craig Counsell's appointment of the rotation will be one of his first big decisions as the new manager. Talking to, Counsell addressed the start of the season for him, “You’re excited about it, because we're at the start of something fun. But we have to start writing the story on Thursday.”

After a rocky start, Assad finished strong in March, giving up 3 earned runs in his last 9.1 innings. Hendricks had more of a roller coaster Spring Training. He didn't have a scoreless outing and gave up 13 earned runs in his 18 innings in March.

Imanaga is a bit of an enigma. Though he didn't give up a home run in his last two outings, he finished Spring Training with a 5.68 ERA and 1.66 WHIP. His eye popping 25 strikeouts in 12.2 innings pitched is what most fans will focus upon. The Cubs have not had a power starting pitcher in a while.

Wicks seemed to carry over the 2023 season into 2024. He broke Spring Training with a 2.53 ERA and 1.08 WHIP. In his four starts in March, he gave up 1 earned or less in three of those outings and gave up three in the other one.

Justin Steele had a 1.00 WHIP and 13 strikeouts in 11 innings, but consistently gave up two runs in all of his three and four inning starts.

Three lefties are an interesting and unique rotation. All the talent is there. From the pool that Counsell had to work with, these five are probably the right group. He could have gone with Smyly or Wesneski instead of Assad, but those players are not lights out starters either.

Will They Be Competitive ranked the starting rotations across the league. The Mariners were number 1 with Logan Gilbert and Luis Castillo and the Braves showed at number 2 featuring Spencer Strider, Chris Sale, and Max Fried. The Cubs did not make the Top 10 but showed up in the honorable mention section.

There is reason for skepticism.

Jordan Wicks has about 30 days of MLB experience. Hayden Wesneski had similar success at the end of 2022 but couldn't recreate it in 2023. Assad bounced between the Major and Minor leagues the last couple of years. Imanaga is unproven against Major League hitting. Hendricks is a little bit old.

There is reason for optimism.

Justin Steele was a 2023 Cy Young Award candidate and has a reputation for being stingy with runs. He'll have his work cut out for him in the opener against World Series Champion Rangers. Nobody thinks Steele was a fluke last year, but he must return to the same degree of effectiveness for the Cubs rotation to be elite.

If Imanaga can cut down on the run production and keep up the strikeout ratios, Steele and Imanaga would be as good as any top 2 in a rotation.

Hendricks will be Hendricks; he'll be consistent, but he won't be taking home any awards this season. Which leaves the youngsters. Let's say Wicks and Assad have stellar, full seasons. Let's just say that they have good full seasons. Now we are talking about a complete game changer for the starting rotation with four very challenging pitchers.

If a prediction had to be made, though, it would be that Assad faces the same inconsistencies as last year and the Cubs will probably dig into their depth with Drew Smyly or Hayden Wesneski from time to time to give Assad a break. However, it looks like Wicks is the real deal and I smell a run for Rookie of the Year.

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