As Kyle Hendricks throws off the mound for the 1st time, a look at the battle for the Chicago Cubs’ No. 5 starter – Boston Herald
Kyle Hendricks’ first throws off a mound this spring looked nothing like his typical spring bullpens.
For the veteran Chicago Cubs right-hander, his 10-pitch touch-and-feel bullpen Friday was everything he had hoped for. It was the first time Hendricks had pitched off a mound since leaving his last start July 5 in Milwaukee.
“It’s the first real fun I’ve had in probably 7½ months,” a smiling Hendricks said Friday afternoon. “So who’s counting?”
Hendricks anticipates throwing two more touch-and-feel pens before a series of full bullpens and then eventually graduating to live batting practice.
The Cubs have nearly five weeks to figure out who they want as their fifth starter to begin the season while Hendricks continues his ramp-up process. They likely will need at least a couple of weeks of starts in April and possibly into May.
Manager David Ross announced the competition for the final rotation spot, highlighted by three contenders, who feature varying experience and potential: right-handers Adrian Sampson, Hayden Wesneski and Javier Assad.
RHP Adrian Sampson
For the first time in his career, Sampson enjoyed an offseason in which he survived the duration on a 40-man roster. It’s a testament to Sampson to be in this position after struggling to stick in the majors the last seven years.
“It’s a prize for anybody to be honest, and it shows a lot of hard work,” Sampson said. “I mean, for the times they’ve called me and said, oh, your 40-man spot is so valuable, we’ve got to take you off and all this kind of stuff, you almost become numb to those words … I mean, it’s a big deal. So I’ve tried to accept that as a big deal. But now the next step is to make the opening-day roster. And so that’s what my eyes are set on.”
A turning point last year came in late June when the Cubs optioned him for a fresh arm, prompting an angry response from the right-hander during his conversation with manager David Ross. He was recalled days later and stuck on the 26-man roster the rest of the season while posting a 3.28 ERA in 19 starts.
“(Ross) still brings it up here and there in a positive way though,” Sampson said. “He knows it’s a strength of mine to be a little fiery, and I use that to my advantage. There’s a line you’ve got to not cross and be able to balance it and try not to get too emotional out there. So as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned how to teeter the line but not cross it, but I’m still using it to my advantage when I’m pitching so it’s good for me.”
Sampson is among the Cubs pitchers who were put on a velocity program in the offseason using plyo balls as part of the warmup process before throwing. He is slated to pitch in Saturday’s Cactus League opener, giving him an opportunity to make an strong early impression.
When assessing which pitcher ultimately gets the No. 5 rotation spot, the Cubs have a good framework and understanding of what the 31-year-old Sampson brings after pitching in 31 games (24 starts) for them the last two seasons. He won’t be flashing on the mound, but he has been effective. With the spot only a temporary opening until Hendricks is ready, the Cubs might opt for someone such as Sampson and let the other starters in the mix stay ready as added depth at Triple A in case of other injuries or performance-related changes.
“That’s always been my game, just pitch,” Sampson said. “Let them hit the ball, let them get themselves out early on and then try to go deep in the game.”
RHP Hayden Wesneski
When Wesneski was in the New York Yankees organization, younger pitchers commonly felt that making the big-league team out of camp wasn’t going to likely be in play given the franchise’s needs and World Series-level expectations.
So it’s a required mindset adjustment for Wesneski, who was informed by Ross in his individual pitcher meeting at the beginning of camp he will be in the mix for the final rotation spot.
“It’s something I’ve never gone through so it’s a different pressure that you kind of put on yourself, but everybody’s been doing it,” Wesneski told the Tribune. “So it’s like most things where you learn how to battle with it. So you try to just forget about that pressure. I already have enough pressure on myself. Just go out here and do your job and whatever happens, happens. You don’t have a whole lot of say even if you do pitch good.”
Wesneski, 25, possesses the most upside among the group competing to make the opening-day rotation. He impressed in his six appearances (four starts) over the final month after the Cubs acquired him from the Yankees for reliever Scott Effross. Wesneski’s month as a big-leaguer gave him a confidence boost heading into the offseason.
“I finally figured out that I can do it,” Wesneski said. “My whole life I thought I could (pitch in the majors) and now I know I can. That’s a dangerous thing because you can hold onto it too tight. So again, don’t put pressure on yourself for no reason and continue to do what you’re doing.”
Wesneski’s main focus in the offseason was getting healthy and maintaining his health and strength for a full season. His body felt out of whack once by the end of the year, prompting an offseason reset and strengthening his body rather tinkering too much with his stuff.
Wesneski threw two innings of live batting practice Friday as he continues to build up to his first game action. The Cubs will need to decide whether there is value in starting Wesneski at Triple A and let him get in a rhythm in Iowa, regardless of his spring performance, or his upside is too great not to have part of the opening-day rotation.
RHP Javier Assad
Stellar production between Double A and Triple A put Assad in position for a last-season call-up, and the 25-year-old did not squander the opportunity. Assad posted a 3.11 ERA in nine games (eight starts), and like Sampson, he doesn’t possess lights-out stuff. But the rookie showed he understood how to work a big-league lineup, and it has positioned him for a chance to make the Cubs out of camp.
Assad also used a plyo-ball program in an effort to increase velocity and to help fine-tune his mechanics. He will have a smaller window to impress the coaching staff during camp, at least in person, as Assad will depart for the World Baseball Classic to pitch for Team Mexico. He believes that experience could help him win the job.
“The competition is going to be great, high level,” Assad told the Tribune through an interpreter. “That’s obviously going to help me, but everything else is going to stay the same and take the same approach, continue to work hard and move forward knowing what I have to do to try to hopefully secure that spot.”
Assad won’t strike out many hitters, similar to most of the rotation, and he struggled at times with too many walks. He will need to show better command and reduce his walk rate, but clearly the Cubs liked how he pitched last season to give him this shot, which Assad appreciates.
“These are following the dreams I’ve had, and they’ve given me that opportunity to go and produce and continue to work hard, continue to have the same strong mentality of going in every day and working,” he said.
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