How Cubs have turned pitching depth into expected strength

Take a look at some of the Cubs’ top pitching prospects.

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Cubs first round draft pick Cade Horton works out during spring training.

Cubs first round draft pick Cade Horton works out during spring training.

John Antonoff/For the Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — If the Cubs’ improved pitching depth wasn’t already clear, it was obvious when they optioned Adrian Sampson to Triple-A, moved Javier Assad to the bullpen and outrighted Rowan Wick over the past few days.

“The hope is that the pitching depth is in a much different place than it was a year ago,” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “And that can really help us because there are going to be injuries, we’re going to need it.”

The Cubs have built some of that depth via trades. The Cubs acquired Hayden Wesneski, now their fifth starter on the Opening Day roster, at the deadline last year, sending reliever Scott Effross to the Yankees.

They’ve also overhauled their player development department in recent years, and produced exciting arms. On the bullpen side, Jeremiah Estrada turned heads with the life on his fastball when he debuted last year. He’ll begin the season in Triple-A, on the radar to be called up when needed.

It’s hard to predict how a pitcher will handle the big-leagues until he gets there. Right-hander Caleb Kilian, for example, had the most highly-anticipated debut of last season. The Cubs had acquired him, and outfielder Alexander Canario, from the Giants for Kris Bryant in 2021. 

Though Kilian showed glimpses of the pitcher he could be, overall he struggled in three major-league games. It later became clear that he was battling tendonitis in his left knee last season, paired with the mechanical issues that arrose from the injury. He’s had a standout spring and is another pitcher who could impact the major-league team later this year. 

“He learned a ton about himself, and he now is fully aware of the checkpoints in his delivery and what needs to take place in order for him to be effective,” said Craig Breslow, senior vice president of pitching. “But it also appears as though psychologically, he has re-embraced his identity as a pitcher, what he is, what he does really well, what makes him effective and unique.”

Besides Wesneski, who MLB pipeline ranked as the Cubs’ No. 5 prospect, the Cubs have five other pitchers ranked among the Cubs’ Top 15. Here’s why they’re garnering attention:

No. 4 Cade Horton

The Cubs drafted Horton, who had a breakout College World Series last year, No. 7 overall in the 2022 MLB Draft. He’s working on honing his curveball and changeup.

“Very high quality power pitch mix he’s come into camp with,” said Jared Banner, vice president of player development. “He’s working extremely hard. He’s confident, and we’re excited to get them out there during the season.”

No. 6 Jordan Wicks

The Cubs transformed Wicks’ arsenal after drafting him No. 21 overall in 2021. They had him focus on his four-seam fastball over his two-seam and adjust his slider for horizontal sweep. He posted a 3.80 ERA in High-A South Bend and Double-A Tennessee last year.

“Jordan had a really strong season last year,” Banner said. “He has a unique ability to both throw a lot of strikes and miss a lot of bats. So that’s a trend that we’d love to see continue and we’re excited to see continue. And he looks excellent this spring, both in terms of his pitch mix and in terms of his execution.”

No. 8 Ben Brown

Brown, who the Cubs acquired from the Phillies last August for veteran reliever David Robertson already has a successful two-pitch mix but was working on adding a changeup and slider this spring. 

“He’s such a leader for us on and off the field, works extremely hard,” Banner said. He really embodies what we stand for in this organization.” 

No. 9 Jackson Ferris

The Cubs drafted Ferris out of IMG Academy in Florida in the second round of last year’s draft. Their focus in the interim has been preparing the 19-year-old for a professional workload. 

“He’s passionate about his craft, He’s hard working, and the sky’s the limit,” Banner said. 

No. 14 Daniel Palencia

Palencia has had a unique path, signing with the A’s out of Venezuela at 20 years old, right before the pandemic shut down the 2020 minor-league season. The next summer, Cubs traded Andrew Chafin to the A’s for Palencia and outfielder Greg Deichmann. 

Palencia climbed from Single-A Myrtle Beach in the second half of 2021 to High-A South Bend last season (3.94 ERA).

“He’s extremely talented,” Banner said. “Throws really hard, can spin the ball, has a good changeup, physical and strong, and we’re excited about him.”

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