Fifth Starter Competition: What Each of Sampson, Wesneski, and Assad Are Working On

According to David Ross, if everyone is healthy, the contenders for the 5th spot in the Chicago Cubs’ opening rotation are Adrian Sampson, Hayden Wesneski, Javier Assad, and a couple unnamed non-roster invitees (which, based on their starting backgrounds, pretty much have to be Nick Neidert and Roenis Elias).

The prevailing wisdom has Sampson and Wesneski as the top two candidates, with Assad feeling more like a depth guy, Neidert more of a developmental guy, and Elias a possible lefty for the bullpen (but most likely depth in case of multiple injuries).

Sahadev Sharma wrote about Sampson and Wesneski as, indeed, the likely favorites:

That’s a good read there, generally, on the two presumptive favorites for the open spot, but it also included some interesting newsy nuggets on their offseason work:

  • Sampson is already sitting 91-93 mph with his fastball, ahead of where he usually is this time of year. Sampson was on a velocity training program this offseason after seeing his fastball velo tick up last year (and the aided effectiveness that came with it). If he doesn’t lose his exceptional command, and if he’s more like 93-94 mph instead of 91-92 mph? That could go a long way to helping continue the run of success he was showing last year.
  • Wesneski is working on his fastballs, too, albeit not the velocity so much as the life. “With the sinker, it’s about where I throw it,” Wesneski said. “The four-seam, I’m hoping to keep the shape but add ride to it. Not necessarily a stupid amount of ride, but just get it to average. I’m not asking for above-average here. Just something that’s firmer and something that stays up a little bit. If they foul off that pitch or swing through it once or twice, it’s a win. Because that sets up everything. That’s where it starts, now go ahead and try to guess which way the ball is going to go.” I kinda like the realism there, knowing that he’s probably not going to suddenly develop a plus four-seamer at age 25 if he doesn’t already have one, but he might be able to make it average in every way. If he can do that, with good command, then suddenly it MAKES his slider, his sinker, and his changeup so much better.
  • Lots more in there from Sharma on Sampson and Wesneski, who figure to get a disproportionate amount of attention this spring.

    As for Assad, it sounds like he lost more weight this offseason (he’d done that the offseason before, improving his athleticism and also improving his velocity), and he’s going to be doing his best to win a big league job. Via Marquee:

    “I learned a lot up there — how to better execute my pitches,” Assad said. “There’s a bit smaller of a margin for error because up there because the level is really good … my breaking pitches in the zone and be confident in them and keep going forward.”

    This spring he has been presented with another opportunity — a chance to win the team’s fifth starter spot in the rotation. It’s a message that manager David Ross, pitching coach Tommy Hottovy and the rest of the staff presented to him heading into camp.

    “I’m really happy that they gave me that opportunity,” Assad said. “I came with that in mind — to win a job in the big leagues.”

    Assad, 25, got results last year overall (3.11 ERA over 37.2 big league innings), but there was almost certainly a lot of luck baked in, as his strikeout rate dipped below 20%, his walk rate was around 12%, and his left-on-base rate was 83%. He did manage to avoid giving up too many barrels (5.2%), but the overall pitch mix didn’t really jump off the screen as you watched.

    Overall, you could see the bones there for a useful up-down, back-end starting pitcher, though, and that’s a valuable guy to have as depth. To win the 5th starter job this spring, Assad would have to show up to camp with another gear on his fastball or a dramatically improved approach with his breaking stuff in the strike zone.

    Of course, if there are injury issues, then Assad – like the other two guys – will be right there in the mix for opening week starts.

    written by

    Brett Taylor is the Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and on LinkedIn here. Brett is also the founder of Bleacher Nation, which opened up shop in 2008 as an independent blog about the Chicago Cubs. Later growing to incorporate coverage of other Chicago sports, Bleacher Nation is now one of the largest regional sports blogs on the web.

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