Adrian Sampson, Hayden Wesneski, and the Fifth Starter Competition

Had you to choose the Chicago Cubs’ opening week fifth starter right now entirely on the basis of spring performances, you’d easily go with Hayden Wesneski for the spot, with Javier Assad up next. In terms of results, it has not been a pretty couple outings this spring for Adrian Sampson.

But we know that results so far – with three weeks remaining, among other things – are not the whole of the decision-making inputs for this decision. There are player development considerations. Innings limits considerations. Roster considerations (though at least all three guys have minor league options remaining, which makes that part a little easier).

And then there is the big one when it comes to Spring Training games: how much do the game results at any given moment actually TELL us about how well a player will perform in the upcoming regular season? We know that sometimes guys are working on specific things. We know that they are facing guys who are sometimes working on specific things. And we also know that the talent pool in the spring is very different from the pool in the regular season.

When it comes to “competitions” like the fifth starter competition, you do have to allow a little grace for the involved players – while trying to impression you and “win” a job – to also just use Spring Training games for their stated purpose: to put themselves in the best possible position to succeed in the regular season. Sometimes, doing that is in conflict with getting the best results that day.

In addition to having precise command, something that is very necessary for Adrian Sampson to succeed is to have very distinct shapes on his fastballs (sinker and four-seam) so that they separate enough to stay off the barrel. It’s a big part of how he does his whole contact management thing – if you have two fastballs coming in at fastball velocity but with subtly different movement each time, it can dip just off the barrel enough to produce crummy contact. That alone is not enough for success, of course, as you also have to have reasonably decent velocity and competent offspeed offerings, but Sampson does check those boxes. But when you’re going fastball 70% of the time and you don’t have an elite fastball overall, you better make sure the two-seamer/sinker and the four-seamer are truly operating as different pitches.

Why do I say all of that? Well, Sampson is up to a whopping six spring homers allowed, and part of it, he says, is because he’s still working on getting his two fastballs to consistently have their distinct shapes, and avoid the middle of the plate (Cubs.com). He’s not excusing the results, but he did confirm that he’s not going to stop trying to work on his fastball in games just because he’s getting hit – that’s what Spring Training is for.

The question is what happens to the fifth starter competition if this continues for Sampson throughout the spring. He doesn’t have to get “results” in Cactus League games for the Cubs to make their decision, but if the fastballs aren’t quite where he needs them to be, wouldn’t THAT have to make the decision for the Cubs? I’m sure Sampson, who was VERY good for the Cubs last year, would be perturbed about being sent to Iowa to open the season, but it’s kinda like we say for Hayden Wesneski and Javier Assad: it’s not as if the Cubs aren’t going to need Sampson to make starts this year no matter what. They will. That’s just the reality of what happens. All three, if healthy, will make big league starts this year.

Maybe it doesn’t matter all that much who gets the nod initially (and also, this presumes NO other starting pitcher gets hurt or delayed over the next three weeks, which is far from a lock). That’s especially true if none of the three are slated to throw more than 150 innings this year in any case. At that point, it’s really just a decision of who you want pitching in the big league rotation at what points in the calendar, who can benefit from work at Iowa at a given time, etc.

None of that is to say I would CHOOSE Sampson today if the choice were mine and the season started tomorrow. I think it’s pretty clear that you’d have to choose Wesneski in that situation.

But that’s not the situation. Instead, there are still a few weeks to go, and clearly Sampson is working on some specific things. I don’t think he’s a mid-rotation starter or anything, but I do credit his success last year as being a more meaningful data point than two spring starts. I’m not sure a 3-ish ERA is in his future, but he showed a lot last year that you do like to see in a back-end starting pitcher. If he works things out over the next few weeks and, at THAT point, looks to be in a good place to open the season? Well, then maybe he’s the guy, and Wesneski and Assad get in some more development work at Iowa until the next rotation opening inevitably comes. I’m still open to that possibility, even if it seems like Wesneski is “pulling ahead,” so to speak.

Oh, also: I don’t want to totally rule out Assad! He’s gone right now for the World Baseball Classic, but he sure did look good in his two early spring outings. What if he really shows out in the WBC? He’s still in this mix, too, even if a lot of our conversation is about Sampson and Wesneski.

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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