Assad Dominant Again and Raising More (Good) Questions, Mervis Returns, Sticky Stuff, Kilian’s Confidence, and Other Cubs Bullets

I think I’ve said it before, but man, I really miss the days when I was super into the NCAA Tournament. It’s so much fun. But the last five+ years, when I’ve really faded from following college basketball at all, it’s a lot harder (for me, at least) to get into the tournament. I’m sure I’ll watch the Final Four, but otherwise, I’m failing to get into the early round stuff (which is always some of the most fun). Shame on me.

  • Team Mexico stormed back to beat Team Puerto Rico last night in their WBC quarterfinal match-up. Marcus Stroman gave up a couple runs in his 4.1 innings of work, and PR had a 4-2 lead when he departed. Javier Assad was dominant once again in multi-inning relief, throwing 2.2 scoreless innings for Mexico, allowing just one hit, one walk, and striking out four. He looked SICK:
  • Assad topped out at 96 mph last night, sitting at 94 mph with the fastball. That seems more realistic for where he could be this year, but notably still up from last year. I know the discussion is awfully fresh – just had it yesterday morning – but, man, I am definitely wondering now if Assad is just too good to send to Iowa to open the season. Consider that he’s as ready to rock as he’s going to be, so wouldn’t you rather he just keep on rolling in games that matter? Even if it means he’s a multi-inning reliever in the bigs rather than a starter at Iowa? I am thinking strongly about this. I guarantee the Cubs are, too.
  • That probably goes double if this part of the latest from the Tribune is reflective of real concerns: “The Cubs are still working through their opening-day bullpen options. Multiple spots remain in flux. The team has taken notice of Keegan Thompson’s decreased velocity, sitting in the low 90s. Their go-to multi-inning weapon last season hasn’t been stretched out, limited to an inning in each of his three Cactus League appearances.” If there are concerns about Thompson not being ready for Opening Day, then Assad would be a pretty natural guy to step in, since he’s already stretched out to a multi-inning role and is maxing out his stuff as we speak.
  • Highlights from the PR-Mexico game:
  • Matt Mervis, who had three hits yesterday in his return from the WBC, wants folks to know his fellow minor league mates are just good:
  • As for himself, check out Mervis’s outstanding attitude about his experience, even as he didn’t register much offensive success (Cubs.com): “It just shows that I still have a lot of work to do. I thought I had some good at-bats, but also didn’t have great success. So it was a learning experience, for sure. And I got to work with some great coaches and other players. But, I also realized that if I’m going to play every day at the big league level like I want to, then I have things I need to work on.”
  • More sticky stuff enforcement is coming, but players are dubious that it’ll actually work to reduce the resumption of usage by large swaths of pitchers:
  • A great point from Kevin Gausman on how difficult this topic is … what actually counts as a “foreign” substance? Seems easy to answer, right? Well:
  • Under the original 2021 crackdown rules, the league stipulated that only rosin, mixed with water or sweat, was allowable. But in the months since, pitchers appear to have found different types of clear substances that enhance grip and movement. The question is, do those substances cross that line?

    “I think there are certain teams out there that push that envelope,” Gausman said. “And there are ways of gaining some grip without having something ‘sticky’ on you. You know, even just moisture out there can give you some (level of) ‘sticky.’ Now, is that a ‘sticky’ substance? Not necessarily.”

    There are pitchers, he said, who have obvious wet spots on the legs of their uniforms. But is that suspicious or not? Is it a foreign substance or not? We’re talking about stuff that is difficult to detect and difficult to evaluate, at least for an umpire who didn’t major in chemistry.

    “So if they check you and your pants are wet,” Gausman said, “how can they determine whether that’s sweat or water that (you’re) putting on in between innings? You see certain teams that have higher spin rates and everybody asks why that is. I don’t know. Who knows? Those guys know. But it’s like anything. There’s always going to be people who are pushing that envelope to try to find the advantage.”

  • We’re really getting into the weeds when we have to ask umpires to determine whether the level of stickiness on a guy’s hands means it HAS to have come from an ILLEGAL sticky substance, as opposed to the circumstances of multiple legal substances leading to a sticky feeling. That’s not to say MLB is wrong to try to enforce the rules – it is absolutely right to try – it’s just to say that, if pitchers figured out how to get around the last enforcement, it could just get harder from here.
  • Bonus(?) note from that article, which is well worth a read: many players apparently suspect that the inside of a the pants is where some pitchers are hiding their sticky stuff. Yes. I know how that reads. But it’s an actual, baseball-related theory. Good luck on those checks, umps.
  • Always happy to see Seiya Suzuki on the field doing anything:
  • Looking forward to hearing how the dry swings went, but I’ll say it seems like a good sign that, the day after taking swings, Suzuki was out there playing catch.
  • Caleb Kilian is probably, right now, something like the Cubs’ 9th starting pitcher in the pecking order (after Kyle Hendricks returns), but (1) most teams wind up getting starts from AT LEAST nine different starting pitchers these days, and (2) Kilian’s upside is still significant enough that he could leapfrog some guys if he shows he’s back to where he was at the start of last season (before the knee injury, the mechanical issues, the command disintegration, and whatever else totally derailed his year).
  • To that point, some thoughts from David Ross on what he’s seen from Kilian this spring (Sun-Times): “The confidence has continued to build. I thought his command really looked good . . . the way he’s manipulating the baseball. The changeup has really come in to be a real weapon as a secondary pitch. And still working on a breaking ball that’s going to get a little bit more swing-and-miss. But fastball location and the changeup has really stood out …. The strong players, the guys that have really long careers, hit the adversity at some point — whether that’s in the minor leagues or in the big leagues. And being able to bounce back from that is really what establishes their fortitude to continue to trust themselves, believe in themselves and put the work in. He’s a worker. To put in that work to come out on the other side of that is really, really powerful.”
  • What you want to see from Kilian this year is that, by June, he’s gotten his walk rate back down to where it was before 2022 – when he was a superior control guy – even if it comes at the cost of a slight decrease in his strikeout rate. You’ll want to see that he’s maybe finally gotten that slider to work for him, that he hasn’t lost his sinker-cutter base set, and that the changeup is an out pitch for him. If he’s still dropping in the big overhand curve to steal strikes, all the better. He’s got so many of the pieces you look for from a mid-rotation (or better) starting pitcher. This is a guy you really, really want to be in the mix for a 2024 rotation job – don’t forget, the Cubs could lose all of Marcus Stroman, Drew Smyly, and Kyle Hendricks after this season. Lotta opportunity on the horizon.
  • 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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