Hayden Wesneski takes 7-inning step toward Cubs 2023 plans


Cubs rookie Hayden Wesneski tries not to think about it.

But next year? Caviar wishes and big-league dreams?

“It crosses my mind,” he admitted. “But we’ve got a long ways before that happens.”

The polished pitching prospect the Cubs acquired from the Yankees in the Scott Effross trade last month might have moved seven innings closer to that happening Saturday when he stifled the aggressive and middling Rockies lineup in his big-league starting debut.

He gave up one run but pitched well enough for to have earned a scoreless start, if not for some spotty play in the field in the seventh inning of a 3-1 loss at Wrigley Field.

And he pitched well enough to win, if not for Abert Alzolay’s rough ninth inning during a return engagement with the active roster, and a lot of anemia in a patchwork Cubs lineup.

But as old pal Torii Hunter used to say, “If ‘if’ was a fifth we’d all be drunk.”

Which brings us to the woulda-coulda-shoulda state of Cubs pitching as the team plays out the string, manager David Ross gets grayer by the day and the front office steps on deck for a critical offseason in Jed Hoyer’s Rebuild That Shall Not Be Named.

The Cubs need to add a big arm to the rotation if they are going to legitimately compete next season. (If you don’t believe that, I’ve got some World Series tickets to sell you for Guaranteed Rate Field next month.)

But what about all these guys in-house that have looked good for lengthy stretches, like Adrian Sampson (3.48 ERA, 15 starts) or Drew Smyly (3.48 in 21)?

What about the rookies that have shown so much promise in late-season looks, like Javier Assad (2.53, four starts) or Wesneski (2.30 in 15 2/3 innings)?

Ross, who has been to the postseason seven times and won two rings as a player, has been reluctant to start penciling in very many names to next year’s staff, leaving unsaid what anyone paying attention to the rest of the league knows. The Cubs need proven horses just for starters (and don’t get us started on back-end bullpen needs).

He made some of that clear after Friday’s game about how many options he could have going into spring training next year after watching some of the myriad encouraging performances of guys across the roster who have gotten opportunities through the rebuild process.

“The key [part] of that question is ‘could,’ “ he said. “It’s hard to hang your hat on ‘could,’ or ‘should,’ or ‘might.’ I don’t know if Smyly will be here. I don’t know if [Wade] Miley will be here. I don’t know if Kyle [Hendricks] will be healthy. I think there are some question marks there.”

He mentioned only veteran Marcus Stroman, who’s under contract for two more years, and Justin Steele, who proved a lot in 24 starts, as potential parts of his rotation next year at this point.

“And we need to get Keegan [Thompson] back,” he added of the promising right-hander, who made a rehab start at Iowa Friday in his effort to return from back soreness. “And then, I don’t know after that, right? I don’t know if anybody can talk about certainty after that.

“I think we could have a lot of good options, but we’ll have to wait and see.”

This is where Wesneski comes back into the picture.

Even if the Cubs go get that big, frontline free agent for the rotation (Carlos Rodon, anyone?), the depth behind the known quantities will be huge.

And as much as his plus slider that was on display Saturday, along with an aggressive, strike-thrower’s mentality, Wesneski also seems to have a self-awareness that might serve him well in finding a place in next year’s plans.

The seven strikeouts without a walk Saturday is a big part of that.

The 18 strikeouts and two walks since his was called up earlier this month a bigger part, so far.

“I put pride into that,” he said. “I think that’s just the best chance you have of staying here longest, is just filling it up. So that’s just part of my MO and who I’ve been. They’re gonna keep running me out there if I keep throwing strikes, and at some point good things will happen.

“My stuff is good, and I know that,” added Wesneski, who at one point Saturday retired 16 straight. “And so if i’m throwing strikes with my stuff I even have a chance when I’m not so sharp.”

As good as Wesneski looked, the Cubs haven’t committed to another start for him in the final 17 games — between monitoring workload and the availability of other starters, such as Thompson’s anticipated return.

“There’s a lot of moving parts,” Ross said.

But he’s pitched himself onto the 2023 radar screen, at least into the woulda-coulda-shoulda realm of the spring rotation picture. And Saturday’s effort was stick in some decisions makers’ minds when his name comes up, whether he works out of the pen the rest of the way or gets another start.

“I’m just trying to stay here day by day, to be honest with you,” he said. “I’ve got a full offseason to go through. I haven’t even thought about what I’m going to do in the offseason yet, and that’s something that I’ve usually done by now.

“But with all this going on, it kind of just puts my head away from what I should be doing in the future.”

Should be? Could be?

Will be?

“I hope to be on the big-league club next year, if it’s starting or relieving,” he said. “I just want to be given the opportunity.”

And, he added after a brief pause, “Like I said before, I just try to throw strikes.”

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