MESA, Ariz. — The hottest Cubs rumors swirling around the first week of spring training involve a lot of hitting.
But their two biggest needs are pitching and more pitching. And that was even before starter Adbert Alzolay (lat) and reliever Codi Heuer (elbow) suffered recent injuries that will sideline them for most or all of the season.
“We were always going to be focused on pitching and pitching depth, and I think that hasn’t changed,” team president Jed Hoyer said.
The Cubs added a reliever on Tuesday in Atlanta free agent Chris Martin, who has a 2.19 ERA in 14 career postseason games, including two scoreless appearances in last year’s World Series.
But the Alzolay injury that could keep him out until at least the second half of the season underscores a depth issue in the starting rotation that probably requires a lot more help than bullpen arms.
How much the Cubs are willing to spend on any players during this transition season is unclear — never mind how much in a starting pitching market that has already been picked clean of the top 15 or so free agents and that could cost a high price in player capital for a reliable trade target.
For now, the Cubs have three veterans locked into the front end of the rotation: Kyle Hendricks, Marcus Stroman and Wade Miley.
Manager David Ross on Tuesday said swingman Alec Mills — who threw a no-hitter in 2020 — has been penciled into his rotation, pending any roster changes.
“We’ll adjust from there,” said Ross, who declined to get specific about much of anything involving his roster given how active the Cubs are in talks to add what Hoyer said would be “a lot more players” during the spring.
"They're still intent on getting more pitching," Ross said. "That'll shape out more, even for me, as we get things filled out."
Whether they can improve on the options they have in-house to cover Alzolay’s absence, here’s what those options look like for now:
Left-hander Justin Steele, who looked impressive for much of his rookie season last year, has an opportunity to take a next step toward becoming at least a reliable, five-inning starter.
“I’m coming into this spring exactly as I have every other spring,” Steele said when asked about what might be a chance to claim a bigger role with his close friend, Alzolay, on the shelf.
Right-hander Keegan Thompson, another rookie last year who impressed the staff, could be in the mix, too, for such a role — along with possibly Cory Abbott.
Steele, Thompson and Abbott — and maybe even Mills, depending how the roster building and performances play out — could be parts of two-man piggyback schedules to cover starts or be rotated in and out of the rotation based on matchups.
“I’m not ready to lock in the rotation quite yet. We’re going to try to maximize as many arms as we can,” Ross said. “I feel like we have some depth.”