Let’s not kid ourselves. 2022 was never going to be “The Year” for the Cubs. Their recent 10-game losing streak is a vivid reminder: 2022 is a rebuilding year.
But that doesn’t mean that this year isn’t important. Who’s going to step up and lock themself into the Cubs’ next playoff window?
The team began the season with five rookies on the roster — all of them pitchers: Keegan Thompson, Justin Steele, Scott Effross, Ethan Roberts, and Michael Rucker. Three more have shipped up since then: Caleb Kilian, Matt Swarmer, and Brandon Hughes. Which of these rookie hurlers will emerge as cornerstones for the next Cubs contender? Let’s check in on their progress.
Emerging Rookie Hurlers
The man who snapped the Cubs’ 10-game losing streak, in what can be considered the best outing of his young career. Thompson struck out 9 over six innings, only allowing two hits to go along with a pair of walks. He leads the Cubs in Wins (6) and Friday’s outing lowered his ERA to 3.27. Thompson won over many Cubs fans early in the season when he beamed Brewers’ center fielder Andrew McCutchen after Milwaukee hit Willson Contreras, yet again. The Brew Crew has a history of hitting “Killer” Contreras – the nickname given to him by Jon Lester. Of his 58 career hit-by-pitch (HBP) – 15 have come via Milwaukee. Needless to say, Keegan Thompson wasn’t having any of it.
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I ran into Thompson and his wife outside of Irish Eyes in Lincoln Park that night. Donning matching jerseys and with dogs in tow, they were exceedingly nice and a delight to chat with. Thompson’s competitiveness, tenacity, and on-field success are exactly what the Cubs need. He should garner All-Star consideration and along with fellow rookie Justin Steele, is a huge asset for the Cubs: a young, cost-controlled starting pitcher with upside.
Speaking of the lefty Steele, he came into the season higher on the Cubs’ starting pitching pecking order and with more career starts than Keegan. Overall, he’s been solid. Saturday’s win over the Braves was his fourth consecutive start allowing 3 earned runs or fewer. His ERA is a respectable 4.27 and considering it’s his first full season in the bigs, the Cubs will take it. Steele is learning to adjust to big league hitters on the fly and provides nice balance on the mound, and in the Cubs’ future, with the righty Thompson.
The top prospect acquired when the Cubs shipped former MVP, Kris Bryant, to the SF Giants at the trade deadline last summer, Kilian is trending in the wrong direction. After striking out six Cardinals while giving up a respectable 3 earned runs over five innings in his debut, Kilian got hit hard by the Padres – giving up five earned runs in four innings and issuing five walks. In his next start, he walked five more and gave up seven earned runs in 2 1/3 innings.
Cubs’ Top Pitching Prospect Struggles
Kilian is listed at 6’4”, 180 lbs. That’s lean.. and hopefully, it won’t impact his health. Kilian’s development will play a big role in deciding if the Cubs are playoff-bound in 2023. He should get plenty of opportunities to show off his stuff at the major league level this year. Here’s hoping that he can bounce back from his early struggles.
Like Kilian, starter Matt Swarmer, a 19th-round pick by the Cubs out of Kutztown University (PA), has seen a few bumps in the road – or should I say long balls in the air – to start his career. After allowing only one earned run in each of his first two starts, Swarmer had a rude awakening against the Yankees – tying an MLB record by giving up 6 home runs. Late-round, small school draft picks don’t often make it to the big leagues, so kudos to Matt. If he can shake off a few bad losses and rediscover his early magic, the Cubs’ chances of making the playoffs next year will increase immensely.
Scott “Mother” Eff-ross! The 15th-round pick by the Cubs out of Indiana University is sporting an era of 3.10 and has only allowed 7 walks and 1 home run in 29 innings. Relief pitchers that get guys out and don’t give up the long ball or walk batters generally last a long time in the majors. Here’s hoping that “Mother” Effross can do the same!
The fourth Cubs rookie on this list to make the Opening Day roster, the moment he made the team was captured in Spring Training and it’s hard not to root for the kid.
The fourth-round pick by the Cubs out of Tennessee Tech, Roberts had an ERA above 8 before hitting the DL. The 24-year-old righty begins a rehab assignment this week in AAA Iowa. Assuming he’s healthy, a call-up soon is expected.
The 26-year-old lefty drafted out of Michigan State by the Cube in the 16th round of 2017, Hughes is off to a hot start to his career, striking out 20 in under 16 innings pitched. His 2.87 ERA will keep him on the roster assuming the production continues.
The fifth and final Cubs rookie to make the opening day roster, Rucker gave up 12 earned runs in just over 19 innings pitched. He has been optioned to AAA Iowa.
The Cubs Are Figuring Out What They’ve Got
Between Keegan Thompson, Justin Steele, Matt Swarmer, and Caleb Kilian – the Cubs have four potential 2023 starters getting experience now. That makes this year’s trade deadline very interesting. Would the Cubs ship their opening day starter for three straight years, Kyle Hendricks, one of the last remaining 2016 World Series winners still on the team, in a deadline blockbuster. Or would they consider shipping prized free-agent acquisition Marcus Stroman, under contract for two more seasons after this one, out the door as fast as he came in? With the Big Four Cubs rookies getting major league experience now, not to mention injured starters Wade Miley and Drew Smyly on the shelf – plus former top prospect Brailyn Marquez and Adbert Alzolay fighting their way back from injuries, stranger things have happened.