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A look at how the Cubs pitching staff will be set up on Opening Day

David Ross and the coaching staff appear to be looking for versatility.

Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports

We don’t yet know how the Cubs will set up their pitching staff for the 2022 season that begins a week from tomorrow, Thursday, April 7 at Wrigley Field against the Brewers.

That’s not going to stop me from making an educated guess about how things will work for manager David Ross and his coaching staff.

Starting pitching

It seems clear that Kyle Hendricks will get the Opening Day start, his third. He’ll be followed by Marcus Stroman. That’s the way those two have been set up from the beginning of spring camp.

Beyond that, it’s a bit less clear. If the Cubs choose to do so, they could use the off day Monday, April 11 to skip the fifth-starter spot the first time around. This would mean they wouldn’t need that fifth starter until Saturday, April 16 against the Rockies. Since Wade Miley has yet to throw in a spring game, they could conceivably skip his turn if needed. That would likely mean that Justin Steele — who started Tuesday after Stroman started Monday — would start the third game of the Brewers series, with Alec Mills following.

That’s how I see it as of now. It’s possible the Cubs could start Miley on the injured list if they don’t feel they need him until the 16th.

Relief pitching

Drew Smyly will start Wednesday’s game against the Mariners, after throwing two scoreless innings just four days ago against the Padres. That’s only three days’ rest. To me, this would appear to set up Smyly to be a long reliever, and perhaps a “piggyback” pitcher for starters who aren’t completely stretched out to go more than, say, five innings when the season begins.

Daniel Norris is another reliever who’s thrown multiple innings in a spring outing and I would expect Ross to use those two to back up starters early on.

There’s been no anointed closer for the Cubs, yet. I would expect David Robertson (who is expected to throw in a spring game for the first time Friday), Mychal Givens (who will make his spring debut today against the Mariners) and Rowan Wick will all get chances to close early on. Robertson and Givens have significant closing experience and it’s my thought that one of them will step out and claim the role. But, there’s no reason Wick couldn’t do the same, if he can stay healthy.

Chris Martin and Scott Effross will serve in various forms of setup/middle relief roles. Effross, in particular, seems to be a real find. He was very effective late last year — walking only one of the 58 batters he faced — and has thrown five scoreless innings this spring.

That’s seven relievers. The Cubs are likely going to carry nine through the month of April. Michael Rucker didn’t throw well last year for the Cubs, but has had a good spring. Manuel Rodriguez can throw 100 miles per hour, but struggled last year. Jesse Chavez, a non-roster invitee, has had a decent spring so far and I suspect he’ll make the Opening Day roster. The Cubs do have an open 40-man roster spot at the moment.

Two guys to keep track of who will likely start the year at Triple-A Iowa: Cayne Ueckert and Ben Leeper. Ueckert, a 27th-round pick in 2019, dominated at Double-A Tennessee last year and has been impressive this spring. Here’s Tim Huwe’s profile of him from last December. Leeper, signed as an undrafted free agent in 2020, dominated at both Double-A and Triple-A last year. Here’s the profile Tim wrote about Leeper last December. Both of these pitchers should see MLB time in 2022.

There is a new limit of five times being optioned before being exposed to waivers in the new CBA. Options made during April 2022 don’t count against that limit, so expect the Cubs (and other teams) to take advantage of it.

That’s how I see the Cubs pitching staff shaking out for this year’s opener, as of today. What do you think?