After previously looking at the potential roster of the 2026 Chicago Cubs, today we take a look at the pitching staff. Following this year’s draft and trade deadline, the Cubs have 13 pitchers among their top 30 prospects, according to MLB Pipeline.
Some of these guys will have an impact; most won’t. Predicting pitching performance is even more of a crap than doing it for hitters, but the exercise can help illuminate some of the strengths and weaknesses of pitching on the farm. In this article, we will therefore look at the potential five-man rotation in 2026 as well as the top three relievers.
Before we go any further, it might be worth considering if starting to pitch will still be a thing in 2026. Major league teams are averaging just 5.2 innings per start, up from 6 in 2014. It is possible that the starters will continue to be marginalized. , but there are reasons to think that the trend has reached the point of diminishing returns.
There are 13 teams averaging less than 5.2 innings per start. Only three of them have over .500, and only one (no points to guess the Rays) would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. Additionally, MLB is slowly moving toward reversing the bullpen-ization of the game. The 13-pitcher roster limit isn’t particularly restrictive, but it’s both a solid start and a shot at across the arcs of the 30 major league front offices.
Many fans (including me) like to see starting pitchers work deeper into plays, and fewer pitch changes means shorter plays (or, more cynically, more TV commercial time). And while 5.2 innings per start seems lower, it’s actually the second straight season that the number has risen from a miserable 4.8 in 2020.
So yes, the starter will survive, and perhaps thrive, in 2026. Bigger changes may be in store for the use of the bullpen, a topic we’ll get to momentarily.
Cub rotation: Shane Bieber, Justin Steele, Caleb Kilian, Jordan Wicks and DJ Herz
Hey, why not dream? Bieber enters free agency after the 2024 season, and chances are the Guardians, famous for their tight fist, won’t shell out the Croesus-like sums needed to keep him in Cleveland. There will be a one-upmanship for him, but that’s the kind of war the Cubs can win.
Whether it’s Bieber or someone else, the Cubs’ future ace will likely come from outside the system. MLB Pipeline does not give any Cubs pitcher a scouting rating above 50 (average). Fangraphs assigns a future value rating of 45 to Kilian, Wicks and Herz; no one else exceeds a 40+. A rating of 45 means the pitcher is likely to end up in the middle or back of the rotation. (Cade Horton gets a 45+, but that’s a bit of a special case; we’ll get to that shortly.)
Scores are predictions with large error bars. Justin Steele got a future value of 40 and looks to be emerging as a solid number three, as expected in this space. Keegan Thompson, 40 others, has landed in the rotation for now, though he’s more likely to end up in the bullpen once the current rebuild is nearly complete.
These two pitchers can give a clue to the Cubs’ pitching development strategy. Both throw fastballs that (1) aren’t that fast but (2) have very high spin. A high-spinning fastball tends to “rise” or “carry” – what those of us with an overabundance of annual growth rings called a “rising” fastball. Kilian, Wicks and Herz all throw a fastball with good uphill or carry, suggesting they are achieving high spin rates online with two young Cubs starters who have already established successful track records. Wicks and Herz also have great shifts, which can work really well with fastballs.
No one knows if Kilian, Wicks and Herz will become mainstays in the rotation, but for now, they’re a better bet than the other three guys currently in the Cubs’ system. With the exception of Bieber, I think one of the other four guys will end up between 2 and 5 in the rotation, but I still give Steele the advantage of being the first of relative equals, given the progress he’s achieved so far and the head start he’s got on the other guys.
Some teams have begun to employ a six-man rotation more or less regularly. Since guessing even five names is a reach, I didn’t bother to speculate if the Cubs might move in that direction. I’ll throw Drew Gray over there as the sixth man if there is one.
Cubs bullpen staples: Brailyn Marquez, Keegan Thompson, Daniel Palencia
If I had to name someone close, I’d say it’s Brailyn Marquez. Admittedly, the young southpaw has been through the injury gauntlet recently, but he still has the best fastball in the system. It’s an 80 pitch he can blast past triple-digit hitters. If the Cubs stick with LaRussan’s bullpen roles, Marquez will pitch in the ninth.
My guess, though, is that the Cubs could follow the lead of more creative organizations like the Rays and start using their bullpen more flexibly, deploying trusted relievers in key situations rather than adhering to more mechanical. Even before this season’s bullpen stripping trades, David Ross was doing some of that, albeit often out of necessity as much as choice. The Cubs’ generally lackluster pitching in recent seasons has kind of created an opportunity: there’s little reason to stick with the old ways that haven’t worked.
So while you might read that bullpen list above as ninth, eighth, and seventh inning guys, respectively, I see this list as more of a projected circle of trust.
Keegan Thompson is here because, well, let’s get to the numbers.
The pen is more powerful? Thompson’s Career OPS Vs:
- Input: .799
- As a reliever: .620
Both numbers are better for 2022, but the gap is still significant. It’s admittedly a rather small sample, but through 152 career innings, Thompson has been an average starter and a stifling reliever. It will continue to start for now. The Cubs don’t have better options, and he could still become a rotational fixture, but I could see him evolving into a high-leverage relief role as some of the highest-ceilinged guys on the farm get their graduation for The Show.
As for Palencia, this choice is not as random as it seems. Fangraphs gives the high-A farmhand a future value of 40+; not great for a beginner but not bad for a reliever. At 5-11, Palencia will likely suffer from the lingering bias in favor of big starters, and their mechanics are complicated. But he might have the makings to be a pretty mean trust circle guy in the bullpen.
What next for the Cubs’ first-round Cade Horton?
I’m glad you asked. I didn’t include him in the discussion above because he’s not yet in the MLB Pipeline Top 30, but he already has the highest future value (45+) of any Cubs pitching prospect. Horton recently developed a dirty slider to go with a 95 MPH fastball. As with many other good young arms, Horton’s fate will hinge heavily on mastering a third pitch and showing his stamina. The Fangraphs scouting report (scroll down to Horton and click “report”) suggests that Horton has a usable curve but probably not (yet, anyway) a change. Because he only pitched just over 50 innings during his college career, his durability remains largely untested.
Horton’s advantage is at or near the highest of any arm in the Cubs system, but his general lack of experience makes him a highly unusual prospect. If he develops that third pitch and can go further in games with some frequency, he could land near the top of the rotation. Otherwise, he could easily become a trust circle guy in the bullpen. I guess he becomes a number 2 starter behind Bieber, but not until 2027.
There is a lot of uncertainty about this projected Cubs personnel. But with the major league club providing only limited short-term entertainment, the continued development of the pitching staff should make up for at least some of the missing plot.