CINCINNATI — Cubs rookie Hayden Wesneski is hard on himself after dominant outings, so it was no surprise that after giving up a pair of home runs to the Reds, he didn’t crack a smile in his postgame interview until he brought up the final result.
“I still have the velo, that’s cool, but there’s still things I need to work on,” he said after the Cubs’ 12-5 win Tuesday, his first start of the season. “I need to spin it a little bit better than I did today. But biggest takeaway, we won today. So that’s about it. We needed a win.”
It’s too early in the season to judge the offense. But if the Cubs’ under-the-radar rotation is going to outperform projections — and it very well could — Wesneski’s development will likely be a big factor.
‘‘Everyone talks about the fifth starter role,” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said at the end of spring training. “Our expectation, hope, is he throws a lot better than what you’d consider a fifth starter, and he certainly looked like that all spring.’’
With a four-pitch mix that includes a slider to envy, his ceiling is even higher than the strong impression he’s made through six major-league games last season and a spring-training performance that won him a spot on the rotation.
The Cubs had high expectations of Wesneski when they acquired him from the Yankees at the trade deadline last year for reliever Scott Effross. If they hadn’t pictured a bright future for Wesneski, they wouldn’t have traded a budding side-armer who was still pre-arbitration eligible.
“We probably expected this, but not quite as quickly, honestly,’’ Hoyer said.
Assistant pitching coach Daniel Moskos admits he’s biased. Formerly a pitching coach in the Yankees’ farm system, Moskos had worked with Wesneksi starting in spring training 2020 in Double-A Somerset the next year.
“I would have loved for him to join the big-league staff right when we first acquired him, just so I could get back to working with him,” Moskos said.
Instead, Wesneski spent a month in Triple-A Iowa before his MLB debut.
In all the time Moskos has spent with Wesneski, he said he’s never seen him come out of a bullpen session saying, “That was a really good ‘pen today.”
“Like, what is the standard that you’re holding yourself to? Because I don’t get it,” Moskos said with a smile. “But honestly, if that’s what drives him and keeps him pursuing [improvement], then fine I’ll allow it. I will also tell him, ‘Shut up Hayden, that was a really good ‘pen.’ ”
Harnessing that mentality has helped Wesneski climb from a sixth-round draft pick to a big-league starter in less than four years, even with the 2020 minor-league season wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m always trying to prove something,” Wesneksi said this spring. “I’m not supposed to be here. It’s one of those things where sixth-rounders, yeah, that’s a higher draft pick, but if you look at the percentages, sixth-round guys don’t make it to the big leagues very often.”
According to a study in the Spring 2017 Baseball Research Journal on the 1996 to 2011 MLB Drafts, less than 25 percent of sixth rounders made it to the big-leagues.
After debuting in September and receiving his first spring-training camp invite, Wesneski couldn’t let up. He had a starting spot to win. Now that he’s part of the rotation he has his first full season ahead of him.
“It’s nice to get back out there,” he said Tuesday. “I hadn’t thrown for a couple for a week. And I’m not happy with it. But I’m not upset with what happened.”
Wesneski allowed three runs and six hits, including two solo homers, in 4⅔ innings. But the Cubs offense rendered the Reds’ early scoring irrelevant, scoring nine runs in the seventh and eighth innings combined.
“It’s cool to see,” Wesneski said. “I know we’re going to bang it around. I’m not surprised by it.”