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Could the Chicago Cubs open the season with four left-handers in the rotation?

MESA, Ariz. — Jameson Taillon’s day-to-day improvement has him cautiously trending in the right direction, a good sign for the Chicago Cubs.

Taillon played catch from 120 feet Saturday and is on track to throw a bullpen early next week. That will be an important test to determine a potential timeline for his return. Because Taillon can be backdated three days when he goes on the 15-day injured list to start the season, he could return as soon as two times through the rotation. He hasn’t faced hitters since pitching in a sim game March 4, so the Cubs will be deliberate in making sure he properly builds up.

Without Taillon, there is a scenario in which the Cubs open the season with four left-handers in the rotation: Justin Steele, Shota Imanaga, Jordan Wicks and Drew Smyly.

“With how right-handed we’ve been in the past, it’s amazing for us even be thinking or talking about having four lefties in the rotation,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said Saturday. “It’s just so unique, but one thing (Craig) Counsell’s talked about is we want to take the guys who are going to give us the best chance to win and we’ll figure out the ways that we can piece that together and move guys around accordingly.

“And when I say what gives you the best chance to win is because you could have these preconceived notions that oh, four lefties is too many. Well, who knows? Honestly. Some of the best teams in this league have a lot of left-handed hitters.”

The Cubs know they will need somewhere around eight to 12 pitchers to make at least one start over the course of the season. Right-hander Ben Brown, who did not allow a run in four innings Saturday against the Angels, is positioned to be among the minor-league depth options to get an opportunity.

“How you start is definitely not going to be how you finish and when you know you’ve got movable pieces and guys that can pitch in different scenarios, it gives you a lot of flexibility to do a lot of different things,” Hottovy said of the rotation to start the season.

As the Cubs evaluate which two among Smyly and Wicks and right-handers Javier Assad and Hayden Wesneski slot into the two open rotation spots, part of the process is looking at what they have seen this spring as well as big-league career track record, if they have one.

“Whenever you have a good mix of young and veteran players you’re evaluating a lot of different things and right now we’re seeing young guys really take a step forward in what they’ve done this offseason and in the spring,” Hottovy said, “and you’ve seen some veteran guys have also worked really hard to continue to improve and get better. So it’s a fun problem to have when you have a lot of guys who you feel like are clicking at this time.”

Smyly’s veteran status is no guarantee he has the inside track to a rotation spot, but the work he put in the offseason — adding a splitter and slider — to address his weaknesses didn’t go unnoticed by the Cubs. Hottovy said it’s a credit to Smyly for making big changes, and he believes they have seen the payoff this spring.

Smyly’s final line from his start Saturday did not look great — five runs on four hits, including two home runs in 4 1/3 innings — but he was pleased with his fastball, which he feels has been much better than last spring. He lost some feel for his offspeed pitches during the outing and hasn’t been satisfied with his curveball’s shape. Smyly reiterated after his start that he isn’t worried about however the Cubs use him.

“We all kind of give different looks,” Smyly said of the potential four-lefty rotation. “I don’t think it matters. You’ve got to go get outs. You’ve got to be able to give your team a chance to win. If it was four righties, I don’t think anybody would even really be a conversation.

“I don’t know what role I’m going to be pitching in, but I’m more concerned with just trying to dial in my craft, my pitches and then feel confident and comfortable going into the season.”

For starters on the 40-man roster with options, most notably Wicks, Wesneski, Assad and Brown, they could be shuttled between Iowa and Chicago as the Cubs look to maximize their depth while taking advantage of off days and rest. Counsell has emphasized the concept of connectedness, and that goes beyond who is just on the 26-man roster.

The messaging has centered on getting everyone on the same page and each player understanding they serve a purpose and will play a big part in trying to achieve goals. That synergy will carry to Triple-A Iowa too. Hottovy said the Cubs are going to try to coordinate with Iowa’s staff to prepare certain pitchers to be ready for anything, which could include starting and pitching in relief. One way this could manifest, Hottovy explained: Every three or four starts, Brown instead comes out of the bullpen to help him or other pitchers get used to what might happen when they get called up.

“The communication I feel like this year especially, with the pitchers we have, the pitchers we have in Triple A and how we want to navigate the schedule and everything, I think it’s going to be very important,” Hottovy said. “But it’s also showing them we believe that they are going to be a piece and the fact that we’re talking about guys that are going to be at Triple A and working on their schedule it’s going to make them feel like OK, they do care about us. They know that we’re important pieces of what we want to do.

“It’s so important to make sure we keep lines of communication open.”