Cubs Storylines of the Spring

Regardless of the win-loss expectancy at the big league level, this spring and the upcoming season are important steps in the building process for the organization. And the Cubs take another step Thursday afternoon when Rick Renteria’s team kicks off the Cactus League schedule against Kirk Gibson’s Arizona Diamondbacks.

Several players that are coming off down years or perceived bad seasons need to have the proverbial bounce back season. Those players include Starlin Castro, Edwin Jackson and Darwin Barney at the big league level. And depending on the point of view, Anthony Rizzo. Jeff Samardzija must start pitching the way he wants to be viewed around the league. As for Junior Lake, is he an everyday player on a first division team or a fourth outfielder on a contending team?

Former first round picks Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson just need to play this spring and show that last year was nothing but an injury-plagued, all-around bad season. Is Mike Olt is fully recovered from the vision issues that set his career back? And if he is, could Olt man the hot corner on Opening Day in Pittsburgh? Players such as Travis Wood and Welington Castillo, their goals must be to stay healthy and not only maintain what they did a year ago but build on last season’s performances.

The Cubs signed several players to minor league contracts over the winter and at the beginning of camp that could play their way onto the Opening Day roster. Chris Coghlan and Ryan Kalish say they are healthy, plus Emilio Bonifacio sounds like he already has a spot on the roster.

And then there are the top prospects in the system that will have everyone’s attention during the first couple weeks of the Cactus League before those players are either optioned down or re-assigned to minor league camp.

So considering the Major League team is expected to lose a lot more games than it wins during the regular season, there are many storylines that will be worth following this spring, summer and into the fall.

Health – Avoid the Injury Bug

It wasn’t too long ago that when players reported to Spring Training it was to get into shape then get into baseball shape. Well those days are long gone. If a player does not report to camp in shape and ready to go, he is criticized by the media, fans and sometimes even his own team. In today’s game, players spend the first month of the spring getting into baseball shape then prepare for the long season over the last two weeks of the exhibition games.

Jake Arrieta has already missed enough time that it is hard to see a scenario in which he starts the season on the active roster. And he is just one of the players the front office would like to see answer a few questions during the upcoming season.

CubsMesaLogo-pubThe team is monitoring Welington Castillo rather closely this spring. Castillo ended last season on the DL after undergoing right knee surgery and the team would like for him to play more this season than the career-high 113 games he suited up for last year. Castillo made strides defensively and offensively last season now it is time for him to take his game to the next level. The Cubs think he can be an elite catcher in the league for a long time, but he has to stay on the field first.

This is a big spring for Junior Lake as well. Lake has landed on the DL during his pro career as much as Castillo, and like his catcher, Lake must avoid the injury bug this spring. Lake will put in the work to get better but not if he isn’t able to.

To this point, based on reports, the entire roster is pretty healthy but those nagging injuries will happen during the spring that will be blown out of proportion.

Jeff Samardzija

The only thing guaranteed with Jeff Samardzija is that he is starting the spring opener against one of the teams that tried to acquire him during the winter. But beyond Thursday’s start versus the D-Backs, Samardzija’s future with the Cubs is uncertain at best.

The Cubs and Samardzija have talked about a long term extension over the last two off-seasons. Samardzija sees himself as a top of the rotation starter and would like to be paid as one with a little guarantee he will not be part of the team’s July selloff. There is a gap in the negotiations, as both sides have admitted publicly, so the likelihood of a trade is nearing 100 percent.

The Sun-Times reported Monday there is a possibility Samardzija is traded before Opening Day, and as long as Rick Renteria holds off naming his Opening Day starter, that will fuel the rumor mill as well.

For his part, Samardzija needs have a quiet, healthy spring and prepare for the season. And while he is getting his work-in, hopefully Jeff Samardzija will impress the numerous scouts that will be following him around the Cactus League.

Darwin Barney

Darwin Barney is an excellent fielder and one of the elder statesmen in the Cubs clubhouse. But when the team signed Ryan Roberts to a minor league contract right around the time rumors surfaced they were listening to offers for Barney, the thought was he might not be with the Cubs on Opening Day. The speculation then went through the roof that Barney would be dealt at some point during the spring when the team signed Emilio Bonifacio to a minor league contract and all but guaranteed him a spot on the Opening Day roster.

Darwin Barney has value and teams are believed to have varying degrees of interest. Barney has been working rather hard with Bill Mueller and Mike Brumley (Bill & Brum) to get back to the .276/.313/.353 hitter he was in 2011 and put last season’s slash line behind him (.208/.266/.303).

Mike Olt and the Hot Corner

Mike Olt is off to a good start in his first camp with the Cubs. He recently said he is ahead of schedule for this point of Spring Training … and he is seeing the ball at the plate and in the field. If Olt is healthy and can perform this spring, he has a chance to be at third base on Opening Day in Pittsburgh.

While the Cubs won’t say the third base job is Olt’s to lose this spring, they have said he will play multiple positions (outfield and first base) this spring, but with the way the system is lining up at third base, Olt should be given every opportunity this spring to win the job.

Rick Renteria has already said a platoon of Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy at third is a possibility. And for a team not expected to win many games, a platoon of basically the same player would keep the position warm for another season while the Cubs figure out if Javier Baez is going to be at second or third, if Kris Bryant is moving to the outfield or if Christian Villanueva can hit enough to be a viable option at the big league level.

Luis Valbuena is a slightly better defender than Donnie Murphy at all three positions but either player could be a serviceable backup infielder. If Olt is healthy and shows early in the spring games he could be an option at third, it could end up between Valbuena and Murphy for the last spot on the Cubs’ active roster.

Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo

Starlin Castro does not turn 24 until the end of March. Rick Renteria is his fourth different manager during his short big league career and his hit total through his age 23 season puts him in impressive company. And while excuses should never be made, Castro is a huge talent that is coming off a bad year and he has reported to camp ready to put last season behind him. Castro has the full support of his skipper and appears to be on the same page with the organization. Castro figures to remain at shortstop for the Cubs if he is able to put last year behind him.

Anthony Rizzo is not at a crossroad in his career, regardless of what the mainstream media has said. Rizzo had a better season a year ago than he is given credit for. Rizzo knows he must improve on hitting with RISP and against lefties. But knowing what to expect this season should result in better numbers across the board, especially if his teammates to their jobs. To put things into the proper perspective in regards to Anthony Rizzo, he was drafted in 2007 and played six games of pro ball that summer. Last year, 2013, was the first time he spent an entire season at the same level.

Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo simply need to get their work in this spring and get ready for the season … a season, for both players that should be closer to meeting expectations.

Rick Renteria and the Coaching Staff

Rick Renteria has a small idea now of what it is going to be like as manager of the Chicago Cubs. Renteria said all of the right things leading up to and during the convention. And he’s continued the same strategy in camp. While they are ‘just Spring Training games’ about the middle month he should start managing to game situations.

Renteria appears to be an excellent communicator, soon everyone will find out if he and Brandon Hyde can manage a game.

Chris Bosio and Lester Strode, along with Mike Borzello, have the pitchers and catchers under control. That is why all three coaches were retained.

Bill Mueller and Mike Brumley said they needed time this spring to get to know all of the hitters. So at some point, the adjustments being made should be noticeable. And while the results might not be instantaneous, it will be interesting to see what recommendations the Cubs’ hitting coaches make this spring.

Gary Jones is the Cubs’ third base coach and Eric Hinske will be at first base this year. Hinske has rather large shoes to fill and it will be interesting to see if the team’s baserunning shows any improvement this spring.

Another thing to keep an eye on is the Cubs defense and will the team still employ the defensive shifts as much under Rick Renteria. Jose Castro is the Cubs’ quality assurance coach and Mike Borzello is supposed to help with the shifts during games.

Non-Roster Invitees

The front office signed several players with big league experience over the winter that are coming off of down years, either due to injury or poor performance. And several of those players could push for jobs on the active roster.

Right now the Cubs have a full 40-man roster and obviously do not have an open spot, or two, or three to add a player. The Cubs should gain a spot when Kyuji Fujikawa is placed on the 60-day DL at some point this spring. Granted his status could change if he keeps progressing the way he has in his recovery from Tommy John surgery. And while it is possible that Fujikawa could be ready to go on Opening Day, it’s not probable.

From the sounds of it, Emilio Bonifacio has made the team as long as he performs near expectations and stays healthy. Could Chris Coghlan or Ryan Kalish push for a job in the outfield? Both players say they are healthy. Will Ryan Roberts push for a bench job?

On the pitching side, Jonathan Sanchez and Tsuyoshi Wada are two lefties to keep an eye on. Jed Hoyer said he was excited the Cubs were able to sign Wada over the winter because no one in the majors has seen how good Wada can be due to injuries. Sanchez is supposed to be in camp competing for a spot in the pen, and not a starter’s job. If something happens to James Russell (injury or otherwise) or Wesley Wright (injury), a spot could be opened on the active roster for Sanchez. With Chris Rusin and Zac Rosscup ticketed for Iowa to start the season (Rusin to keep him working as a starter, Rosscup for development), Sanchez could fill the second lefty reliever role in the pen.

The Cubs could gain a spot on the 40-man roster if Alberto Cabrera is unable to throw strikes this spring. Cabrera struggles above the Double-A level and is out of minor league options. Cabrera has the arm to be a good reliever in the majors but he’s yet to show he can throw enough quality strikes to stay on the 40-man roster much less the 25-man roster

Cabrera is not the only player on the 40-man out of minor league option years. James McDonald, Pedro Strop, Donnie Murphy and Luis Valbuena are out of options while Neil Ramirez, Hector Rondon, Josh Vitters and Junior Lake have one option left. Blake Parker, Mike Olt, Brett Jackson, Logan Watkins and Matt Szczur have two options left. James Russell and Ryan Sweeney also have two minor league options left but due to service time Russell and Sweeney would have to accept the demotion. Zac Rosscup has three options remaining and should use one this year.

Arbitration Eligible Players

The Cubs have 11 players on the 40-man roster that were arbitration eligible during the off-season prior to agreeing to a one-year contract with the team thus avoiding arbitration. Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, James McDonald, Pedro Strop, James Russell, Nate Schierholtz, Luis Valbuena, Darwin Barney, Donnie Murphy, George Kottaras and Justin Ruggiano all agreed to one-year non-guaranteed contracts.

A majority of those players, barring an injury, will be on the Cubs’ active roster on Opening Day. But some of those players are on the bubble and could lose their roster spot if they do not perform, even though they signed a one-year contract to avoid arbitration.

A non-guaranteed contract gives the team options with the player. If the team cuts the player before the 16th day before the season begins, he is owed only 30 days termination pay. And if the player is cut after the 16th day before the season begins, he is owed 45 days termination pay.

So the front office could open a spot or two on the 40-man roster if they determine a non-roster invitee is a better fit for the team moving forward.

Arodys Vizcaino

Arodys Vizcaino had electric ‘stuff’ before Tommy John surgery two years ago derailed his career. And two years later, Vizcaino still has his ‘stuff’ and he says he is healthy. The Cubs see him as a late inning reliever and he could push Blake Parker, Hector Rondon or Justin Grimm for a spot on the active roster.

Arodys Vizcaino does have minor league options left and a couple of months in the minors would not only delay his clock but it would give him development time he’s missed.

Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters

Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters were given the winter off to set the reset button on their careers. Both players reported to camp early and Vitters is now an outfielder. The two former first round picks were called up together in August of 2012, struggled together in limited playing time at the end of the 2012 season and then spent last year on the forgotten list as they slipped down the organizational depth chart. Both players have the talent to be successful at the Major League level and if they can shed the current perception they will no longer be linked together for what neither player wants to be remembered as.

The Kids

The focus is on the future and when Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Albert Almora, Arismendy Alcantara and Kyle Hendricks take the field, the focus will be on them … just as it was during Wednesday’s Intrasquad game. Each player will eventually be optioned down to minor league camp or reassigned to minor league camp but for the first couple weeks of the Cactus League schedule, they will provide a glimpse of a possible future for the organization.

MLB Replay

Teams will start using the new replay system during certain games this spring. So at times the games will be even longer than typical Spring Training games. How the teams, the league and the umpires handle the new replay rules should provide interesting debate throughout the spring.

Rule 7.13

MLB and the MLBPA adopted an experimental rule on home plate collisions earlier in the week. Teams had less than a week to train their players on the rule. The Cubs spent time before Wednesday’s Intrasquad game working on sliding drills. And while the league is trying to prevent major injuries, the question remains why the rule was not put into effect before teams started reporting to Spring Training.

Wrigley Field and the Media Rights

Wrigley Field and the Cubs media rights are game changers. The Cubs are trying to resolve the issues with the rooftops out of the courts. The team met with rooftops three times last week and appears to be pushing forward with the Budweiser sign that will reportedly pay the team $140 million over 10 years. The Cubs really need to find a resolution with the rooftops so the Wrigley project can start taking shape. An announcement has been expected soon for close to a year.

The Cubs could announce by Opening Day their new radio partner. The contract with 720 WGN expires at the end of the season and the Cubs are shopping the radio rights. Crane Kenney said earlier in the week he would like to have a resolution on the radio side soon. As for the TV rights, the Cubs are exploring those options as well. But the TV rights are more complicated than radio due to the way the contracts are split.

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