The Cubs begin the most anticipated exhibition season in nearly a decade on Thursday. The hype and expectations surrounding this team are at an all-time high. Joe Maddon is already looking for ways to keep his players loose and having fun while preparing for the rigors of the 162-game schedule.
The Cubs will focus on the day at hand and ‘Embrace the Target’ for the next eight months.
On paper, the Cubs have one of, if not the deepest roster in all of baseball. Maddon has his work cut out for him finding the right amount of playing time to keep players fresh and happy. Maddon has a way of communicating with players that can turn a possibly challenging situation into a winning environment. He’s never had to juggle a roster this deep at any point in his managerial career. It will be interesting to see the different combinations Maddon uses over the next month as the first roster of the season comes together.
Spring Training results and numbers don’t count. Good, or bad, a player’s numbers are usually blown out of proportion by the media and fan base. Teams evaluate a player’s performance in the spring differently from the regular season. While the Cubs have roster to decisions to make this spring, too much is often made about the construction of an Opening Day roster. The backend of a roster changes countless times throughout the course of the regular season. The first 25-man roster seldom looks the same by the All-Star break, much less the end of August.
With that said, there are seven storylines for the Cubs this spring to keep an eye on as the Cactus League games are played.
Cubs Big Three: Arrieta, Lester, Lackey
The front office did a good job adding depth to the pitching staff in the off-season. But make no mistake, the options Joe Maddon has for the backend of his rotation will not replace Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey if they miss significant time this season.
The Cubs need Arrieta, Lester and Lackey just to get their work in, hit their spots when they are on the mound and get ready for Opening Day. If either of the three struggles during the Cactus League games, it is not a big deal.
The Cubs could use a spring issue-free when it comes to Arrieta, Lester and Lackey to help keep the pessimism to a minimum.
Fourth and Fifth Starters
Joe Maddon said that Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks are the fourth and fifth starters in the Cubs rotation as the exhibition season is set to begin. Basically they would have to lose their spots in the rotation.
Prior to Tuesday, it was reported Kyle Hendricks and Adam Warren would compete for the fifth spot and as long as Jason Hammel was healthy, he would slot in the rotation behind Arrieta, Lester and Lackey.
Joe Maddon and Chris Bosio will have options to choose from for the backend of the rotation in Adam Warren, Trevor Cahill, Travis Wood and Clayton Richard if either Hammel or Hendricks cannot keep the hold on their starting job.
Warren, Cahill, Wood and Richard will be stretched out and used in starting roles and piggybacks early in the Cactus League schedule. If Hammel and Hendricks pitch to expectations, the utility pitchers should take four spots in the Cubs’ Opening Day bullpen.
Watching the Cubs practice over the last week, one thing that stood out was that no one took reps at first base other than Anthony Rizzo. Maddon will use different players at first base during the Cactus League games, but Rizzo is the Cubs first baseman and the drop off is rather significant if he was to lose any significant time.
Rizzo is not only a Gold Glove caliber first baseman, he is a MVP candidate after finishing fourth in the voting last season. Rizzo and Kris Bryant are arguably the two biggest bats in the middle of the lineup the Cubs simply cannot afford to lose. Taking Rizzo out would have a major trickledown effect despite the depth at all of the other positions.
Anthony Rizzo just needs to go about his business this spring and prepare for the season. Anything more is great, anything less could have an impact on the season.
This just in, the Cubs have a lot of outfielders on the Spring Training roster. And outside of Jason Heyward and Dexter Fowler, there a lot of question marks especially on the defensive side.
Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler will spend a lot of time in left field during the Cactus League games. The Cubs are working with both defensively. Unless Maddon is forced to go in another direction, center and right field are in good hands, there should be a platoon of sorts in left which leaves the fifth outfielder job up for grabs this spring.
If the season started tomorrow four of the five outfielders on the active roster would be Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler. The Cubs have Shane Victorino and an out of options Matt Szczur in camp. There is a very outside chance that a player like John Andreoli could play his way onto the Opening Day roster, but chances are if there is an extra true outfielder on the active roster it will either be Victorino or Szczur.
Javier Baez will see his fair share of playing time in the outfield, mostly center but also in the corners. The Cubs see him as the ultimate utility player that will back-up every position other than catcher when the season begins. With Maddon and the front office spending the off-season talking about defense, it would seem the Cubs would begin the year with a defensive replacement on the bench that has played all three outfield spots in the majors.
Hector Rondon and the Bullpen
For as much bullpen depth that is in camp, the only reliever that has consistently pitched the ninth inning, or closed out games, for a contending team is Hector Rondon. The Cubs are supposed to back off his work load, the same as Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey, which should help ease him into his familiar role toward the end of the exhibition season.
Rondon preformed much better last season than he’s credited for, and the same can be said for Pedro Strop … well, except when he faced the Cardinals. Having Rondon, Strop and Justin Grimm healthy at the start of the season is key for the Cubs to begin the year on the right side of .500.
Neil Ramirez could be a huge boost to the bullpen. He is building shoulder strength and while he looked good in live BP, his fastball was lacking the giddy-up that both Rondon and Strop had.
The Cubs haven’t said yet if they will start the season with a seven- or eight-man bullpen. As long as injury bug doesn’t bite the relief corps, the seventh and/or eighth spots in the pen could hinge on how the backend of the rotation shakes out.
Joe Maddon expects his players to play sound fundamental baseball, even early in the Cactus League season. Maddon did not like what he saw a year ago and went back to the basics. The Cubs have been sharp in drills. No one has treated the last week as just practice.
Maddon knows how much doing the little things right means throughout the course of a season. Physical mistakes are part of the game, but there is no room for mental mistakes on a team looking to return to the tournament.
Crisp, clean baseball is important even in games that do not count.
Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are free agents at the end of the season and should have their contracts extended before the end of Spring Training.
Tom Ricketts and Theo Epstein have said publicly for the last 18 months they are on the same page. Ricketts should make Epstein the highest paid executive in baseball history at some point over the next month. Reports have suggested Epstein could land a five-year contract in the $45-50 million range. Once Epstein’s contract is extended, Hoyer’s extension is expected to follow along with other contracts for front office personnel.
Epstein and Ricketts have not set a deadline and say there is no sense of urgency to get the deal done.
Taking care of Theo Epstein before the Opening Day in Anaheim would be the first win of the season for the Ricketts family.
Do Simple Better … Let’s Go!