- Jesse Rogers, ESPN Staff Writer
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MESA, Ariz. -- Spring training opened on Thursday for the Chicago Cubs, and while there is little chance they’ll break their long championship drought this year, there are issues at hand that need examining. Who enters the core of this team by year’s end? And will any of them be pitchers?
Things got off to a rocky start when general manager Jed Hoyer announced one of those potential mainstays on the mound, Jake Arrieta, had shoulder “tightness." He begins behind schedule. Here’s what that means for the pitching staff, as well as other notes from the Cubs front office state-of-the-union address on the opening day of camp.
The rotation: With Arrieta down and out for the moment, it potentially opens up a spot for another starter. Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, Edwin Jackson and newly signed Jason Hammel are penciled in as the top four right now. The Cubs say Chris Rusin, Carlos Villanueva and also newly signed James McDonald are the candidates to win a job.
Analysis: If Arrieta can’t take the ball in April then expect Rusin and McDonald to get the best shot at it. Spring games will tell the story for them. Villanueva will simply be ready if all else fails. When Arrieta is ready he should join the top four. There’s little mystery if he’s healthy. It’s an unfortunate start to the season because Arrieta is the one guy who can pitch himself into the core group so, for his sake, hopefully it’s not a serious injury.
Pitching arms: The Cubs admit they are still lacking on the mound, but they believe they’ve come a long way.
“There is no comparison between the quality of power arms that are in camp now ... and where we were two years ago,” Epstein said. “Our arms are probably underrated. That said we need at least twice as many of them then we have now.”
Analysis: They’re better, but the Cubs still don’t necessarily have No. 1 pitchers in the making. C.J. Edwards remains undersized while Kyle Hendricks is considered an overachiever. That’s just two guys of a group that could make it to the majors in the next couple of seasons, but observers are suspect of how high their ceilings are. The Cubs say they will draft “primarily pitchers” moving forward. That can only be a good thing.
Infield prospects: The Cubs have a myriad of good infield prospects in camp and some will move around positions, starting with Javier Baez. Hoyer said to look for Baez to play second and third base -- even though he’ll play shortstop at Triple-A -- while Kris Bryant will remain exclusively at the hot corner. Arismendy Alcantara will play second while Hoyer made it clear Starlin Castro isn’t switching positions.
“Castro is our shortstop,” he said. “We have all the confidence in the world he’ll remain our shortstop.”
As for Mike Olt, spring training might be as important for him as anyone on the roster.
“Hopefully he has a really good spring and we’ll make a decision at the end of spring,” Hoyer said.
Analysis: It’s worthy to question whether Baez should play shortstop at Triple-A Iowa if he has no chance of playing that position when he comes up. Junior Lake's development in the outfield was slow after playing his minor league career in the infield. But Baez wouldn’t be making that dramatic of a change -- just to another infield position. And the Cubs rightly note that given the skills of playing shortstop he can probably make an easy transition elsewhere. As for Olt, it was clear the Cubs consider Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy their opening day third basemen. Olt will have to force them to think differently.
Lake will be given every opportunity to win a starting outfield position.
“He needs to come here and have a very good spring and carry that into the season,” Hoyer said. “We have opportunity for him to play.”
Right-handed flame thrower Arodys Vizcaino was given high praise from Hoyer. He’s coming back from Tommy John surgery and other complications after missing two seasons. When he’s ready, he’ll go to the bullpen. That could be in April or later.
“He’s exciting,” Hoyer stated. “It’s been unfortunate two years for him. His stuff is as good as anyone in this camp when he’s healthy and he’s healthy right now.”
Also coming back from Tommy John surgery is Kyuji Fujikawa. There’s no timetable for his return.
“He should be off a mound pretty soon,” Hoyer said