CHICAGO -- All week we’ll be rolling out previews for the Chicago Cubs as they begin their quest for a championship on Friday when pitchers and catchers report in Mesa, Arizona. Today we examine some top storylines to keep an eye on this spring.
Veteran starters: The Cubs have indicated all winter they have a plan to slowly roll out their veteran starters, beginning with Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta. His innings increase from 2014 to 2015 -- 72, including the minors and playoffs -- has been well documented and even though Arrieta will undoubtedly be ready to go, the Cubs will take things slowly.
“I think we’re going to start some of our guys a little bit later,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said on ESPN 1000 recently. “Some of the starts early in spring training probably won’t be by the guys who threw a ton of innings last year. It’s a marathon. We need them fresh at the end of the season.”
That idea probably applies to Jon Lester as well as 37-year-old John Lackey; both made each of their scheduled starts last season. When and for how long the Cubs' top pitchers take the mound this spring will be carefully watched.
Improving youth: We may not see their complete improvement until the regular season, but so many young Cubs took steps in the second half last season and it’ll be interesting to watch who carries it over to spring training. For example, Addison Russell developed a leg kick which provided more pop in the second half of last season. Will we see more of that this spring? Kris Bryant vowed to recognize changeups better, going to work on it back home in Las Vegas this winter. Will Kyle Schwarber perform better against lefties this spring? Don’t forget the defensive improvement the Cubs are hoping to see from their corner outfielders as Schwarber and Jorge Soler were vulnerable last year. And don’t sleep on starter Kyle Hendricks. Some assumed he would take the league by storm after a sensational debut in 2014, but 2015 was a learning experience. Let’s see what the Dartmouth grad learned -- and can apply -- after a roller-coaster season.
Back end of the rotation: Highlighted in Monday’s positional battles, there could be an opening in the back end of the rotation. Jason Hammel will be in the spotlight later this week after a rough finish to last season. Can anyone else emerge from a group of pitchers who would love to start, including Trevor Cahill, CJ Edwards, Adam Warren, Clayton Richard and even Travis Wood, who returns after a solid year in the bullpen? With late spring debuts for the top pitchers, others will be given a chance to shine in front of the Cubs' brass. It’s a storyline which could play out all the way up until Opening Day -- unless the five incumbents simply keep their jobs.
Setup man: Is this Pedro Strop’s job to lose, or considering some of his issues last year will manager Joe Maddon look to another arm to get the ball to Hector Rondon? Maddon is likely to mix and match anyway, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see any one of a number of pitchers emerge as the setup man, including Cahill or Warren from the right side and Richard from the left side. Either way Maddon will have to manage Strop’s appearances as he’s made 277 over the past four seasons.
Cubs' attitude: Players will be asked daily about being World Series favorites -- so will Maddon. You can bet he’s thought long and hard about how to approach all the attention his team will receive this spring. He’s already indicated he wants them to embrace the expectations. You can also bet he’ll try to keep things as normal as possible. After all, the drills don’t change just because your team is more talented. In fact you can count on Maddon highlighting the details of the game even more. Everything matters when playing for a pennant. We’ll see how his instructions trickle down to his young but ultra-talented team.