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What you need to know about Cubs as camp opens: Lots of versatility on pitching staff

MESA, Ariz. -- After discussing at length Friday how the Chicago Cubs will handle lofty expectations for 2016, team brass got around to talking about the product on the field. And one storyline emerged: The Cubs have a very “unusual” group of pitchers of which the organization plans to take advantage. The group consists of a number of former starters turned relievers.

“We have this unique pitching staff,” manager Joe Maddon said as the team began spring training Friday. “You can’t go in any other camp and see this group of pitchers linked like we have right now.”

The feeling is the Cubs will fortify their starting rotation from within their own bullpen. It’s different than normal thinking as the team plans to stretch out several relievers this spring and then delegate them to the back of the bullpen until they’re needed to start a game.

“We might have our sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth starters all in our big league bullpen,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “We’ll see how it shakes out. That’s why we’re in spring training.”

Epstein was quick to point out that though their starting rotation was mostly healthy last season, they still had nine or 10 different hurlers take the mound to begin a game. They know they’re likely to need that many again and since Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard, Travis Wood and Adam Warren all have starting experience, they’ll be the ones called upon when needed.

“It’s unusual,” Maddon said. “It’s very unusual to have these options. We’ll go in with eyes wide open. We’ll evaluate throughout the course of camp. We have different routes to take.”

The Cubs backed Kyle Hendricks as their No.5 starter, but Cahill, Warren and others prefer starting to relieving so the competition should be interesting. The Cubs say the key is for those pitchers to accept their roles in the bullpen knowing they still may have a chance to start again.

“You have the normal backends guys but the guys in front of them are so versatile,” Maddon said.

This all plays into what the Cubs want to do with their veteran pitchers, including Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta. There’s a plan in place to back off them in spring training which allows those bullpen guys to start games and work their arms into shape.

“You just start them a little bit later,” Maddon said. “You still have to have them ready. We’ll push some of those starts back. Probably not push them as hard early on.

“It gets some other guys stretched out.”

Analysis: The Cubs may have hit on something here as by definition a long-time starter will have better stuff than a journeyman reliever. In fact, former starters can have a major impact from the bullpen -- if they’re accepting of their new role -- because they can let loose for an inning or two instead of navigating through six or seven, which is the norm for them. Giving them an opportunity to start at some point should keep them happy but it says a lot about players like Cahill who were offered starting roles elsewhere but turned them down. The right attitude is key here and the Cubs relievers seem to have it.

Kyle Schwarber behind the plate: There’s no change in the plan for Schwarber as his duties starting Saturday will be behind the plate. When position players arrive next week, he’ll continue working in the outfield as he did all winter. How much he plays and where will all be determined later but the Cubs are still committed to him learning both positions.

“We know it’s a lot and we’ll be mindful of his workload,” Epstein said. “But we think he’s capable of handling it. We’re not turning our back on catching.”

Analysis: The Cubs have stressed how much they’re monitoring Schwarber attempting to learn both positions so they’ll be mindful if he has to give it up. It might come down to his offense. If he’s struggling at the plate and the Cubs can point to the mental or physical fatigue of playing both left field and catcher, that’s when they might scrap the plan. But so far it hasn’t been a problem. Let’s see how this plays out because Schwarber is committed to learning both positions.

“I’m still a catcher,” Schwarber said. “I’m trying to get better at two positions. Anything can happen.”

The batting order: Maddon says he hasn’t taken pen to paper but the obvious choices to lead off are Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

“Once you decide on that, everything falls into place after that,” Maddon said. “I’m fluid right now. I like to go back and forth. Left/right, switch-hitter, whatever. Are we going to hit the pitcher eighth and how does that bleed into one and two?”

Analysis: Maddon probably can’t go wrong here and if he does there is plenty of time throughout 162 games to find the right combination. Putting your best players near the top and your struggling ones closer to the bottom is a simple philosophy to follow. Zobrist and Heyward seem like the candidates right now but you never know when Maddon will get creative with his lineup. He’s in a win-win situation with his group.

Spring moves? Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said there is almost no trade chatter right now but the Cubs are monitoring remaining available free agents. If anything were to happen, the most likely scenarios involve bringing in a defensive-minded outfielder like Austin Jackson who finished last season in a Cubs uniform. A return of Dexter Fowler is still unlikely. The Cubs could always add an arm as well.

Analysis: The Cubs are pretty set at all positions, though if they aren’t convinced Matt Szczur or another in-house candidate can be that guy in the outfield, then looking for a solid defender on the market makes sense. They simply don’t have any desperate needs.

Quotable Maddon: “My biggest concern there is communication. Those are three big guys. So when they run into gaps, I’m going to cringe.” -- On Schwarber, Heyward and Jorge Soler roaming the outfield.

“That’s the team that can get press you because they’re going to get up to play you constantly. Beyond the teams that are in the running with us throughout the season. ... They’re going to play their best game against us, there’s no question in my mind.” -- On subpar teams playing the Cubs tough this season.