As we enter the last weekend without Cubs baseball for at least the next 7 1/2 months, it has become time to focus on events, roster battles, and stories that all figure to take place during Spring Training that will shape the 2015 Cubs season. With the amount of change that has happened, not only over the past off-season, but over the past three years, this spring figures to be more interesting than before in the Epstein/Hoyer era because this is the first where the Cubs are actively making an effort to win games at the big league level.
Fortunately, this spring is more window dressing than the last few. Many starting positions and roster spots are spoken for at this point…and with players who figure to man those positions for years that the Cubs plan on contending in. That fact, though, does not mean the Cubs go in without questions. Every team has at least a few questions. The Cubs may have more than teams who aspire to win the World Series, but they have far fewer than they have had in recent years.
1. Who are the fourth and fifth starters in the rotation?
Conventional wisdom says that Kyle Hendricks is going to get the fourth spot behind Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and Jason Hammel. Odds are that happens. However, with a list of potential starting options including Travis Wood, Jacob Turner, Felix Doubront, Edwin Jackson, Tsuyoshi Wada, and others, Hendricks could be pushed to Iowa if two of these players who cannot be simply optioned to the minor leagues have good springs. Unlike years past, this is a good problem to have. The Cubs have not always had a lot of depth in the starting rotation and in recent years the depth has been a who’s who of spare parts and innings eaters.
The question of who fills the back of the rotation likely takes care of itself. Travis Wood and/or Edwin Jackson could be traded. Kyle Hendricks probably fills the fourth spot after an excellent start to his major league career. The most likely scenario is that Travis Wood mans the last spot, but injuries or ineffectiveness could alter the landscape of this battle. In any event, this is the most worthwhile group to keep an eye on throughout the spring. For a team full of young position players, the rotation is going to carry the team for portions of the season. 40% of it will likely be determined over the next seven weeks.
It is safe to operate under the assumption that Kris Bryant will be sent back to Iowa at the beginning of the season. Service time considerations for a season of Kris Bryant in his prime will far exceed the value of the two or three weeks he needs to spend in AAA to make it happen. With that in mind, who plays third base between the time the Cubs break camp and the time Bryant comes up is a worthy question. Luis Valbuena is an Astro. The two players on the roster who figure to get the opportunity to play there are Mike Olt and Tommy La Stella. In fact, they may be a third base platoon in the time before Bryant is called up. With Dexter Fowler likely playing in center field, Arismendy Alcantara is another player to throw into the mix of players who will likely get a look.
The most prolific option here is Mike Olt. In fact, he still has the ability to completely alter the landscape of the Cubs, both in 2015 and moving forward. Although he hit only .160/.248/.356 in 258 plate appearances last season, he is not anywhere close to the lost cause some fans have declared him. If players were discarded after difficult initial experiences with big league pitching, the Cubs wouldn’t have an MVP caliber first baseman. It also bears mentioning that after Olt returned from Iowa in September, he was a .263/.370/.368 hitter. His strike outs were a big time concern, but in spite of his struggles with contact, he managed to walk at a very nice rate (9.8% for the season).
Mike Olt being a 250/340/450 guy with 25-30 HR power would be one way to surprise contender for the Cubs in ’15
— dabynsky (@dabynsky) February 13, 2015
Mike Olt will definitely be given an opportunity to play this spring. If he has overcome the early struggles he had last season and finds a way to make more consistent contact, he has to stake a claim to third base and make the decision as to whether or not to move Kris Bryant to left field very interesting. Even if Bryant sticks at third upon his arrival, consistent production from Olt could make him a very valuable hitter at both corner outfield and corner infield spots.
3. Will the Cubs find trade partners for Welington Castillo and Travis Wood?
Travis Wood being expendable after a poor 2014 and having ample starting pitching depth has been discussed. If a team, like the Phillies or Braves is willing to offer even a low level prospect, Wood could be gone. In that respect, he probably should be. His peripheral metrics have been consistent throughout his career, and 2013 is unlikely to happen again.
A more interesting question is whether the Cubs go into the regular season with three catchers. Miguel Montero and David Ross will be on the roster. That’s not in question. They can’t expose Castillo to waivers because he will get claimed and there is no good reason to risk losing him for nothing. At this point, it appears to be a 50/50 proposition. It would seem, that unless another team has an injury or changes their mind on the catching they’re bringing into spring, that Castillo is going to break camp with the Cubs. While injuries and ineffectiveness are quite unpredictable, they do happen and that could help punch his ticket out of town. In the alternate scenario, Castillo forms a trio with Montero and Ross. Considering the age and/ or injury histories of both, Castillo is a low-cost luxury item to have on the roster. With the flexibility the roster has taken on, keeping three catchers isn’t impossible. If the Cubs do wind up with all three, Montero and Castillo could form a platoon with David Ross being Jon Lester’s personal catcher.
The first time a catcher grabs the back of his leg on the way to first in a spring training game, the Cubs are probably going to get a call…and that could be the end of Castillo’s time in Chicago.
4. Will Javier Baez reduce his strike outs enough to keep a hold on the second base job?
In some ways, this feels like rehashing the Mike Olt narrative. While far fewer have written Baez off as a bust, he does have a fair number of critics who are beginning to question his long term viability. In some ways, that’s unfair. He’s played 52 games at the major league level. 229 plate appearances is a mighty small sample to begin judging a guy as a bust. As Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer said during the Cubs Convention, though, he will need to earn his playing time. If he shows throughout spring and early in the season that his approach is not ready for the majors, he could be on the bus back to Iowa. While being sent back down is not necessarily the end of his career, it very likely would be a disappointment for a Baez.
With the acquisition of Tommy La Stella and Arismendy Alcantara available to play second base, it is not difficult to imagine that his leash will not be unlimited like it was in his late season call-up last year. Javy will be expected to produce. If he does, this conversation is pointless. If he continues to strike out at such an alarming rate, he may spend some time back in Iowa. And that’s not the end of the world for a 22 year old kid.
5. How does the bullpen shake out after a strong 2014 season?
Carlos Villanueva and Wesley Wright are gone. Jason Motte is in. Hector Rondon, Neil Ramirez, Justin Grimm, Motte, and Pedro Strop appear to be the only locks in the group. That leaves two spots for left-handed relievers. Drake Britton, Zac Rosscup, and the losers of the rotation battle will all compete for those two spots. Felix Doubront and Tsuyoshi Wada both fit nicely into the long-relief/swing starter role filled by Villanueva the last two seasons. Travis Wood is also a consideration for the bullpen if he is unable to secure a spot in the rotation and the Cubs are unable to find a trade partner.
6. Do the Cubs move on from Edwin Jackson?
E-Jax has an uphill climb. He hasn’t been good in his two years with the Cubs. Some of it has been some tough luck. Some of it has been poor performance. The numbers are what they are…and they aren’t good. Even if the Cubs do find a trade partner to take Edwin, they are probably going to end up paying a big part of his contract. They will also probably not get a return that is even noteworthy. They could end up with a high upside prospect who is far away, like they gave up to the DBacks to acquire Montero. With all of this in mind, there is at least a small chance that they simply designate Jackson for assignment and release him. The money is spent. They can’t recover it and probably wouldn’t see a lot of relief even if they were to work out a deal. At this point, his spot on the 25 man (and 40 man) roster is much more valuable than the money they’ve already committed to him.
Make no mistake, there is nothing personal about cutting Jackson loose. He simply didn’t work out. Free agency is a gamble. At the time, Jackson looked like a good investment that a number of other well-run franchises would have made. He stood in front of his locker after every tough outing and took the media pounding. He never ran away. It’s not like he came, threw without caring, and counted his money. He just didn’t work out with the Cubs. And that’s alright. At this point, both sides may be best served to part ways.
This year more than in recent years, the Cubs go into spring with a lot of optimism and reason to believe that they can make some noise. Like the other 29 teams, they have their question marks. Like other good teams, the questions do not have binary answers. For all of their questions, there are options and depth to support a negative result. That is the remarkable change in 2015 from 2009-2014. This year’s team may not be all the way to the point of being ready will win it all, but they do look like they will be able to maintain a higher level of consistency that the last six years. That’s good news.
Let’s play ball.