The Cubs, as a championship caliber team, report to spring training this week without a lot left to decide. In total, the World Series Champions return essentially all of their contributing starters, with the exceptions of Dexter Fowler and Jason Hammel. What’s more, they return Kyle Schwarber as a full time player after missing all but the first handful of regular season games and the World Series.
It would be difficult to make a proclamation the night before Valentine’s Day that the team who starts spring training tomorrow is better than the one that won the franchise’s first World Series in 108 years, but on paper, there’s a strong case to be made for that.
Many of the questions facing the Cubs last season at this time have either been answered or are the same. Last year, the wonder was who would lead off with Dexter Fowler appearing to be headed to the Baltimore Orioles. As it turned out, the answer was Dexter Fowler, in a really fun surprise move. This year, the question about who leads off is the same. And the options headed into camp are essentially the same. Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, and Kyle Schwarber are all viable options to lead off as they were last year. The only question is whether Jason Heyward overcomes a difficult offensive season in 2016 to be legitimate option or whether he is buried in the line-up like he was for stretches last season.
The back of the rotation has some questions, but those questions trend more along the line of how many starts Mike Montgomery can share with newly acquired Brett Anderson, Eddie Butler, and Alec Mills. And if any of those pitchers can grab a hold of the spot and secure a spot in the 2018 rotation, which features only two incumbents remaining under team control beyond this season. Kyle Hendricks will likely regress some, as his 2.13 ERA, 3.20 FIP, and 3.59 xFIP suggest. On the other hand, as long as he continues to hit his spots so well and force a ground ball rate in the area of 50% and the infield defense remains so stellar, there is no reason to expect him to not continue to out pitch his peripheral stats to some degree.
Traditionally, the area of a baseball team most subject to volatility is the bullpen. That was true of the 2016 Cubs, where they saw volatility within the season. The questions surrounding the bullpen hinge on the health of Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop. If those two are healthy and stay healthy, they can form a dynamic and potentially lethal end of game trio with Wade Davis. The front of the bullpen has quality, too. Led by Carl Edwards, who will likely be a closer at some point in the next few seasons, the front end is stacked with high upside options. Mike Montgomery, who closed game 7 of the World Series will likely be a swing man, who starts, makes some long relief appearances, and get some work in high leverage situations. He appears to be what the Cubs hoped to be getting in Adam Warren before the 2016 season. It didn’t work out with Warren, but Montgomery may turn out to be a steal from the Seattle Mariners. Entering his age 42 season, Koji Uehara appeared to slow down last year, posting his worst numbers since 2009, when he made 12 starts for the Orioles. Koji made 50 appearances spanning 47 innings for the Red Sox last season, and is excellent against left handed hitting. However, after coming back from a pectoral strain in September, he threw 11 scoreless innings. And he only allowed runs in 9 of his 50 outings. Ignore his numbers this spring, though. He is an *extreme* fly ball pitcher (56 and 58.3% the past two seasons), and if he does that this spring, the numbers will be ugly. But, as we all know, fly balls at Wrigley early in the season and in the playoffs have a way of dying and finding gloves.
One specific item to watch for this spring is Kyle Schwarber’s chest protector. After his knee injury, there is no reason why he can’t catch, medically. And Schwarber is said to have been pushing to catch. With Miguel Montero being not good for much of last season and Schwarber returning this season, there is some reason to believe that the Cubs give him a shot behind the plate. This spring may be a little too early for the front office and coaching staff to be comfortable doing it, but if Kyle Schwarber is likely to catch this season, he may get some cursory time behind the plate this spring, even if it’s on back fields or in B games.
Keep an eye on second base, third base, and left field. With the return of Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs now have 4 players to fill those 3 spots everyday. Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist figure to play pretty close to everyday. But Joe Maddon has some freedom to use Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber in a pseudo platoon. By deploying Baez at second or third and Zobrist or Bryant in left allow Joe Maddon to exploit a platoon advantage against pitchers, where both Baez and Schwarber have had success. There is some room to tinker with the line-up over the course of the spring, but these three spots are interesting, in particular, because all of Bryant, Baez, and Zobrist can capably play at least 3 positions.
The last thing to watch for this spring are the youngsters. Don’t get too excited to see regulars in spring line-ups. They’ll all play, but they won’t play a lot. After playing into November and seeking to do the same this season, there will be plenty of reps for the big names to get work in over the season. The spring will give us a chance to see a lot of Eloy Jimenez, Ian Happ, Jeimer Candelario, and others. It’s the fun underbelly of the rebuilding project. Three years ago, we were all looking to get a glimpse of the future because that’s all there was to look forward to. Now, there will be plenty of opportunity to look into the future because the present just doesn’t need to play all that much.
This figures to be a spring like none of us have ever seen before. Because, well, we haven’t. The Cubs are the champions. And it wasn’t a lightning in a bottle run that brought us a bunch of new faces to learn this spring. It was a run that was made and returns almost all of the most consequential suspects. This spring offers the chance to celebrate with real (ish) baseball and the players responsible.
Enjoy it. Opening Day is coming fast.