Cactus Catchup: The First Week

Editor’s Note: Twice-weekly, while Spring Training continues, we’ll be running a ‘Cactus Catchup’ that runs down all the comings and goings in Mesa, Arizona. This is the first installment.

Spring training technically got off to its official start last Friday, February 19, on the day that pitchers and catchers were expected to report. However, most Cubs had been in Mesa, Arizona for quite some time before the official report date, so it feels like spring training has been underway for a lot longer than just a few days. This week also marks the time that the rest of the team is required to be at camp, but again, many of them have already been there for a while already. Their first game action will come next Thursday in Phoenix against the Brewers, but some questions about the team have already started to develop, so we’ll take a look at some of what we might see this spring.

On the whole, the Cubs are going forward into 2016 with the motto, “Embrace the Target.” Rian Watt touched on this in greater detail yesterday, but in short, the Cubs of this season have reached the point where the ultimate goal is very achievable, and in a way that it hasn’t been for quite some time. Expectations are very high, and every projection system is smiling on the Cubs, so although we may feel like we have been down this road before only to be met with disappointment, the cards are stacked nicely for an end to a very long struggle. That doesn’t mean that Joe Maddon wants his players to ignore the pressure or flee from it, however:

“I’m really a big believer in running towards the fire instead of away from it,” Maddon said Friday. “I want our guys to get comfortable with the concept of everyone speaking so glowingly of us.”

Maddon is also aware that his players can’t take the field expecting things to just come to them, and intends to continue instilling in them a fighting and hungry attitude—as if they aren’t the most favored team in baseball as the season begins. The risk of overconfidence can bring with it a sense of complacency that would be deadly to a team that will have to battle in the National League Central with the Cardinals and Pirates, to make no mention of at least four other teams in the National League that are poised to make a run of their own to the World Series:

“It’s all about processing the day properly,” Maddon said. “You never take anything for granted. You never get complacent. Coming off a really good season, there’s a lot to be proud of, but there’s so much more to accomplish.”

“It’s all about processing the day properly,” Maddon said. “You never take anything for granted. You never get complacent. Coming off a really good season, there’s a lot to be proud of, but there’s so much more to accomplish.”

One of the steps toward assembling the roster that looks most capable of hitting the target is addressing the back end of the rotation and bolstering the bullpen, which means depth that will probably extend even beyond the 25 man roster. Rotation-wise, after Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and John Lackey, the remaining two spots are a question mark as camp begins. The most likely candidates for that spot are Kyle Hendricks, Jason Hammel, and Adam Warren. Hendricks and Hammel are both coming off of seasons of some success—Hendricks posted a 2.5 WARP in 2015, and though Hammel declined significantly in the second half, he was still at 0.9 WARP when the season closed. PECOTA projects the two to be a lot closer in 2016, at 1.9 and 1.6 WARP respectively. Warren saw his first real looks as a starter with the Yankees last season, but he still spent the majority of his time coming out of the bullpen, with just 17 starts in 2015. The rotation can obviously change during the course of the season, but the #4 and #5 starters will likely consist of two of these three pitchers.

The Cubs have added a fleet of relief arms this offseason as well, most recently with a minor league deal for Aaron Crow, who is hopeful that his recovery from elbow surgery allows for him to join the Cubs’ staff in June. Crow did not pitch at all in 2015, but at 29 years old, he still holds the potential to be a valuable addition to an already strong bullpen. Along with Crow, the Cubs signed Manny Parra to a minor league deal yesterday with an invite to spring training.

On offense, the biggest questions will be where guys like Javier Baez and Chris Coghlan find playing time, and that will probably mean increased flexibility in the field. Baez has already spent time in center field during the winter leagues, and will continue to work in the outfield this spring. Most recently, John Arguello of Cubs Den noted yesterday that Coghlan has been taking grounders at third base along with just about everywhere else:

Cogs played at third only briefly last season (10 innings) and had not played there since just under 70 innings at that spot in 2013 with the Marlins. His experience at first is even more limited, with just 13 innings across five different games there in 2015. Along with the defensive work that Baez and Coghlan are doing, the time Kyle Schwarber sees behind the plate this spring will be telling. He is likely to be the regular left fielder, but he will look for chances at catcher as well. He reported with pitchers and catchers last week, and remains enthusiastic about learning to play the position effectively enough to remain a regular backstop.

As the games begin next week, some of the answers to these questions will become clearer, but with the main pieces largely in place, the team has time for these things to develop.

Lead photo courtesy Rick Scuteri—USA Today Sports.

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