Spring Training games are still nearly a week away for the Cubs, but it’s hard to believe that any day until Opening Day will trump Thursday’s insanity. Chris Coghlan is heading to Oakland, Dexter Fowler is back, and we’ve got oodles of coverage right here at BP Wrigleyville to sate your hunger for more Fowler analysis.
But, there were several other goings on this week, too. The position players joined the pitchers over the weekend in the official sense, at least, since most Cubs have been in Mesa for a while already. It’s too early to turn quotes into educated speculation on who might have shots at the final bench and bullpen spots, but with a new motto, a shiny new outfielder, a triumphantly returning outfielder, and retirement tour underway, Mesa is hopping and the Cubs are in good spirits. Embrace the target: it’s Cactus Catchup #2, folks.
Putting in Work: The title of Cubs Spring Training might be Embrace the Target, but it could just as well be Embrace the Versatility. A number of Cubs have been working out at a variety of positions that aren’t their primary spots in an effort to give Joe Maddon malleability of position, lineup, and matchups.
Javier Baez has been working on his center field skills, and after a winter of reports on his progress there, Joe Maddon, writers, and fans are getting their first looks at his graceful approach to the position. He’s received glowing praise from those who have seen him roam the spacious fields under the high Arizona skies. John Arguello fawned over the young slugger’s “confident first step” and his fluidity, noting that he “stole the show” from the other Cubs’ outfielders. We’ve yet to see him in game action, but there should be no doubt that Baez can fill in capably for Jason Heyward Dexter Fowler in center.
Naturally, the on-field hallmark of camp so far has been the way Heyward looks in Cubs blue (pro tip: he looks good). I wrote yesterday about the Cubs’ confidence that Heyward will play well in center, and Jed Hoyer echoed that confidence this week, stating that Heyward has the “aptitude” to grow into the position with more reps. Even with Fowler back in the fold, Heyward will likely see some time at the position.
The club—and Joe Maddon in particular—is concerned with the mental side of the game this spring more than usual, as Rian Watt and new contributor Leigh Corridan noted in recent pieces, and Heyward’s presence has sated Maddon’s appetite for a cerebrally sound club. Maddon called Heyward’s brain his “sixth tool,” and posited that it will help the club even on days on which Heyward goes hitless. Teammates Jason Hammel and Anthony Rizzo seconded the skipper’s sentiments. It’s enough to make a fan (i.e. me) giddy.
The always-exuberant Munenori Kawasaki is also taking reps at middle infield, although he’ll likely just serve as depth in Triple-A Iowa. Matt Murton, Ginger King, is back in blue pinstripes, but with Fowler filling out the outfield, he’ll find himself with Kawasaki in Iowa. Reports on Friday morning indicate that Shane Victorino has also agreed to a minor-league deal with the Cubs, adding to their veteran outfield surplus. It’s doubtful that any of the three will break camp with the team, barring an injury. Their presence is emblematic of that unique early spring mix of veteran invites, minor leaguers wearing numbers in the 90s, and players likely to make the Opening Day roster.
Camp Happenings: Every team’s players are mostly smiles at camp each year, but even through photos alone, the Cubs’ joy is exceptionally palpable. Punctuated by Thursday’s ecstasy from the surprise reveal that Fowler had been re-signed (which you can relive here), it’s clear that so far the “target” is not getting in between the Cubs’ ears. The beaming of Kris Bryant and Jason Heyward, the wizened stares of Joe Maddon and David Ross, and the rudiments of Pitcher Fielding Practice—it’s a beautiful tableau, and one can’t help but swell with anticipation and let the warm, Arizona air wash over oneself (especially if mired in less-friendly climes).
As anointed preseason World Series favorites, the Cubs may have to wield the double-edged sword of lofty expectations, but Kyle Schwarber was wielding a different kind of weapon earlier this week.
— John Antonoff (@baseballinfocus) February 25, 2016
Ross, in particular, has a reason to smile. It’s his last season in a major-league uniform, and he’s surrounded by both old friends (Lester, Lackey) and new pupils. Plus, his old Atlanta teammate Heyward has promised to lodge Ross in a hotel suite for each road trip this season, a wholly unexpected and generous gesture for the veteran Ross, who will make $2.5 million in his final year, from the outfielder due $15 million.
Games start next Thursday for the Cubs, as they face off against the Brewers, where we should get our first glimpse of Heyward playing in game action for the Cubs. Try to contain your excitement—or not: it’s February, the Cubs are going to be very good, and the weather’s warming up. Indulge in it.
Lead photo courtesy Rick Scuteri—USA Today Sports