Now that we’re four games into spring training, it’s time for the worst and least-fruitful discussions to begin: the early looks at “position battles.” The Cubs’ main position battle is for the final two starter spots, which features incumbents Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel—who have the inside edge, to be honest—along with new Cub Adam Warren, and old Cubs Travis Wood and Trevor Cahill.
Everyone but Hammel has gotten into a game at this point, and the small sample sizes paint an early picture.
Or… not. In spring training, the big takeaway is that the numbers themselves often mean nothing. Warren giving up three hits but not striking anyone out, for example, could be an example of him working on throwing his key pitches for strikes. As much as spring training is a warm up for the regular season, it can often be nothing more than a means for pitchers to work on things they may struggle with. If the coaching staff has told Warren they want to see him throw pitches in the zone early in the count, for example, they won’t be as worried about him giving up a few hits and not striking anyone out.
Manager Joe Maddon has been coy on the status of the rotation, even going as far as to not commit to an Opening Day starter in the early portion of camp. (He later, of course, named Jake Arrieta.) But still, his lack of commitment to his starting rotation doesn’t necessarily mean the competition is as open as fans are choosing to believe:
“Maddon wouldn’t commit to the rotation beyond Arrieta, saying it would be ‘jumping the gun’ to set the rest of the order in stone more than a month before the first game, before Cactus League action has even started.
However, he did allow that (Jon) Lester and John Lackey are most likely going to follow Arrieta.
‘I can’t deny the incumbents coming back would have some kind of advantage. That’s probably true,’ Maddon said. ‘You just have to keep an open mind. You can’t be deceived by spring training performances.’
‘So let ‘em play out. Of course, the incumbents have an advantage, but we’re going to keep a really open mind going through the entire camp.'”
As far as the performances go, Hendricks seems to have a good grasp on what’s important for him in the spring. As far as battling for a rotation spot and the performance in his first spring appearance, it doesn’t seem to be affecting him in any meaningful way:
“‘I’m pretty good at focusing on what I gotta do,’ Hendricks said. ‘It’s just coming in every day and not really looking around, just keeping your head down and working hard.’
‘I know I have a lot to work on mechanically, but also getting my arm strength up for the first game. There’s a lot to do to focus on yourself, for sure, and not think about all that.'”
Mechanics. That’s what Hendricks is concerned with at this point. You can’t argue with the results, as he pitched two innings without giving up a run and striking four batters out with that elite changeup. But his comments on what’s most important to him, plus the thoughts from Maddon on the rotation, lead me to think that—spoiler alert—there really isn’t a rotation battle happening at all.
Maddon is well known for using competition to motivate his players, even when the future has already been decided. For example, the Cubs’ bullpen this spring has been thrown into one big competition for spots. If the Cubs have eight spots in the bullpen, it’s well accepted that at least Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, Warren, Wood, and Cahill all have spots. If Neil Ramirez’s pitching well and healthy, that makes seven spots filled. The bullpen competition? It’s really just for one spot, most likely, and then only for a lefty.
On the same note, the Cubs held an open competition for the starting third base job in 2015 between Mike Olt and Tommy La Stella. Of course, everyone knew that this was just to hold the job over for Kris Bryant when he eventually arrived—and both players being injured early in the season expedited that process. But it didn’t hurt to make both players come to spring training preparing to be an everyday player, and that’s where we are with this rotation battle.
To further expand on the point, you can look to Warren on what the Cubs communicated to him would be his role on the team this upcoming season:
“Obviously, I want to start. But I’ve pitched out the bullpen successfully as well. Again, this is a win-now mentality with this team so whatever we have to do to do that. They said they got me to be a starter, whether or not it’s this year, we’ll see. They’re giving me the opportunity to prove myself in spring training to be a starter, but I’m not unhappy being in the bullpen.”
The Cubs—and all teams, really—have to prepare to open the season with other starters in the rotation in the event of injuries. They need guys like Warren, Wood, and Cahill to be preparing as starters in the event they need them in April. Is it fair to those pitchers for Maddon to go out publicly and say that the jobs are already set, no matter how well they may pitch? Probably not.
Even in the small sample sizes, the results in spring training are important for a few reasons—seeing that pitchers are healthy and ready to take roles on the team this season. If Hendricks and Hammel are healthy and ready to start the season, they’ll have the roles in the backend of the starting rotation. But it won’t hurt the Cubs to have other guys ready to take those roles, if need be.
Lead photo courtesy Matt Kartozian—USA Today Sports.