Cactus Catchup: The Rotation Returns and Baez Departs

The World Baseball Classic began on Monday, which means that a few players will be absent from Cubs camp going forwards, most notably Javier Baez. The versatile infielder will suit up for Puerto Rico in the tournament as part of perhaps the most exciting double-play partnership of the competition with Cleveland’s star shortstop Francisco Lindor. Former closer Hector Rondon will also leave the team to play for Venezuela, one of Puerto Rico’s Pool D rivals. They’ll continue to warm up for the tournament in Arizona before moving south to play their pool games in Mexico.

The WBC connections don’t stop there: the Cubs will be involved in a warm-up game for one of Puerto Rico’s rivals when they play Italy on Tuesday. They will face one of their own in outfielder John Andreoli, while Anthony Rizzo will remain on the Cubs’ side after playing for Italy in the 2013 Classic.

Aside from the absence of Baez and Rondon, we can expect the team to start resembling the standard lineup more and more over the coming days. With Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta starting the last three games in their first spring action, and John Lackey set to take the mound for the Italy contest, there’s a greater sense of the regular season team than there was early on in camp. Joe Maddon has already given clear indications of what he’d like the batting order to be, but we might actually get to see some regular Kyle Schwarber leadoff work, if Monday’s lineup is any indication.

Teams also started making their first cuts over the weekend, so the unfamiliar names will start disappearing in the coming days and the battles for the rare Cubs roster spot that is actually available will come into focus.

Putting in Work

Baez hit leadoff Sunday in his final game with the team before the WBC. Lester also made his spring debut on Sunday, which marked just the second time he has started with Willson Contreras as his catcher. With David Ross gone, Lester will now need to get comfortable with Contreras, who caught just three innings in total from the veteran lefty last season. Lester said he was “not concerned at all” about Contreras taking over duties from Ross, with the young catcher now charged with controlling the running game even more than usual in the face of Lester’s issues with throwing to first. Wade Davis also made his spring debut when he replaced Lester, but it did not go well, as he gave up three earned and recorded just one out.

Maddon continues to shuffle the lineup, with Schwarber making an appearance in the cleanup spot on Saturday behind Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist, and Tommy La Stella batting second on Sunday. Jason Heyward hit leadoff on Friday and Saturday, but it wasn’t until Monday’s game that he picked up his first hit this spring, a solo home run to lead off the second inning, following up with a double in his next-at-bat.

That blast snapped an 0-for-15 run to start the spring, and an 0-for-24 streak dating back to the World Series, as Heyward’s previous hit was in the eighth inning of Game 5. The outfielder is 7-for-67 dating back to the start of the postseason. As Kenny Kelly said last week, the hitless streak probably doesn’t mean anything, and therefore neither should one good game. Probably.

Albert Almora continued to show off his glove in center field, making this running grab of a Nomar Mazara fly ball look relatively easy. Almora also launched a grand slam in the 9-9 tie with the Rangers to emphasize his talent on both sides of the ball.

Camp Happenings

FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman suggested that recent talks with Jake Arrieta and agent Scott Boras indicate that the 30-year-old is likely to be looking for a Max Scherzer-esque deal when his contract expires next offseason, whereas the Cubs are not keen to go longer than four years, and therefore nowhere near $210 million. None of this comes as a major surprise, but it looks likely that Arrieta will hit free agency, looking for a much bigger deal than the Cubs’ front office is willing to offer. Nonetheless, that doesn’t necessarily rule out a return, as Anthony Rescan explored yesterday.

Rizzo sat out over the weekend as a result of his lower back tightness, which seems firmly in the category of “would play through in the regular season,” and he returned to the lineup Monday. Similarly, Addison Russell was scratched Sunday and sat out Monday after being hit on his forearm by a pitch on Saturday, and Jeimer Candelario exited Sunday’s game with a shin bruise after another HBP, but neither seem like long-term concerns. Almora then left Monday’s game after one inning with calf soreness, stemming from hitting a foul ball off his left leg a week ago.

On Saturday, the Cubs raised over $68,000 for pediatric cancer research through Maddon’s Respect Bald event, which saw numerous players and Maddon himself get their heads shaved to support the cause. Minor leaguers Taylor Davis and Pierce Johnson perhaps underwent the most extreme change:

Game Results

March 3: Reds 8, Cubs 4

March 4: Cubs 9, Dodgers 3

March 5: Cubs 9, Rangers 9

March 6: Cubs 13, Angels 10

Lead photo courtesy Rick Scuteri—USA Today Sports

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