If there’s anything I struggle with, it’s coming up with topics to write about. Don’t believe me? I once crafted a tale of how future Kyle Schwarber traveled back in time to watch himself play. So you can imagine my excitement when I was asked during an appearance on The Jeff Robb Show about what I’d be watching for in Spring Training. Perfect! There’s a bit of inherent risk in pursuing said topic because a lot can happen in the intervening three weeks, but I’ll go ahead and take my chances.
When the Cubs arrived in Mesa last year to begin their first season under Joe Maddon, the general mood throughout Cubdom was somewhere in the neighborhood of giddy fascination. Between the new skipper and the young would-be superstars, the pre-season finally felt like the beginning of something bigger rather than simply the end of the winter. Now, however, the fascination has been supplanted by a pregnant expectation and a hope that the 2016 campaign isn’t an ugly baby.
And it is with that wonderful image in your head that I move into the storylines I’ll be following once pitchers and catchers report in three weeks.
The fleshing out of the starting rotation
While I’m close to certain we already know how the fourth and fifth spots will play out, the sheer number of potential starters currently slated for the bullpen makes a potential shakeup impossible to rule out. Jason Hammel seems the most likely to be ousted, though his salary and the uncertainty of how he’d work in relief are on his side. Kyle Hendricks could be sent down to Iowa to further hone his game, but I can’t envision the Cubs making that move.
Of course, this isn’t only about how either of the guys penciled into the rotation perform. It’s a bit of a stretch, but Adam Warren pitched really well for the Yankees last season and was acquired with the intent of using him as a starter…at some point. Could we reach that point in March? Probably not, but it’s still something to keep an eye on.
Catchers, catchers everywhere
It’s a given that Miguel Montero and David Ross will get a lion’s share of the starts and innings behind the plate in 2016, but Kyle Schwarber will be reporting along with them. Oh, and there’s also that Willson Contreras kid. It’s the present and future of the position wrapped up in four athletes with disparate skillsets. I’m convinced at this point that War Bear’s density, I mean…destiny, is in left, but I’d like to see how much work he gets in the crouch. His former teammate’s got no shot at breaking camp with the Cubs, but we’ll get a chance to see what he’s capable of.
Javy Baez in center
Displaced from any one position in the infield, Baez will have to look to the outfield in order to get more playing time. I love this. We got to see a good deal of his athleticism on display at second and short, but just imagine giving him free reign of the open plains. Can he harness that same balls-to-the-wall gusto with which he attacks at-bats? He might fail, but I have little doubt that even that will be glorious.
It can be a little dangerous to base the regular season on what a hitter does in the month of March, so I’m not going to place too much credence on what this group of young hitters does in the Cactus League. Then again, I very much want to see whether and how they’ve been able to make adjustments and also carry over some of the momentum from the end of last season. But let’s be honest, it’s just going to be crazy fun to see these kids face off against some noodle-armed non-roster invitees.
Soundbites for days
It’s one thing when Joe Maddon is speaking from an event for his foundation or Anthony Rizzo is posing with The Rock and photo-bombing Flo Rida, but things change when the team is together and actually playing games. There will be plenty of questions about what the Cubs will accomplish and those queries are not going to get any less pointed or frequent as the spring warms up. I’ve never been veiled in my admiration for the makeup of the players and staff the front office has assembled, and I am very much looking forward to hearing how they address the mounting pressure of the looming season.
There will be a great deal more to dissect and digest in due time, but I’m pretty happy with this list for now. Before I go, though, I’d like to ask a favor of you. As we sit twiddling our thumbs and counting down the days until baseball returns, take stock of that feeling of yearning. Bottle those feelings if you have to. While the Cubs should provide us with no shortage of great moments, there will inevitably be some disappointments along the way too. If you find your faith growing weak in those times, pop the top on that bottle and breath in the sweetness inside.
But don’t indulge too much, lest you run out early. This is the Cubs we’re talking about, after all.