Spring Training Podcasts Shed Interesting Light on Cubs’ NL Central Rivals

As happy as I am when spring training began, I’m even more eager for it to end. I get little out of hope-springs-eternal stories about how seemingly every player’s extra offseason work is paying off, or how minor tweaks should surely bring major results.

But the fact that very little actual news is coming out of spring training is a good thing, if for no other reason than it means no one is getting injured. So with little earth-shattering developments taking place in Cubs camp, I took the opportunity to look in on the rest of the NL Central via their latest podcasts.

Here’s a look at what appears on the mind of the Cubs’ competing camps:

Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers’ Extra Innings Podcast spent some time examining new pitching coach Chris Hooks. This led me to understand that the Cubs aren’t the lone successful team from last year to have experienced an unsettling amount of coaching churn. Like the Cubs, Milwaukee has new pitching coach and hitting coaches, along with a couple other lower-profile changes.

Given what a breakout last year was for the Brew Crew, this is somewhat surprising and understandably left some fans unsettled about the potential for secret friction. Milwaukee’s hitting coach of the last four seasons, Darnell Coles, and their pitching coach of the last three years, Derek Johnson, both left for decidedly less successful teams. Coles went to Arizona and Johnson signed immediately with Cincinnati.

Milwaukee replaced Coles with the Cubs’ recent assistant hitting coach Andy Hines, who was passed over for promotion in Chicago in favor of Anthony Iapoce. Succeeding Johnson is Hooks, who takes on his first stint as a major league pitching coach. Unlike Tommy Hottovy, who is just 37 years old with little direct coaching experience, Hooks is 50 and has a long history as pitching coach and coordinator within the Brewers minor league system.

Like in Chicago, this churn only adds questions to the upcoming season, and I put my money on Joe Maddon rather than Craig Counsell to adapt more effectively.

St. Louis Cardinals

One positive about the St. Louis coaching staff is continuity. Fortunately, no one will confuse their tandem of manager Mike Shildt and pitching coach Mike Maddux for Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan. But this week’s episode of “Two Birds on a Bat” was devoted mostly to a typically sunny spring training consideration of Matt Carpenter’s move back to third base, as forced by the acquisition of Paul Goldschmidt.

Carpenter’s glove has always been a “jack of all trades, master of none.” He can give you slightly below to average play at third, second and first, but his arm is really best hidden at first. Yet, this did not keep the podcast from wondering if by concentrating only on third base this year, perhaps Carpenter would see some strong defensive improvements.

Good luck there. It is fairly preposterous that at age 33, Carpenter will suddenly blossom beyond what he was in his age 28 and 29 seasons. He was an average third baseman at best in those two years, playing a combined 300 games with 30 errors and -4 defensive runs saved.

It’s been suggested that Goldschmidt might perhaps help cover for Carpenter’s at times erratic arm, but that’s probably wishful thinking. So expect third base to remain the weakest link in the Cardinals infield, with their right side (Goldschmidt and Kolten Wong) far better than the left side (Carpenter and Paul DeJong).

Pittsburgh Pirates

Talk at the recently launched and professionally executed Buccocast was all about the team’s pitching, complete with a visit from Rob “Pitching Ninja” Friedman. As on other Pirates’ podcasts, Buccocast feels the Pirates have a strong pitching staff, despite the rotation and bullpen finishing in the statistical middle of the National League last year.

On paper, this optimism certainly seems appropriate. An extra year of experience can only bode well for young starters like Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams, and Joe Musgrove. Plus a full year of even a fading Chris Archer could be an overall net positive.

As of right now, the team’s fifth starter slot remains open. The erratic Nick Kingham is their fallback, and Pirates fans continue to nurture a longshot chance at signing Dallas Keuchel, as the Pirates were one of five to send a scout to Keuchel’s recent showcase.

Cincinnati Reds

No podcast better captured the through-the-roof optimism of spring than the most recent edition from Redleg Nation Radio. They even doubled down on this by titling it “The ceiling is the roof.” Said one of the hosts, “even if things go badly for this team this year, the floor is 77 wins,” which would be a 10-win improvement over their 2018.

Given such sanguine appraisal, it is not surprising they are the third different team in four years to see reason to hope for a Sonny Gray bounceback. Part of the new theory is Gray trained this winter at Vanderbilt, his alma mater, where he was apparently newly exposed to stats on his spin rates. So he has decided to drop his slider as he feels it changed the shape of his arm muscles and weakened his curveball.

One wonders if a trip to a phrenologist is next in order for Gray, but as the A’s and Yankees now say about Gray: “Not our problem.”

The Reds should have a very potent offense, but even here expectations are sky-high with one prediction being “I won’t be surprised if the Reds have four players at the end of the year in the NL top 10 for on-base percentage.” Those four would be Joey Votto, Eugenio Suarez, outfielder Jesse Winkler (who has yet to qualify for a batting title in the majors), and Nick Senzel, a top rookie who is being moved from second base to center field this year.

Those four players do know how to take a walk and will win many wars of attrition with many starting pitchers this year, but four hitters in the Top 10 for OBP? One is reminded about the warning of wearing proper head cover in the Arizona sun. But after more than a few years stuck on a very bad block, you can’t blame Reds fans for hoping to finally turn the corner.

For solid Cubs analysis, don’t forget to check out podcasts by Cubs Insider contributors. This includes “Cubs Related” by Brendan Miller and Corey Freedman, and “Holy Cow: A Cubs Podcast” from Sean Holland.

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