The Rundown: Cinderella Stories Surface Every Spring, Pederson Digging New Digs, Fans Go Crazy in Phoenix

This week marks one full year since Major League Baseball shut down spring training camps in Arizona and Florida and announced at least a two-week delay to the season. The original goal of “two weeks to flatten the curve” ended up being a horrible miscalculation. At the time, nobody knew that the fast-spreading virus would inflict the damage it did and after a year of following the science, adjusting to several new normals, a shitstorm of political muckraking and social indifference, and a course correction by American voters, here we are on the precipice of returning to society.

“It feels like it’s been seven [years],” Cubs manager David Ross said yesterday. “I’m probably the wrong person to ask because it was my first major-league season [managing], and I don’t know what a normal one feels like.

“But 60 games felt long. And then the offseason. And now being back, it’s fresh this year. It feels good to be back because it does feel like we’re moving in the right direction.”

I mentioned in yesterday’s column that the current offseason truly feels like it started at the end of the 2019 campaign, and it seems many players and coaches feel the same way. Personally, I don’t usually follow the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues until two weeks before the season. Once some of the roster chum has been removed, I get into baseball mode.

The earlier games do have some great storylines, and yesterday’s walk-off grand slam by Rafael Ortega is proof of that. He has little shot of making the team, however, and I just don’t see the need to invest in the team’s annual Cinderella stories. Each spring, players like Ortega, Ian Miller, Dakota Mekkes, Ryan Court, and Mike Freeman mask their one-dimensional values with elevated spring stats.

For a team that has been playing .580 baseball for six straight seasons, however, those aren’t the supporting extras that will sneak their way onto an Opening Day roster. They’re all fine players, but I’d rather see them get the same chance Duane Underwood Jr. now has to play regularly for a downtrodden team like the Pirates.

Part of the Chicago mentality is to root for the underdog and the Bears provide a great example because season after wretched season, the backup quarterback is the fan favorite. A lot of us veteran Cubs fans still subscribe to that same mentality, but I think that’s carryover from decades of being loveable losers. It was great fun rooting for guys like Augie Ojeda, Tuffy Rhodes, Brant Brown, Gary Scott, and Bobby Hill, because each at least added some potential excitement to the duller years of the franchise.

The Cubs are still in that mythical “championship window” no matter how down you are on guys like Kris Bryant, Javy Báez, and Anthony Rizzo. The team that goes north at the end of this month will feature six position players, one starter, and one closer who have played in at least one All-Star Game. You may as well add Kyle Hendricks and Ian Happ to that list. Hendricks is annually overlooked and Happ would have been an All-Star last season if the league held a game.

Because of that firepower, I’d rather see the Cubs complement their starters with backups and role players who are difference makers, like Cameron Maybin, David Bote, and Ryan Tepera. The Ortega story is great, but a guy with a .577 career OPS isn’t getting this team any closer to a world championship.

Cubs News & Notes

  • The Cubs are off to a hot start offensively and Joc Pederson may be the hottest player on the team. He clubbed his third Cactus League homer yesterday and hit a double off the left field wall, just missing his fourth tater of the spring.
  • Never use the word “Joctober” when conversing with other baseball fans, please and thank you.
  • Báez is a leading candidate for “positive regression” this year, something you also shouldn’t say in the company of knowledgeable human beings, unless you are identifying baseball’s overuse of insipid oxymorons.
  • Yesterday’s 9-8 win over the A’s improved the Cubs to 6-2 this spring, best among teams training in Arizona.
  • President of business operations Crane Kenney said 20% of capacity is roughly the break-even point for the team when accounting for the cost to operate Wrigley and be fully staffed, so anything eventually beyond that may allow the team to make midseason additions.
  • The Cubs open the season with six home games, then travel for the next six. That two-week period should be sufficient time to see if any transmission of COVID-19 occurred among fans in attendance at Wrigley Field. Successfully navigating that first homestand could result in a slight jump in capacity limitations when the Cubs return home.
  • Pedro Strop has returned to camp after his COVID-19 protocol violation mandated he isolate from the team.
  • Ross mentioned a possibility that Trevor Williams could be used in a hybrid role to start the season, which might mean relief appearances mixed in with spot starts. Most teams will employ some type of fluid workforce management with their rotations and the Cubs are no exception.
  • The Cubs skipper said he wants his star offensive players to be more aggressive and a little more selfish at the plate this season, including Bryant.

Odds & Sods

Speaking of ex-Cubs we used to adore for all the wrong reasons, who remembers Turk Wendell? If you’re a fan of black licorice, and who isn’t, this brand is the best.

Spring Training News & Notes

The lagging free agent market is fueling speculation of a work stoppage after this season.

The NL East boasts three of the best outfielders in the game with Juan Soto, Bryce Harper, and Ronald Acuña Jr. 

Including Adam Ottavino, the Red Sox have three ex-Yankees pitchers expected to break camp with the team.

The Pirates and Rockies are two great examples of how perceived financial disparity forces teams to struggle to field competitive rosters.

The Cardinals are expecting starter Miles Mikolas to miss the start of the season due to shoulder soreness.

The Brewers’ 13-7 win over the Giants included all kinds of weirdness, including maskless fans fighting for a souvenir home run ball, which is part of the reason I believe basing attendance on capacity is farcical. Who will be policing these people? Keep ’em out of the Wrigley Field bleachers, please.

Nats starter Stephen Strasburg pitched for the first time since last August and struck out four of the six batters he faced.

Thinking out Loud: One of the suggested new nicknames for the Cleveland franchise is the Gnats. How cool would a Nats/Gnats World Series be?

Extra Innings

Player declarations are always one of my favorite parts of Spring Training. We’ll never forgive Dallas Keuchel for famously predicting the Astros would repeat in 2018 because “We’re not the Cubs.” After a little research, it just so happens that was three years ago today. Beware the Ides of March, fellas.

They Said It

  • “I think what [Ross] means when he says [to be selfish] is, inherently in this game, you’re defined by what you do, the back of your baseball card – whatever it is. That’s what you’re defined as. But at the end of the day, you do have to find your own individual identity to ultimately help the team.” – Kris Bryant
  • “Being aggressive in the zone, getting back to looking for pitches (in) his hot zone … just being free and playing without hesitation.” – David Ross

Wednesday Walk Up Song

We’re Not Gonna Take It/See Me, Feel Me by The Who. I like the way Ross is thinking with regard to Bryant, and, this great segue song from the rock opera “Tommy” has me wishing the Cubs would have signed Tommy La Stella this winter.

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