Just five days remain until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training. I, for one, am excited for Spring Training to begin. There are position battles to play out and prospects who have some development issues to work on. However, something else is quite different. Expectations are quite high for the team heading into the 2015 season. Sporting News picked the Cubs to win the World Series. Anthony Rizzo stated that the Cubs will win the NL Central and Theo Epstein told season ticket holders that the Cubs will contend.
I am excited, but I am also realistic. I think this Cubs team, as it is currently constituted, needs a lot of things to go right for them to contend. Most projections have the Cubs coming in with anywhere between 78 and 84 wins. I think that is reasonable. If the Cubs find themselves in, or close to, contention come July, they could go out and make a trade to get a couple players to increase from 84 to 87 wins. In addition, they could also have prospects like Addison Russell, CJ Edwards, and Pierce Johnson waiting in the wings for a boost, too. However, how many wins is Joe Maddon really worth? Can Joe take them from 73 wins to 87?
When it comes to spring training, there are only four certainties. One, the starting pitching is solid and deep. Two, the bullpen is loaded with arms all the way into Iowa. Three, Rizzo and Castro can hit. And four, Joe Maddon will be the manager. His influence on the players has yet to be put into a verifiable statistically significant number.
Maddon’s influence on a lot of the young players like Soler, Baez, Alcantara, and soon-to-be Bryant, will be a huge item to analyze in spring training. I think Soler is phenomenal and will do very well in his first full year. I don’t know quite what to expect from Maddon’s first camp, but I am sure it will not be dull. And I am sure he will not waste any time putting the players, and prospects, in positions to succeed. The Cubs will have to answer several questions/dilemmas by the end of Spring Training, and some questions may linger into July.
It is hard to know where to start with Javy Baez but let’s start with where he is at as a prospect. He is “near ready.” During this offseason, the Cubs sent hitting coach John Mallee and Manager Joe Maddon to Puerto Rico to advise the young hitter. He hit .233 with 2 HRs, 7 RBIS, and a .306 OBP in 11 games. He struck out 21 times. I don’t think that is the recognition the Cubs envisioned. I am one of many who believe Baez will begin the year at Iowa at 2B playing alongside Addison Russell. Down in Des Moines, his season will be about pitch recognition and pitch selection. The Cubs are trying hard to keep his swing together while adjusting his mind and approach. If Baez can’t figure it out by July, then what?
I am not sold on Tommy LaStella either. I think Alcantara would be a better fit at 2B for now until Baez comes up. LaStella, a left-handed hitter, played 93 games for the Braves, but he is not a stats machine. He was known in the minors for his OBP but did not get many walks last year as he hit .251 with a .328 OBP. Those are not comforting numbers. If LaStella is the starter coming out of Spring Training, the chances of making the playoffs drop dramatically to me.
- The Third Base Recombination – Who plays 3B for a month?
Kris Bryant will be up by May 1. His promotion will solve a lot of problems at this position then. But for now, who will the Cubs play there? And if that person plays well, does that mean Bryant goes to Left Field? Looking at the roster, Mike Olt clearly has the job for one month. He won the position in Spring Training last year and then lost it with a Baez like batting average and a large strikeout rate. After going down to Iowa in late July and August, Olt widened his stance and it has made all the difference. The only other option for April is Chris Valaika. LaStella, a second baseman, and Alcantara have never seen an inning at third. I don’t expect them to either. So, when Bryant comes up, I think Olt stays and Valaika goes down.
- The Alcantara Fluctuation – Does he stay up and where does he stay?
I think he does. The question will be if he will start at 2b or be a super utility guy or both. I think it is both. He should start 4-5 games at second, sub in the outfield for a couple of days, and then he takes a day off. Whenever the topic of Alcantara is brought up to Maddon, he just smiles ….widely. Maddon loves him! On the other hand, Alcantara has a lot to work on. His quick hands allow him to generate a massive amount of power for such a small player. In 70 games, he hit .204 with a .254 OBP – not very inspiring is it? The 10 homers were a nice touch, but Alcantara’s 93 strikeouts were on a 170 K pace for a season. That is unacceptable. Alcantara could head back down to Iowa, but I think that is a last gasp move. Like Baez, Alcantara will need to make some changes this spring to stay on the roster.
Jacob Turner, Tsuyoshi Wada, Travis Wood, Edwin Jackson, and Felix Doubront will be battling it out for two things this spring – a spot in the rotation and a spot on the roster. My money right now is on Tuner and Wada making the club. I think Wood could, but he might bring something back more valuable in a trade. I give Doubront a better chance as a reliever to make the team. I don’t see him making it as a starter.
I picked Turner to make the team because his stuff is versatile. He could be another arm to add to an already loaded pen and his stuff plays well as a starter. It is really about command. I think a reliever he might be. For Wada, he is my fifth starter for two reasons. One, he earned it last summer. Two, he adds a second lefty option with Lester. I think if he makes it as a starter, there are two ways Maddon could play it. He could make Wada the #4 to have a lefty in every series or he could put Wada at #5 and have lefties back to back. Then you would have three very different righties in a row. I like that versatility better. Wood could stay, Jackson could be DFA. Wood still has some value as a long reliever and spot starter.
- The Bullpen Extrapolation – Only one gun and too many bullets
This bullpen is fully loaded! Rondon, Strop, Motte, Grimm, Ramirez, Turner, and a lefty or two means that the Cubs can now turn a lot of games into five or six inning games. There has been word this week that Cubs are likely to carry 13 pitchers in April while the weather is cold. That means eight bullpen arms. That means the newly acquired Drake Britton will compete with Zac Rosscup, Eric Jokisch, Joe Ortiz, and Francisley Bueno for one of two left handed spots in the bullpen. If Travis Wood and Tsuyoshi Wada are not starters, this complicates things a lot more. However, I think this is the least of the Cubs problems. Add in fireballer Armando Rivero at Iowa, Duck Dynasty’s Brian Schlitter, and a few other arms, there will be no shortage of arms or the outages of Marmol and Veras. This spring, it is about finding the right mix of arms to start the season.
- The Castillo-Jackson-Wood Triangulation – Trades in Waiting
These three players likely won’t be on the team once the season begins – let me take that back. I think two out of the three won’t be on the team. I think the Cubs hang on to Wood but lose Castillo and Jackson. I think Castillo can bring a nice low A or rookie ball player. Jackson is not going to bring much unless the Cubs throw in a lot of money in that trade. I think Maddon, who has managed Jackson once before, is Jackson’s only hope. I love what Jackson can do with a baseball, I just don’t like how he does it. His constant nibbling is not needed when he has a great slider and breaking ball. Hopefully, Maddon can get inside Jackson’s head, and along with pitching coach Chris Bosio, simplify Jackson’s approach. I think they should just turn Jackson into a two pitch pitcher – fastball and slider. If Jackson is on his game, he can be a quality #3 starter. Cub fans have not seen that Edwin Jackson.
- The Maddon Manipulation – How will his style translate into wins?
When looking at this year, and the projections, I don’t think the influence and effect of Joe Maddon’s managerial prowess has truly been thought about. It is almost impossible to quantify what he brings to a team. In Tampa Bay, he had rosters filled with young players and I think his influence on the Cubs’ younger players will be immense. There will be ups and downs, as there were in Tampa, but how he gets those players through those struggles will be the difference this year. All of the questions above will answered this spring, but this last question will be answered all year.
For now, his style will be seen quickly in Spring Training as he tries to get Alcantara, Baez, Jackson, and others straightened out. Out of all the things I am looking forward to this spring training, what Maddon can do, I think, is the most important. It will really be his camp and he is going to put his own stamp on this team in a very short order. That is what he was brought here to do. He is take the players the front office provides and turn them into a winning team by doing what Joe Maddon does. He was not brought here to do wacky lineup cards or fancy themed travel plans. Rather, he was brought on board to get the players to be productive on a daily basis over the course of a long season to get the team to the playoffs. That is the expectation.