By Todd Johnson
My busy season now has just a week left. After last Saturday’s history fair and two sets of Scholastic bowl matches, it is nice to get some rest this weekend and catch up on everything in the Cubs’ universe. This week will be my busiest week as I have the IHSA Scholastic Bowl regional on Monday and then five conference matches over two nights on Tuesday and Thursday. By Friday, my butt is going to be dragging.
Meanwhile, the Cubs starting pitching rotation looks to be set. Manager Joe Maddon coronated veteran Jon Lester to be the Cubs’ opening day starting pitcher. While Lester is clearly not at the peak of his performance in terms of velocity anymore, I think he’s going to have a much better year under new pitching coach Jim Hickey than he did in a conflicted 2017 with Chris Bosio. After Lester, Hendricks, Darvish, Quintana, and Chatwood will follow. I thought that was an interesting way to break up the lefty-righty combos. And it also looks like a way to take pressure off of Darvish and Quintana in the three and four spots. It’s almost as if the Cubs have four number two pitchers and a number five.
As for the action on the field, Ian Happ has been the center of attention the first week plus. Cranking out three home runs from the leadoff spot will do that. Theo Epstein even called him his breakout player for 2018 on 670 The Score the other day. In addition, Happ has been flashing the leather and looks a little bit leaner as a center fielder.
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) February 23, 2018
Most pitchers that have seen any action have only gone one inning. As a result, it’s really hard to evaluate what is happening as the Cubs have mainly relied on arms that should be at AAA Iowa in 2018. Still, Zach Hedges and Duane Underwood, Jr. have each been impressive in their two outings. The Cubs starters really haven’t gotten much work in other than an inning or two apiece. Yu Darvish has yet to pitch.
Catcher Chris Gimenez has destroyed the baseball in the first week of camp. Then again, he is not exactly been facing major league pitching. It’ll be interesting to see how he does over the next 3 and 1/2 weeks. I think as he sees more major league arms in spring training games, Gimenez might struggle more than he is right now.
In an article on the Cubs website, Carrie Muskat did a great job talking about Duane Underwood and his new physique and mental outlook this spring. Even Joe Maddon chimed in on the new Duane:
“His body is better, he’s leaner. When he came into camp this year, he had a different look about him. This is a guy with a high ceiling, and he hasn’t realized it. There’s a lot of conversation from the front office, coaches, etc. I think this winter he went home and did a little soul searching. He’s much more assertive, he’s attacking the zone.”
The Allen Webster signing on Friday made little sense to me as it could possibly take a AAA roster spot from a prospect the Cubs drafted and developed. The Cubs are taking a lot of gambles on some former big names this spring like Webster and Danny Hultzen in hopes that the player can either salvage their career or catch lightning in a bottle. Odds are that most of them will be cut in early April. The low risk/high reward flyer has been part of the Cubs’ modus operandi since 2012 with little effect other than Hector Rondon.
Baseball America beefed up their top 200 draft prospects to a top 300 list. As usual, they redid some of the rankings near the top just based on how some of the college players are doing. The biggest riser so far has been Stanford pitcher Tristan Beck. The big right-hander is skyrocketing up their list and might soon be out of reach of the Cubs. In addition, Wichita State third baseman Alec Bohm has gone from the late 20s to the low 20s. Considering that most high school teams, especially in the north, don’t start for a couple more weeks, these moves up could be temporary or they could be permanent. But both players bear watching. Missouri State Shortstop Jeremy Eierman and Duke OF Griffin Conine could be on the Cubs radar now along with Kentucky pitcher Sean Hjelle.
As an avid fan of baseball cards, and not so much a collector anymore, I have been checking out the Topps Heritage Series as it kind of resembles what I have been doing for the past six summers. Topps, however, has been doing it since 2001. It takes old cards and puts current players in them. Over the course of the past week, I downloaded a few cards and made a couple adjustments to some players the Cubs picked up over the winter. While Topps only does one season per year in the series, they do change the throwback card every year.
What I am Working On
Once I survive this week, I have a couple things that I have been quietly assembling. The first one is my preseason minor league All-Star team. So far, I just added pictures/cards of who I think will be the top Cubs players in the first half. Because Eugene does not start until the second half, a few of the Cubs’ top prospects won’t be on that list. I am also adding two breakout players who I think will really shine at either South Bend, Myrtle Beach, Tennessee, or Iowa.
And as for the affiliate previews, I have done a little more than to assemble the position players. With minor-league camp just starting, I think it’s too early to try and figure out just exactly which prospects are going to be pitching where. With as many arms that they have selected in the draft and signed internationally the past two summers, there is going to be a ton of competition for what amounts to be 22 spots from AAA down to low class A.
Coming Up Next Week
Because of my schedule, I already have this week’s posts pre-written and uploaded, it’s just a matter of clicking the publish button. On Monday, I take a look at a few high school bats that the Cubs could be interested in following this spring. On Wednesday, Austin Upshaw returns. This time I will profile him in the “Leveling Up” series. And on Friday, if all goes well, I return with a post about the Latin infusion of talent coming north of the border at some point this summer.