Spring Training Storylines To Watch For
This may be the most difficult stretch a baseball fan must endure. Pitchers and catchers report in a matter of days, but Opening Night is still many weeks away. In the meantime, we are left sitting in a pool of our own excitement and optimism as yet another offseason draws to a close.
We will get our fix of baseball soon, however, as Spring Training is right around the corner. The Cubs released their broadcast schedule for this Spring and 30 of the 33 games will be available to the public in some way, shape, or form. 10 of the 33 games will be televised, including a matchup against the White Sox on March 27th (I’m always a fan of the annual Cubs/Sox Spring Training tilt).
There will be a lot of interesting storylines to follow once exhibitions begin in Arizona. Here is a list of what to watch for come March 5th.
Battle For The 5th Rotation Spot
This has been an obvious one ever since the Cubs signed Jon Lester. With Lester, Arrieta, and Hammel headlining the rotation and Kyle Hendricks looking to be a heavy favorite for a gig, we are left with a straight-up free-for-all for the fifth and final spot. With rumors of a potential Travis Wood trade, as well as Dan Straily being a part of the Dexter Fowler deal, the battle is thinning a bit, but there is still a ton of competition.
Names included in the bunch are: Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood, Tsuyoshi Wada, Felix Doubront, Jacob Turner, Dallas Beeler, and Eric Jokisch. I would assume Wood and Wada are the early favorites, but the jury is still out whether Travis will be around come Opening Night. Jacob Turner has no options remaining and offers a ton of upside if he can put it together, while Doubront and Jackson figure to be bullpen options at best.
Jokisch is an interesting name to keep an eye on. In five minor league seasons, the 25-year-old lefty racked up 99 starts and totaled 544 strike outs in 647.2 innings with a rather low walk rate. Jokisch spent his entire 2014 season in Triple A and accumulated a 3.58 ERA, a 1.175 WHIP while striking out 143 — good for a 8.1 k./9 rate — and walked only 31 in 158.1 innings.
Of course, this discussion wouldn’t be necessary if the Cubs went out and signed James Shields, as they are reportedly “kicking the tires” on the 33-year-old pitcher. For what it’s worth, I don’t think it will happen.
Baez Must Earn His Roster Spot
The addition of Tommy La Stella early in the offseason signaled a couple things. One: the Cubs wanted to add a guy who makes consistent contact with solid on-base capability. Two: the Cubs are not fully ready to hand over the everyday second base spot to Javier Baez just yet, nor should they be.
Defensively, I think Baez will make a great second baseman. Some can argue that he could even start over Castro at short. His problem, however, is at the plate, where he accumulated a dreadful strikeout rate last season. At 22 years old, there is still a great deal of time for the slugging Baez to adjust, which means spending an extended amount of time in the minors this season shouldn’t be out of the question.
The Cubs can afford to wait on Baez a bit because of their safety cushions in the infield (La Stella and Alcantara). I don’t think Baez’s performance will change drastically enough this Spring to cost him a spot on the Opening Day roster. But if he is sent down, I expect him to be back up before July at the latest.
What To Do With Kris Bryant
For Kris Bryant to win the Opening Day third base job, he must put the Cubs in a position where they would be crazy to keep him down at Triple A — even if it is just for two weeks to gain an extra year of control. Its pretty obvious that Cubdom is in the win-now mode because of the organization’s successful offseason. If the Cubs truly want to sell that they are going for it all this year, Bryant will be up from the start.
But this isn’t an all-or-nothing year. An extra year of control of the man ESPN’s Keith Law named baseball’s number one overall prospect is extremely valuable. At 23 years old and with 52 home runs in two minor league seasons, Kris Bryant is as major league-ready as it gets. There is some concern with his contact rate, but that shouldn’t be a surprise or cause worry for anyone who understands that young players will swing and miss a decent amount early in their career.
Kris Bryant has the potential to be one of the best players in Major League Baseball — he has that much upside. In the end, I think the Cubs will opt to keep him in the minors for as long as they need to in order to gain that extra year of control. After that, he will almost be immediately called up and we will be graced with his talents at the Major League level.
Don’t Get Hurt!
I’m lookin’ at you, Soler and Castro.
Remember when Darwin Barney slid into a brick wall in one of the final games of Spring Training and was forced to miss time to start the season? Speaking of second baseman, Logan Watkins recently broke the very sad news that he had torn his Achilles just a day after arriving in Arizona. He will likely be out the entire season.
Jorge Soler has a history of getting hurt and the injury bugaboo will always be in the back of my mind when he tries to stretch a single into a double, or lays out to catch a ball in the outfield.
As for Castro, there are reports indicating he is already putting in work in Arizona, which is awesome. Unfortunately for him, he was forced to miss almost all of Spring Training the past two seasons due to injury. A streaky hitter like Castro will benefit from a full Spring as opposed to using April as his adjustment period.
“Don’t get hurt” can be applied to everyone on the Cubs roster because they all play a role in the team’s potential success.
Keep An Eye On Junior Lake And Mike Olt
Junior Lake has an option remaining and the Cubs will likely invoke it this season. The major problem with Lake’s game is that he swings and misses a ton and he doesn’t take many walks (a problem a lot of the Cubs have). Lake has made adjustments in his game at the plate this offseason, including an improved approach and a more bent stance.
This is a big year for Lake as he is preparing to make a big case to convince the Cubs he should be around in the immediate future. Much the same can be said about Mike Olt, who boomed early in his first stint with the Cubs but fell hard. He has a chance to win the third base job out of Spring Training, particularly if the Cubs do indeed hold Kris Bryant down.
While We Wait
There is still some juicy Cubs news that can break before Opening Night. What are they going to do with Travis Wood and Wellington Castillo? Are the Cubs really serious about acquiring James Shields?
Unless they are OK with breaking camp with three catchers on the roster, it looks like Castillo is the primary man to be moved. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if the Cubs held on to Wood, as he has a chance to be a decent fifth starter with experience. Although it would probably be in the Cubs’ best interest to move the 28-year-old lefty.
What are you going to be watching for throughout Spring Training?