If You’re Just Catching Up, Here’s a Quick Tutorial on What to Watch for from Cubs This Year

As the proprietor of a moderately successful Cubs blog, I remain immersed in Cubbishness all year long out of pure necessity. What I’ve come to realize, however, is that — gasp! — not everyone who celebrated the World Series title feels exactly the same way.

Sure, some folks are even more hardcore about it than any of us here at Cubs Insider. But so many more are kind of like closers, in that they just can’t get fired up until there’s something on the line. So while our growth here has been both steady and impressive over the last six months — owing almost exclusively to the additions of Jon Strong, Brendan Miller, and Corey Freedman, not to mention continued contributions from Todd Johnson, Sean Holland, and more — there’s probably a giant segment of the fanbase that hasn’t really followed the new-ish narratives.

With that in mind, I wanted to put together a short course on what’s happening and what may happen for the Cubs this year. Who knows, maybe some of these insights will make you sound super smart the next time you’re having a beer with your buddies. You can just be all like, “Hey, did you know about…”

Kris Bryant working to go oppo as needed

This isn’t a matter of the reigning MVP consciously trying to hit it to right field just for the hell of it, but he’s cognizant of the fact that he may need to. The book on Bryant says that he kills inside pitches and absolutely rakes to the pull field, so pitchers may naturally try to work away.

Good luck, as Bryant worked hard in the offseason with his father — a professional hitting instructor and Ted Williams devotee — to stay a step ahead. Given that most of KB’s home runs during his 2014 minor league campaign were hit to the right of center, it’s more about getting used to looking for those outside offerings.

Addison Russell’s improving contact rate

Russell showed a propensity for driving in runs throughout the 2016 season, but we really saw him come into his own down the stretch. Much of that was due to his improved contact rate, a trend he’ll look to continue this season. It’s hard to believe in the face of his maturity and calm demeanor, but the shortstop just turned 23 back in January and is still learning the game at the big league level.

Repeating the improvement he experienced last season would vault Russell into the MVP conversation right alongside the men on either side of him at the corners of the infield. Not hyperbole.

Kyle Schwarber against the shift

There are all kinds of arguments for why Schwarber should or shouldn’t be batting at the top of the order, but one of the more intriguing to me was the fear that he’d face an inordinate number of shifts. While that may be true, I don’t think it’ll really matter. After all, the shift can’t stop a home run.

In all seriousness, though, Schwarber has proved quite adept at beating the shift thus far in his limited career. We’ve seen him push bunts toward third, bang the ball over the fence, and plain rip hits past the second baseman playing short right already this spring. Dude’s gonna be fine there, just wait.

Albert Almora’s new swing, increased pop

There’s never been a question about the glove, and Almora has shown nice gap power in his professional career to this point. As the first pick of the Theo Epstein era, it’s hard to forget that Almora is actually three months younger than Russell and is still maturing physically.

After coming into camp noticeably bigger, Almora started flexing his muscle at the plate with some big home runs. More than just the added bulk, he’s changed to a more upright stance with his hands a little higher. The results are a more balanced swing and a bit more elevation, not to mention higher expectations.

How Maddon plans to use his righty bench bats

This just went up on the site earlier today, so I won’t steal much of its thunder. Basically, there are things that both Javy Baez and Almora do well against right-handed pitchers, and not all of those things are the same. As such, Maddon may mix and match guys based on what a given pitcher does well.

Arrieta’s release point issues

We rode this horse until it died, then beat it with a stick, and now are using what’s left to stir the tub of glue the horse eventually became. But if you haven’t been following, you might think this is a novel idea. Bless you, new reader. And you too, old reader.

Either way, Arrieta hasn’t been able to find his sweet spot with the slider and it’s resulted in a good deal of inconsistency from game to game, inning to inning, and even pitch to pitch. This may be much ado about nothing, but it’s going to take a while to really see how he looks.

Hector Rondon’s need to recalibrate both physically and mentally

This is another that we shared recently, so I’ll keep it short as well. Rondon has looked really awful this spring, though that appears to be about his location and movement, not his velocity. The former factors are obviously very important but are more fixable than the latter. Perhaps with more time to shake the rust off, Rondon can right the ship.

Plans for top prospects

Ian Happ destroyed the Cactus League. Eloy Jimenez was doing the same before a bone bruise in his right shoulder shelved him for the last couple weeks. These two headline what is still a pretty strong farm system, but they also spawn all kinds of questions. Chief among them is where are they going to play. It’s hard enough to find room for the guys who’re already on the roster.

I have been vocal in predicting that Happ will be traded, though it’s entirely possible he comes up due to an injury or as a September call-up. Jimenez is a little further away yet, so he doesn’t put the Cubs in quite the same quandary. Regardless, they’re going to be fun to watch.

The Cubs are reigning World Series champs

People forget that.

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