The Rundown: 11 Spring Training Expectations, Suzuki Poised for Breakout, MLB Makes Ghost Runner Permanent

“I pick myself up off the ground to have you knock me back down, again and again.”Nick Lowe, Cruel to Be Kind

Last week, Evan wrote a piece called 11 Questions I Want to See Answered in Spring Training. I try to shy away from predictions, but do have a handful or two of expectations. I’m traveling today, so I need a light and mobile column. Speaking of quick and easy, check out my boys from Portland. You can listen while reading, but the video is pretty cool, too. They’re good friends, so be nice in the comments section.

Anyway, here are 11 things I expect to see in Arizona this spring.

  1. Pete Crow-Armstrong is going to make a strong case for breaking camp with the team. He won’t, of course, because he’s not on the 40-man and the Cubs have Cody Bellinger. PCA’s defense is his carrying tool, but if he can hit big-league pitching — and I expect him to — he’s going to have Cubs fans salivating for a midseason call-up.
  2. As long as I’m talking about prospects, I bet Matt Mervis will mash in Cactus League games. That said, I don’t know how long of a look the front office intends to give the first baseman since he’s not on the roster. I don’t think the progress he made last season was a fluke and Cubs fans who haven’t seen him yet are in for a treat.
  3. Let me get back to Bellinger. This is a make-or-break season for the young centerfielder and the Cubs want to get as much production from him as possible while he serves as a placeholder for PCA. At the same time, the former MVP and Rookie of the Year must establish value to earn his next contract. If the Cubs can flip Bellinger at the deadline for a heavy haul, Jed Hoyer will have earned an A+ for the acquisition.
  4. My gut tells me Ian Happ and Nico Hoerner will head north with new contracts. Ironically, it is the lack of news on that front that has me convinced. That just seems to be the way Hoyer operates. When the president of baseball operations makes an announcement, it’s almost always after we’ve lost all semblance of optimism.
  5. I do not see Hoerner breaking camp as the team’s leadoff hitter. I believe Seiya Suzuki will claim that spot with protection in the two-hole coming from Happ when they’re facing a righty, and Hoerner or Trey Mancini when a lefty takes the bump. One of the goals this spring should be to help Suzuki see a lot more fat pitches. David Ross could force pitchers to throw more strikes by putting Suzuki at the top of the order.
  6. Tucker Barnhart will emerge as Chicago’s top catcher when the team heads north at the end of March. I do think Yan Gomes will get his fair share of at-bats, but Barnhart is a better fit for the Cubs’ plan to have the best up-the-middle defense in baseball.
  7. Justin Steele, Marcus Stroman, and Jameson Taillon are going to give the Cubs stability at the top of the rotation that the team hasn’t seen since Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta led the staff. For most of the winter, I thought Stroman might be a trade candidate. I’ve done a 180 and I believe he and Hoyer will work out a contract extension before the pitcher has to make a decision on his opt-out.
  8. I don’t think he’s the long-term answer at the hot corner, but I do expect a bounce-back spring by Patrick Wisdom. He may have been a little too worried about limiting strikeouts last year and it affected his glove. The Cubs are a lot more contact-oriented this year, so Wisdom being allowed to just grip it and rip it, he’ll hit more home runs, play better defensively, and leave Arizona as the team’s starting third baseman.
  9. The closer-by-committee strategy is one of the worst decisions great baseball minds make, but the Cubs don’t have anybody that can command/demand the ball with the game on the line. This storyline will tumble into April, but I believe Jeremiah Estrada will emerge as that go-to guy. That doesn’t mean the Cubs won’t trade for a bona fide closer at the deadline if they’re contending. Héctor Rondón had 18 saves when Theo Epstein acquired Aroldis Chapman in 2016. I do not think Chicago can contend for a World Series this year, however, so Ross should exercise a little less patience and let Estrada learn on the job.
  10. I believe Hoyer will make a spring training trade. Those don’t happen often, but the front office has to start weeding the depth at some point. If I had to name a candidate or three to be moved, I’d say one or more of Caleb Kilian, Zach McKinstry, or David Bote could be playing elsewhere by Opening Day.
  11. Dansby Swanson will emerge as the best shortstop of this year’s free-agent class. I know that’s not a spring training prediction, but I wanted to mention the team’s marquee acquisition. I don’t want to forget Eric Hosmer, whose biggest contribution will be in helping Mervis make the transition to the bigs. Hosmer will hit enough that fans won’t be screaming to trade the veteran, but it’s just a matter of time before Mervis emerges as the starter.

Cubs News & Notes

  • It looks like Crow-Armstrong, Mervis, and Brennen Davis are well on their way to establishing themselves as Chicago’s next homegrown core.
  • The Cubs are built to be an old-school offensive machine. Despite what could be an offense predicated on stolen bases and a lot of hit-and-run, don’t expect Chicago to look like the 1982 Cardinals. This club has more power than you might believe.
  • Suzuki had a 155 wRC+ over the final seven weeks of the 2022 season and is a legitimate breakout candidate this year.

Odds & Sods

Sorry, this video does not contain any cuss words or a double-bird from Rossy.

Climbing the Ladder

“And I laughed like I always do…” – Robyn Hitchcock, Balloon Man

Here’s an encapsulation of the winter acquisitions of Chicago’s NL Central rivals.

How About That!

This is the year MLB gives the game back to the players.

The league’s new rules will limit the number of pitching appearances by position players. It should just be banned, in my opinion.

One rule that is not changing is the “ghost runner” in extra innings. The league made it permanent.

Dominic Pino of The National Review writes that the automatic runner is a bunch of BS. I agree.

Teams have begun altering roster decisions based on the changes.

A new series by FOX Sports ranks teams by their 26-and-under prospects. The Rockies are ranked 30th and the one-team-per-day format is worth following all spring.

Pedro Martínez wants to see Dominican kids look for opportunities beyond baseball.

The Padres are interested in free-agent starter Michael Wacha.

The Twins have some interest in lefty reliever Brad Hand.

Two Port Authority employees have been suspended over the crash that killed ex-MLB pitcher Anthony Varvaro.

Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright had his first workout with his new batterymate on Monday.

Extra Innings

I’m okay with position players not pitching at all, even if it means we never get to see something like this delightful exchange between Anthony Rizzo and Freddie Freeman. Besides, I enjoyed the mic’d-up rundown much more.

Tuesday Morning Six-Pack

  1. NFL Insider Peter King analyzed all of the Bears trade rumors, including ones that mention Justin Fields and Tee Higgins.
  2. It’s Valentine’s Day and I come bearing great news. After a two-year absence, White Castle has welcomed the return of its romantic and subtly fine dining experience of sliders and shakes. Reservations are required, so get on Open table and book your experience as soon as possible. Otherwise, you’re stuck with Olive Garden or Old Country Buffet. By the way, there is a place called Buffet City in Oak Lawn, IL, and it is genuinely a city of buffet-style options. Hard pass.
  3. Alternatively, you could just settle for the tried-but-true candy hearts, which have been updated to reflect modern terms like “bae” and “you da best.”
  4. If you’re single or anti-VD, our pals at Ultimate Classic Rock provided the perfect playlist to help you positively navigate the wretched excess of February 14.
  5. Amazon’s autonomous rideshare subsidiary, Zoox, took passengers on public roads for the first time.
  6. I can’t mention robots without deferring to the legendary Sam Waterston.

They Said It

  • “When you’re not in it, you know and you’re in it, you can start to feel it. I think the guys feel it. I think you see guys hanging around from their bullpens watching other guys, a lot of communication. It’s a fun group we’ve got. These guys are coming ready to work. They know why we’re here and what we’re trying to accomplish as a team and I don’t think there’s any in between like ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ No, we’re like our expectation as a group is to win. I think you feel that in the group for sure.” – Hottovy
  • “This team can pitch it. There’s a lot of defense there. And I think there are underrated bats — I really do. Everybody says that at this time of year, but you can see a way that we can win a lot of baseball games.” – Happ
  • “Fans grew up knowing what a hit looks like off the bat. That changed suddenly over the last decade. To bring that back, I think, will restore a little bit of a comfort zone for our fans. The game is about the players, and the rules will put the players in the center of the action, and it’s for the fans, and we think it’ll be an overall better product for the fans to enjoy.” – Epstein

Tuesday Walk-Up Song

There is so much depth to this guy’s career that I discover something new every day, even if it is nearly 40 years old. I’ve been a fan since the late 1970s.

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