With the first Cactus League games coming this weekend, it’s a good time to start focusing on a few specific topics to follow for the next few weeks. After laying out one area of improvement for five minor-league players in Mesa, my attention turns to the big league club.
Three of the storylines are listed below because I find them intriguing, while the other two are more media-driven narratives that we may not be able to escape. It’s been a long winter without baseball, so let’s get to the list.
Who wants a piggyback start?
There has been a lot of talk this offseason about the Cubs moving towards using long relievers more often this year, which could mean they’ll be taking the piggyback route to some extent. For those unfamiliar with the term, it denotes the strategy of effectively using two “starters” in order to ease the burden on the actual opener for one reason or another. Chicago had a fair amount of success a modified version of this tactic, especially with Keegan Thompson.
This year, Thompson will be joined by Adbert Alzolay and possibly Hayden Wesneski as excellent candidates to fill the piggyback role. Alzolay is returning from a series of injuries in 2022 and it is better for his health to limit his innings. The boost in velocity he gets from a reduced workload also makes his offspeed offerings more effective.
Wesneski, acquired from the Yankees for Scott Effross in 2022, was terrific after getting called up to the Cubs late last season. He will compete with Adrian Sampson for the fifth starter job, but it might be better to start Wesneski in the bullpen to reduce his innings much like Alzolay. Thompson’s numbers were noticeably better when he was a reliever (1.47 ERA vs 4.83 as a starter), so his move makes perfect sense.
Keep an eye on these three to see if their velo plays up in shorter outings. While the actual exhibition results don’t matter, it’s the way pitchers are being deployed that will tell us about what the club is thinking.
Is Nick Madrigal really playing third base?
For some reason, the Cubs brass insists on giving Madrigal work at third base this spring despite there being four better options for the job on the current roster. Madrigal does not seem to have the range or arm strength to handle the hot corner, and he most definitely does not have the power you need to see in that spot.
It’s possible they are trying to showcase his positional flexibility in an effort to make it easier to trade him, so I’m curious to see how many innings he actually plays there in the Cactus League. I personally feel like this experiment is a bad use of the roster and hope it ends quickly.
Continuation of Willson Contreras drama
It’s becoming pretty clear that the former Cub and current St. Louis Cardinals catcher is going to keep talking trash about his old team. Even though he is in Florida, the Contreras drama has been among the top discussion points among Cubs fans. The passionate backstop even went on Chicago radio to bash his former front office.
The press will undoubtedly ask David Ross and his players for their reactions to Contreras’s comments as the spring continues. I think the Cubs will do a pretty good job of ignoring it and moving on with the season, though I feel less confident that the fans will drop it. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.
Seiya Suzuki‘s second-year surge
Suzuki now has a year in MLB and the states under his belt, and it was a pretty good one. He hit 14 home runs, put up a 116 OPS+, and had a respectable 2.0 fWAR. The Cubs were hoping for more and many fans expected much more, particularly after his scorching-hot start.
The patient right fielder arrived in Arizona looking absolutely jacked and raring to go. Now the plan is to translate the best shape of his life award into more power at the plate. Suzuki is one of the big bats in the lineup of Team Japan in the World Baseball Classic, which will keep him out of camp for a couple weeks.
We’re not just looking to see if his power increases in Mesa and during the WBC, we also want to check out whether his plate approach has changed, particularly against front-line starters. Much was made of Suzuki being hosed by umps on borderline calls, but he also had a tendency to take some middle-middle pitches.
World Baseball Classic impact
Chicago does not have a ton of 40-man roster players on WBC rosters, but missing 17 members of the organization will impact spring training lineups. That should give some young players additional opportunities to grab the front office’s attention.
There’s also the idea that players like Suzuki, Marcus Stroman, and Matt Mervis can receive a confidence boost from their participation in the event. The WBC is worth following closely even if you don’t tie it back to the Cubs at all, so having it back this year will be fun no matter what.
Speaking of which, it’s totally understandable if you prefer your spring baseball with a side of aimlessness. Sometimes it’s nice to just have a game on in the background, knowing that the results are completely inconsequential after the 3rd or 4th innings. As the Cactus League really gets rolling, however, it’s nice to have a few different topics to track.
Is there anything specific you’re looking for from any individual players or the Cubs as a team? Let’s discuss below.