Cubs: Five storylines for spring training


Cubs: Five storylines for spring training

Theo Epstein knows he doesn’t have anywhere else to go, at least not until the Cubs win their first World Series since 1908. There’s no better job to leverage and too much unfinished business. If this team is as good as advertised, why let someone else ride in the parade down Michigan Avenue?

Chairman Tom Ricketts understands he can’t afford to let his president of baseball operations walk out of the team’s Clark Street headquarters in a gorilla suit. It would be a PR nightmare for an image-conscious franchise still trying to finish the Wrigley Field renovations and potentially launch a new TV network.

Now in the fifth and final year of his contract, Epstein realizes his history with the Boston Red Sox will create suspicions. But despite the ugly ending in Boston – and the financial handcuffs in place at the start of the Wrigleyville teardown – don’t expect him to go on sabbatical and follow Pearl Jam to South America.

Ricketts is a long-term, big-picture thinker who lets people do their jobs and believes in building through the farm system. Epstein wants to take care of his department – general manager Jed Hoyer is also in the last year of his deal – and he should get paid after last year’s 97-win surge.

If the Los Angeles Dodgers set a baseline with Andrew Friedman – roughly five years and $35 million – what’s Epstein’s price with two World Series titles already on his resume?

Cubs pitchers and catchers formally report to Arizona on Friday and the boardroom intrigue will be one behind-the-scenes storyline during a camp where the focus will be on the field and a clubhouse that expects to pop champagne bottles again in October.

Jake the Snake

Jake Arrieta will channel his inner Texas cowboy and brush aside any concerns about the year-after effects from throwing almost 250 innings. But remember what he said on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America conference call after winning the National League Cy Young Award.

“You can train and you can prepare and you can be in top physical condition,” Arrieta said. “But without having a workload like that under your belt, it’s natural for your body at some point to wear down and let yourself know that: ‘Hey, we’re getting into an area where we haven’t necessarily been before.'

“The fatigue did set it in. I’ll be the first to tell you. But physically my body was in better shape than it’s ever been. There was nothing alarming to me. It was just something that is very comparable to 'dead arm.'"

Arrieta (22-6, 1.77 ERA) had one of the greatest individual seasons ever for a pitcher, and he did it in a way that included his teammates, with a sense of swagger that captivated fans, turning his starts into must-see TV.

But that’s still Arrieta’s only wire-to-wire season in The Show.

War of Attrition

The Cubs stayed remarkably healthy last season, with Arrieta, Jon Lester, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks all making at least 31 starts. But they probably won’t be so lucky this year and will need swingmen Adam Warren, Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard and Travis Wood to survive the marathon, especially since the farm system doesn’t have anyone close to stepping into a playoff-caliber rotation.

The Cubs are giving Hammel the benefit of the doubt, believing he’s over the leg issues that contributed to his second-half fade (5.10 ERA) last year. The expectation is a new-season outlook and a different strength-and-conditioning program will help him get back to what he was before the All-Star break (2.86 ERA).

Hendricks has a Dartmouth College degree and gets typecast as the thinker. But he’s tougher and more athletic than he gets credit for, putting up 180 innings, a 3.95 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP during a year where even he admitted he struggled to get a feel for his pitches and find a rhythm.

[RELATED: Cubs banking on Jason Heyward's Gold Glove defense]

The Cubs also think Warren in particular could be sneaky good outside of the American League East after getting traded from the New York Yankees in the Starlin Castro deal.

“We know going into the year, however you dream up those 1,400 innings,” Epstein said, “it’s not going to come out exactly how you anticipate. You’re going to have injuries. You’re going to have underperformance. You’re going to have some guys pleasantly surprise you.

“You know you’re going to make a trade at some point. You’re going to sign a couple guys off the scrap heap. You’re going to have someone come up from Triple-A and impress. You’re going to have someone come up from Triple-A and disappoint.

“You just hope that you’re strong enough and healthy enough as an organization – and open-minded enough and talented enough – that through the course of the year you put a pretty good product out there and you answer the bell more often than not.

“I think we will.”

Jigsaw Puzzle

Joe Maddon isn’t the first guy to show up at the ballpark or the last one to leave at night. He won’t lock himself in the film room to break down swings and pitching mechanics. He won’t apologize for his outside interests or pretend he thinks about baseball 24/7.

Maddon’s job is managing people and he makes it look easy.

But beyond the mix-and-match pitching staff – Hammel will still probably be looking over his shoulder the third time through the lineup – Maddon will also have to juggle a versatile group of position players and massage all the egos.

Will there be enough at-bats to keep Miguel Montero and Chris Coghlan and everyone else happy? Is Kyle Schwarber an outfielder or a catcher or a designated hitter? Can Jorge Soler finally stay healthy? Will Jason Heyward’s Gold Glove defense translate in center field? Is Javier Baez really built for a super-utility role and ready to become the next Ben Zobrist?

Personality Test

Setting aside the $276 million spending spree during the offseason, this team has been years in the making. If everyone stays healthy, the Cubs might only be focusing on one or two roster spots during March Madness.

[MORE: Why Cubs believe their rock-star young players won't believe the hype]

You will hear a lot about the Cubs playing with a target on their back now and getting everyone’s best shot and all the other clichés. Some of it will be talk-show formula and spring-training filler.

But these are real issues, making sure the veterans accept their roles and the young guys don’t get too comfortable or start to feel untouchable while everyone keeps telling them how great they are.

Players aren’t robots or PECOTA projections. The Cubs had unbelievable dance-party chemistry in 2015. But last year is over, and this group will have to create a new identity.

“The sky’s the limit for us,” Schwarber said.

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.