Cubs

Cubs: Five storylines for spring training

joemaddonstinsider021716.png

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.

Albert Almora Jr. gave another example of his all-around game

Albert Almora Jr. gave another example of his all-around game

Albert Almora Jr. might be in the middle of a breakout season. The 24-year-old outfielder continues to show his impressive range in center field and is having his best year at the plate.

In Sunday's 8-3 win against the Giants, Almora had three hits and showed off his wheels in center to rob Evan Longoria of extra bases. The catch is visible in the video above.

"Defensively, right now he's playing as well as he possibly can," Maddon said.

On top of the defense he has become known for, he is hitting .326. That's good for fifth in the National League in batting.

"He's playing absolutely great," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "He's working good at-bats. His at-bats have gotten better vs. righties.

"The thing about it, is there's power there. The home runs are gonna start showing up, too."

There's also this stat, which implies Almora is having a growing significance on the Cubs as a whole:

There may be some correlation, but not causality in that. However, with Almora's center field play and growing accolades at the plate, the argument is becoming easier and easier that he is one of the most important players on the Cubs. That also goes for Almora's regular spot in the lineup, which has been up in the air with Maddon continuing to juggle the lineup.

Joe Maddon wants Cubs fans to cheer for Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez

Joe Maddon wants Cubs fans to cheer for Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez

Why can't a trade be looked at as a win-win? 

There doesn't always have to be a clear winner and loser.

Prior to Jose Quintana taking the ball for Saturday's game against the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field, Joe Maddon was asked about the players (Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease) the Cubs gave up to acquire Quintana as well as the deal with the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman in July 2016.

Gleyber Torres is absolutely killing it in New York, hitting .323 with a 1.014 OPS, 9 homers and 24 RBI in only 29 games. Six of those homers have come in the last week alone. 

With the White Sox, both Jimenez and Cease have found success in Double-A and Advanced Class-A, respectively.

Jimenez is hitting .331 with a .992 OPS, 9 homers and 35 RBI in 35 games. Cease is 6-2 with a 2.83 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 57 strikeouts in 47.2 innings.

As the Cubs work to get their offense settled into a consistent groove, some Cubs fans have been looking at what might've been with guys like Torres and Jimenez.

"You can't have it both ways, man," Maddon said. "I'm happy for Gleyber. When he left, we talked about it. And we talked about the kids that went to the White Sox. It's good stuff. 

"I'm really disappointed if anybody's disappointed in the fact we won the World Series in 2016 and the fact that the guy we're talking about that we had to give up Gleyber for was so instrumental in that happening. That's bad process if you're gonna get stuck on something like that. Be happy for Gleyber. Be happy for him."

Maddon has been a fan of Torres' since he saw him in spring training in 2015, Maddon's first year in the Cubs organization.

"This kid's 21, with high, high baseball intellect," Maddon said. "He's very similar to Javy on the field. I've had some great conversations with him in the past. 

"The first time I saw him in spring training, I thought this guy's for real. It was like one at-bat, line drive to RF, I said who is this guy? And then you have a conversation with him. He's solid."

Maddon's point is a great one — would Cubs fans prefer to still have Torres and NOT have the 2016 World Series championship? Because that title doesn't happen without Chapman, regardless of how you feel about him as a person or what the Cubs had to give up to acquire him.

"Don't play that game," Maddon said. "Be happy for [Torres]. I'm gonna be happy when Eloy and Dylan make it up here. All these dudes, I want them to get here and be really good. And the guys that we get, I want them to be really good. 

"I don't understand why somebody's gotta lose all the time. This is an absolute classic example of what was good for both teams."