MESA, Ariz. — Baseball is finally back!
Who cares if it's exhibition — the Cubs have an actual game of baseball today in Arizona.
The Cubs are rolling with Jen-Ho Tseng as the starting pitcher in their Cactus League Opener Saturday and Tyler Chatwood will get the ball for Game 2 Sunday.
Intense rain and unseasonably low temperatures dampened the buzz around Cubs camp this week slightly, but ultimately, the first week-plus flew by compared to the typical "Groundhog's Day" formula.
The entire Cubs team has actually only spent one day together — a rain-soaked Friday morning/afternoon — as Ben Zobrist reported four days late due to an undisclosed personal matter.
With the regular season less than 5 weeks away now, here are 7 takeaways from the first 10 days of Cubs camp (besides the fact the Cubs have no money):
1. Leadership power rankings
Leadership was a huge topic of discussion this winter, as the Cubs made it clear they felt they lacked the presence in their clubhouse/dugout to hold everybody accountable and keep everybody on mission.
In camp, the only word that may top "leadership" in frequency is "urgency," but more on that later.
So without further ado, here's how the Cubs leadership power rankings may line up at the start of spring games:
1A. Cole Hamels
1B. Jon Lester
Both veteran pitchers have spent their time in front of media cameras talking almost exclusively about their roles as leaders and how they plan on trying to navigate their status while only playing 1 out of every 5 days.
Hamels has only been a part of this team for roughly 2 months, but he fit in immediately and already has had a major impact on some of his younger teammates. Lester's forte is not as a vocal leader, but he may be the most respected voice on the roster, so whenever he does speak up, he commands the attention of the other players.
3. Pedro Strop
Strop had a breakout of sorts in 2018. Not on the mound, because he's been a very reliable reliever from the first second he put on a Cubs uniform. But he finally got the appreciation he deserved as he filled in admirably as closer when Brandon Morrow went down and emerged as a leader in the clubhouse.
Javy Baez consistently credits Strop as the source of much-needed advice or counsel and Joe Maddon mentioned Strop in the same breath as Lester and Hamels in terms of the veteran leadership on the team.
4. Javy Baez
Baez is not your prototypical leader, but he established himself as an everyday player and MVP candidate a year ago. He also sees the game at a level above just about everybody else in the game, plays with the urgency and edge the Cubs need every day and has limitless confidence without a shred of fear.
Now that he's established as a bonafide star, Baez is utilizing his off-the-charts baseball IQ and beginning to emerge as a vocal leader.
5. Ben Zobrist
"Zo" has always been a great example for the younger players to watch, but he's also attempting to become more vocal in 2019. He's turning 38 in a couple months, is entering his 14th year in the big leagues and he can talk hitting and plate approach for hours.
6. Anthony Rizzo
6. Jason Heyward
6. Daniel Descalso
This isn't a knock on Rizzo and Heyward so much as it's a testament to the breadth of experience of the other guys ahead of them on the list and how Baez is finding his voice as a leader in the dugout/clubhouse.
Heyward has often been tabbed as one of the leaders of the group over the last 3 years, and he's one of those guys who commands attention whenever he speaks up (think: the Rain Delay Speech in Game 7).
Rizzo is the face of the franchise and certainly a huge driving force on the overall mood/tempo in the locker room.
If everything said about Descalso rings true, he may fly up this list to the top, Grandpa Rossy style. But we haven't seen it yet and he's only been a true part of this team for a little over a week.
2. There are an awful lot of off-field distractions
From Tom Ricketts addressing his father's racist emails to Addison Russell's domestic abuse suspension (and subsequent press conference), an awful lot of time has been focused on non-baseball issues in Cubs camp.
It's nowhere near the same level as the pair of reasons above, but you could even throw in the comments/reactions to Kris Bryant's inadvertent war of words with Yadier Molina and the Cardinals. Even Zobrist's mysterious absence was an off-field discussion for a few moments each day.
Who knows what the future holds, but for right now, the focus of the entire organization appears to be beyond any off-field drama and their thoughts are squarely on the task at hand. Let's see how that holds up the next month or so, because this (fraught with distractions) is certainly not the way any team would want to open a new season.
3. This may be Javy's team now
Baez was clearly the Cubs' MVP a year ago and it's entirely possible he takes that title again in 2019. Rizzo is the face of the team, Bryant is probably the best all-around player, but it's Baez who might be most important to the Cubs on and off the field.
If the Cubs are going to play with that edge and urgency they desire, Baez is the perfect guy to set that example. Plus, his play on the field will be a major factor in the overall success of the team. Can he prove last year's offensive strides are here to stay and continue to improve his plate discipline?
At the very least, he will be their defensive captain, spending the first month at shortstop full-time and anchoring the infield defense in some capacity if Russell returns from suspension in May.
4. The changes might not be obvious, but they're there
Maybe it's just drinking the Kool-Aid, but I'm buying what the Cubs are selling so far.
It's easy for any team to feel optimistic and hopeful for the year ahead while in the first few weeks of spring training. Heck, even the Marlins have positive vibes in camp.
And as they say, "everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."
No, the Cubs haven't dealt with any actual adversity yet this year (beyond off-field issues), but they certainly got punched in the mouth last October and they damn well remember that feeling.
The Cubs have said all the right things and talked the talk this spring. It really does seem like they have made some real internal changes to try to rectify the wrongs of the past couple seasons. They needed to get back "on mission" the way they were in 2016 and at the moment, it looks like they're on the right path.
But now it's time for them to walk the walk and let's see how it plays out on the field.
5. The Cubs have an army of arms
There are so many dudes in camp that have "pitcher" as their listed position (and that doesn't even include Anthony Rizzo or Ian Happ).
In lieu of major bullpen additions this winter, the Cubs are instead trying to compile a competent bullpen by throwing a bunch of arms at the problem.
They may not be elite options, but there certainly are A LOT of options.
Health permitting, the Cubs should break camp with Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards Jr., Brad Brach and Mike Montgomery as locks for the bullpen until Brandon Morrow recovers from his injury (more on that later).
Beyond that, the Cubs have somewhere around 20 arms that are competing for the final 3 bullpen spots, including: Tyler Chatwood, Brandon Kintzler, Xavier Cedeno, Brian Duensing, Alec Mills, Randy Rosario, Adbert Alzolay, Tony Barnette, Dillon Maples, George Kontos, Junichi Tazawa, James Norwood, Mike Zagurski, Dakota Mekkes, Kyle Ryan and many others.
Nothing is set in stone, but at the moment, it stands to reason established veterans on big-league contracts like Cedeno, Kintzler, Barnette and Duensing would have a leg up on the rest of the competition while Chatwood's $13 million salary makes it difficult to see the Cubs giving up on him without giving him a legitimate shot in the regular season to prove he can get beyond the alarming control issues.
6. Health & fitness
This is the time of year that everybody around baseball reports to camp claiming to be in the best shape of their lives.
It's mostly a storyline just because it's fun — players reporting to camp in the BSOL rarely go on to have career years just because they increased their personal fitness.
But there are exceptions, of course. Kyle Schwarber's weight loss was a major talking point all last winter and he wound up taking some steps forward in the field thanks to an increase in agility and range. (Note: Schwarber appeared in Cubs camp in great shape once again, spending a week working on the agility field with Cubs staffers before the full-squad workouts even began.)
This spring, Albert Almora Jr. fits the bill as the BSOL player, so much so that his own manager didn't even recognize him taking fly balls in the outfield due to increased quickness. Almora worked on his flexibility and speed all winter and does look to be in noticably better shape, which could be good news for a guy who is already a very good defender in center field despite the fact speed is not his best asset.
Yu Darvish and Kris Bryant have both reported to camp healthy after injuries severly hampered their 2018 campaigns. Both insist they're 100 percent and nothing has indicated otherwise over the first two weeks. In fact, Darvish said he feels lighter and more free while Bryant's effortless swing has returned with power intact (in batting practice, at least).
Zobrist showed up to camp four days late, but he arrived in the same health/shape he was in last spring before he went on to put up a .305/.378/.440 slash line at age 37.
The only three health issues aren't all that big of a deal. Morrow is still expected to miss the first month of the season or so as he works his way back from his forearm/elbow injury. Montgomery was stalled a bit by shoulder tighness, but he's feeling good now and is not expected to miss any regular season time (as of this moment). Top pitching prospect Alzolay slipped and tweaked his back while throwing a bullpen a couple weeks ago, but he's back to full health now and the Cubs are easing him into everything this spring.
7. The Cubs have learned their leadoff lesson.
At the first press conference of spring training, Joe Maddon jokingly kicked it off by asking, "Who's leading off?"
Then he paused for a second, laughed and said, "That would actually be a good first question!"
It was a good question and a minor storyline at various points throughout camp. The short answer is: Nobody is leading off. At least not consistently.
That's a deviation for Maddon and the Cubs, who tried to essentially fit a square peg in a round hole the last two springs — first heralding Schwarber as the new leadoff hitter in 2017 (after Dexter Fowler left for the Cardinals) and then tabbing Ian Happ in that role last year.
Either guy may eventually develop into the perfect fit as the consistent Cubs leadoff hitter, but neither were there yet at the time of their ascension.
So the Cubs are not going with any one guy this year as the new leadoff hitter. Maddon acknowledged it will be very much like how we saw 2018 go (after the Happ experiment) in that Zobrist will see a lot of time up there when he's in the lineup against right-handed pitchers while Almora will fill the role against lefties. Descalso figures to be up there every now and then, too, and you can pretty much bet Rizzo will take a spin atop the order at some point.
But the Cubs have learned their lesson from the past and Maddon is resisting the urge to heap that burden all on one player during spring camp.
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