Cubs

March Madness: Projecting Opening Day roster for Cubs

March Madness: Projecting Opening Day roster for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs have already decided who should face Dexter Fowler and the St. Louis Cardinals in front of a sellout crowd at Busch Stadium and a national audience on ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball."  
 
"Of course," manager Joe Maddon said Tuesday at the Sloan Park complex. "But I just got to talk to the people. And I just can't say it without talking to them first."
 
Jon Lester – who started Game 1 in all three playoff rounds last year – would be the obvious choice for the Opening Night assignment on April 2. But the Cubs also have a Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta), an ERA titleholder (Kyle Hendricks) and another three-time World Series champion (John Lackey) in their rotation. 
 
Recognizing the wear and tear from back-to-back playoff runs – and anticipating another stressful October – The Big Four is being held back until at least the second weekend of Cactus League play and slowly ramping up again. 
 
It's another sign March Madness isn't happening at a camp where maybe 23 or 24 spots on the 25-man roster had been secured before pitchers and catchers even reported to Arizona and the franchise no longer has to deal with the 1908 baggage. 
 
A look at where things now stand for the defending World Series champs, with injuries being the biggest X-factor between Mesa and St. Louis:  
 
• Whether or not Brett Anderson has the inside track to the fifth-starter job, it's still extremely difficult to see the Cubs stashing him in the bullpen, given his extensive medical file, inexperience as a reliever and Mike Montgomery's comfort level as a swingman.     
 
Why mess with Anderson's routine if he can click with pitching coach Chris Bosio and resemble the groundball pitcher who made 31 starts and put up a 3.69 ERA for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2015? 
 
"He's really baseball bright," Maddon said. "He knows what he's doing out there. I love his stuff. I know him and 'Boz' are working on different thoughts mechanically to help prevent injury. But I like it a lot – not a little bit. This guy is really good. The big thing is just health with him. You keep this fellow healthy – he can throw some significant numbers up there."
 
There's an element of luck involved – and some came into the organization with durability on their resumes – but the Cubs had five pitchers make at least 29 starts last season and hope that infrastructure will help Anderson.
 
"We've addressed it with him," Maddon said. "We've given him different thoughts. I'm sure every team that he's played with has had the same kind of thoughts. But maybe just the mechanical tweak, maybe a different method of work within a clubhouse, strength and conditioning, trainers, etc., maybe that'll help."

[RELATED: Brett Anderson’s main takeaway from Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio]
 
There are a lot of maybes with Anderson, a Tommy John survivor who underwent surgical procedures on his lower back in 2014 and 2016. But the Cubs also see a lot of upside and motivation in a lefty working on a one-year, $3.5 million incentive-laden deal.  
 
"I would be curious to see this guy with a full season of good health," Maddon said, "because it might even be better than a lot of teams' third and second starters. This guy is that good. With health, there's no telling.
     
"If we could get him out there for like 160-175 (innings), if he could do something like that, my God, it would be like outstanding."
 
• Working backwards from All-Star closer Wade Davis and Maddon's "hybrid moment" for Anderson or Montgomery, the Cubs appear to have six relievers for six slots on what figures to be a 13-man pitching staff: Koji Uehara; Pedro Strop; Hector Rondon; Carl Edwards Jr.; Justin Grimm; and lefty Brian Duensing. 
 
"The pitching's really gotten significantly better," Maddon said. "With good health, it's going to be very difficult (making those decisions). These guys have been impressive. I'm not all about the spring-training evaluation. Going off their track records and maybe projecting a little bit, we have a lot of interesting pitching candidates. It's gotten a lot thicker."
 
• One wild card is Rule 5 lefty Caleb Smith – who spent last season with the New York Yankees' Double-A affiliate – and how creative the Cubs get with the roster sleight of hand. (Remember how Major League Baseball took away a Cubs' pick in the 2013 Rule 5 draft and gave it to the Philadelphia Phillies to settle the Lendy Castillo grievance.)  
 
"We're going to be forced to try to look under the hood a little bit more," Maddon said. "If you're overwhelmed, then you're going to probably try to manipulate it to the point where you can keep a guy like that."
 
• The Cubs have 11 locks among the position players, a group of versatile defenders who give Maddon so much flexibility with lineup decisions and in-game moves: Willson Contreras; Miguel Montero; Anthony Rizzo; Ben Zobrist; Addison Russell; Kris Bryant; Javier Baez; Kyle Schwarber; Jason Heyward; Jon Jay; and Albert Almora Jr.     
 
That means the last bench spot could come down to outfielder Matt Szczur (no minor-league options left) or the whims of infielder Tommy La Stella (who initially refused to report to Triple-A Iowa last summer and talked about considering retirement).
 
"That's probably a fairer question on March 25," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "So many things can happen between now and then, as far as injuries and things like that. We're going to have some hard decisions at the end of camp. We have a lot of talent here. 
 
"People know what the bones of our team are, but we definitely have to make some tough decisions as far as the construction of the pitching staff and the bench."

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 10th, 11th homers in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 10th, 11th homers in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Sosa is heating up, but even a red-hot Sosa doesn't automatically equal wins for the Cubs.

Slammin' Sammy notched his first multi-homer game in 1998 in a 9-5 loss to Kevin Millwood and the Atlanta Braves. Sosa drove in 4 of the Cubs' 5 runs on a solo shot in the 4th inning and a three-run shot in the 8th. 

Sosa tallied 830 feet of homers in the game, with his first blast going 410 feet and the second shot measured at 420 feet.

The big game bumped Sosa's overall season slash line to .337/.411/.551 (.962 OPS) with 11 homers and 35 RBI.

Fun fact: Mickey Morandini hit second for the Cubs in this game and went 4-for-4, but somehow only scored one run despite hitting just in front of Sosa all game. That's because Morandini was caught stealing to end the 3rd inning, leaving Sosa to lead off the 4th inning with a solo blast.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: If Cubs somehow miss the playoffs will Joe Maddon's seat start heating up?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: If Cubs somehow miss the playoffs will Joe Maddon's seat start heating up?

David Haugh (Chicago Tribune), Nick Friedell (ESPN.com) and Patrick Finley (Chicago Sun-Times) join David Kaplan on the panel.

The guys discuss Welington Castillo’s 80-game PED suspension, the Cubs struggles and if Joe Maddon could be on the hot seat if the Cubs somehow miss the playoffs in 2018.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below: