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Mooney: Five questions facing Cubs this spring

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Mooney: Five questions facing Cubs this spring

Saturday, Feb. 12, 2011
Posted 10:12 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

The Cubs didnt go out and sign the free agent that will automatically sell tickets, drive television ratings and change the direction of the franchise. And they didnt hire a celebrity manager to create more buzz.

Quietly, Jim Hendry and his staff executed their plan this winter. The general manager looked to the past by bringing Kerry Wood home, and not too far into the future with Carlos Penas one-year pillow contract. It was a coherent, disciplined approach at a roster that last year had too many mismatched parts.

Players have already begun to assemble in Mesa, Ariz., where on Sunday pitchers and catchers will officially report. The next day Matt Garza the teams biggest offseason get will go through his first formal workout in a Cubs uniform at Fitch Park. By then, a new deal for closer Carlos Marmol could be announced.

You cant guarantee that Wood wont go on the disabled list for the 15th time in his career. We dont know if Pena, who will turn 33 in May, will make us forget his .196 average last year, or how Garzas numbers will translate outside the American League East.

Those answers will come, as this season slowly reveals itself through baseballs relentless daily rhythms. But here are five big questions hanging over the Cubs this spring.

Who is Mike Quade?

A baseball lifer was given six weeks to audition for the job. That amount of time wont even take us to Opening Day. Quade earned the right to stay on as manager with a 24-13 finish, but he really won over the organization with the way he handled young pitchers and pushed the veterans. This is a chance for Quade to put his imprint on the team.

Its time to take over, outfielder Marlon Byrd said. He showed at the end of last season what he can do. (You) need the players and he has (them). Were going to go out there and do it for him.

Where does the rotation turn?

Amazingly, the Cubs led the National League in quality starts (96) last season, and yet never spent a minute above .500. The best competition in camp will be for the fourth- and fifth-starter spots behind Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano and Garza. Randy Wells could cement his place in the rotation, but knows several prospects are coming after it.

Casey Coleman, the third-generation big-leaguer, has impressed club officials with his poise. Carlos Silva looked like an All-Star at one point in 2010, but injuries limited him to only 5.1 innings combined in August and September. Braden Looper, a non-roster invitee, is trying to get back into baseball.

Can the kids handle the spotlight?

From ownership to baseball operations to the marketing department, the Cubs are heavily invested in the idea that Andrew Cashner, Starlin Castro and Tyler Colvin are about to become stars.
Starlin Castro certainly appears to have superstar potential, but can he handle the glaring spotlight and high expectations? The Cubs present, and certainly its future, rely heavily on the young shortstop. (AP)
Cashner will be given every opportunity to make the rotation. Castro and Colvin will need to make adjustments at the plate during their second year around the league. These three homegrown players have to show growth. Every level of the organization is counting on it.

Will an older core stay strong?

The effects of age cant be ignored. Aramis Ramirez has missed nearly 120 games the past two seasons. Byrd emerged as an All-Star last year, but faded in the second half. They will turn 33 and 34 this summer. At 35, Alfonso Soriano is only halfway through his 136 million contract.

A lot of times when people think hes not giving full effort, Hendry said, he really is trying to stay healthy and hit those home runs to stay productive. We all feel that Soris got some solid years left. Will he ever be the guy that can steal 45 bags again? Absolutely not. Hell never be that kind of guy as a threat, but I think hes very capable of still hitting 30 home runs.
Should Albert Pujols start looking at real estate in Chicago?

Once Pena signed a one-year deal, speculation immediately focused on Pujols heading to Wrigley Field in 2012. The rumors wont stop, not with the Red Sox (Adrian Gonzalez), Yankees (Mark Teixeira) and White Sox (Paul KonerkoAdam Dunn) having long-term answers at first base.

Between the McCourt divorce and Bernie Madoffs Ponzi scheme, scandals have created long-term questions about ownership of the Dodgers and the Mets and their financial health.

That leaves the Cubs, with several big contracts coming off the books, as a team well-positioned to gather all of their large-market resources to sign the best player of his generation.

Tom Ricketts has stressed player development and repeatedly praised Hendry, but hes also mentioned that hed like his general manager to be smarter with contract structures. Its unclear whether the chairman has the appetite for the 250 to 300 million it might take to convince Pujols to leave St. Louis should he hit free agency.

But its certain that Cubs and Cardinals fans will be arguing over this for the next nine months.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Behind a refined approach, Albert Almora Jr. is off to a hot start this spring

Behind a refined approach, Albert Almora Jr. is off to a hot start this spring

The Cubs have only played three spring training games, and it’s dangerous to use spring results to predict regular season successes/failures. Still, it’s okay to acknowledge Albert Almora Jr.’s hot start in camp.

In two games, Almora is 4-for-4 with a walk, double, home run, four RBIs, and four runs scored. That line is essentially equivalent to a single game in the regular season and could be turned upside down by the end of the week. But it’s a start for the 25-year-old who’s struggled immensely at the plate for the last season-and-a-half at the plate.

In his last 177 games (dating back to the second half of 2018), Almora holds a .235/.270/.347 slash line. The advanced stats paint an uglier picture: 58 wRC+, .261 wOBA and 52.2 percent groundball rate.

Last season was the most challenging of Almora’s young career. He hit .236/.271/.381 in 130 games with a 64 wRC+, .271 wOBA, -0.7 fWAR (all career worsts). On top of that, he was involved in a heartbreaking moment early in the season; an Almora foul ball struck a young girl at Minute Maid Park during a Cubs-Astros game in May.

Almora recently refused to blame his 2019 offensive woes on that incident, though it obviously played a part. He did admit he was in a bad place mentally and used this winter to decompress. Almora also used it to make some adjustments to his swing and the changes are clear as day:

Pre-2020:

2020:

As MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian notes, Almora is now more upright in the box and his stance is more closed. His leg kick is less defined, and he’s rotating his front leg far less than previous seasons. In short, he’s more direct to his swing and has more time to react in the box because he cut out a lot of his pre-swing movements.

Almora said Monday he’s far from where he wants to be, pointing out the MLB season is a 200-day marathon. It’s too early to tell whether his simplified approach leads to sustainable success.

Small sample size be damned, Almora’s made noticeable adjustments. That’s the first step in his mission to get back on track offensively.

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Two of the Cubs' best prospects made Keith Law's annual Top 100 list

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USA Today

Two of the Cubs' best prospects made Keith Law's annual Top 100 list

For those who follow such things, Keith Law's yearly Top 100 prospect rankings is always a highly anticipated read. What would baseball twitter even do with their time if they couldn't spend it vocally disagreeing with subjective lists? Having a handful of Top 100 guys is always a shot in the arm for franchises that maybe aren't doing a whole lot of winning at the major league level; when you know you're not winning a World Series, the debuts of these prospects are high points of the summer. 

There wasn't a whole lot of Cubs' representation this season, which isn't a surprise by any means. Only guys two made Law's list: Brennen Davis at 55, and Brailyn Marquez at 80.  

Law claims Davis has the highest upside of any Cubs' prospect, but isn't necessarily close to a debut: 

Davis is lanky and has barely begun to fill out, so there’s likely to be more power to come, while he’s already shown he can manage at-bats and use the middle of the field to get himself on base. Despite his 6′4″ frame he already has a very balanced swing, and the Cubs will just have to tighten up some mechanical things since he’s got such long levers. A former shortstop, he’s adapted quickly to center field; he projects to stay there and add value with his range. 

He also loves Marquez's stuff – comparing it to Aroldis Chapman's – and says it's the reason why he's team's best pitching prospect since Dylan Cease. You can see the entire rankings, which go pretty in-depth, right here.