The Chicago Cubs are aiming to bounce back after consecutive disappointing seasons, and after an offseason full of spending and retooling, the team is preparing to answer some tough questions as they gather in Arizona for spring training.
Granted, the team has shored up its roster in several key areas, including up the middle of the diamond with the signings of Dansby Swanson and Cody Bellinger, but there are still four roster questions that will need to be answered in the coming weeks in Mesa.
Who Will Bat Leadoff for the Cubs?
The retirement of Dexter Fowler served as a painful reminder that the Cubs haven’t really been able to consistently pencil a player into the leadoff spot since the outfielder departed after the 2016 World Series title, and this season will once again pose an interesting conundrum for manager David Ross.
The team’s 2022 (qualified) leader in on-base percentage is no longer on the North Side, as catcher Willson Contreras is now manning the backstop position for the St. Louis Cardinals.
The next-closest player to Contreras in that category was outfielder Ian Happ, who posted a .342 OBP, good for 20th in the National League.
He would seem to be an intriguing fit for the leadoff role, but the Cubs may want to drop him a bit in the order to take advantage of his consistent power, which could be in short supply at times for the Cubs based on the way they’re structuring their lineup.
Other contenders for the role will certainly include Seiya Suzuki, who posted a .336 OBP in his rookie season with the Cubs, and Nico Hoerner, a consistent contact hitter who had a .327 OBP last year.
Hoerner could be an appealing table-setter at the top of the lineup, with Ross potentially setting the second baseman and Swanson in the top two spots in the order.
Who Will Play Third Base?
While most positions on the diamond are fairly locked in (barring injury of course), there are a few question marks, but none are bigger than that surrounding the matter of who will man the hot corner for the Cubs.
The uncertainty at the position is perfectly illustrated by the fact that the Cubs have reportedly had Nick Madrigal taking reps at the spot, despite the fact he has not played a position other that second base in the big leagues.
Patrick Wisdom is likely a strong contender for the starting job, but his 14 errors last season could come into play, especially if he once again bats around .200 and strikes out nearly 200 times this coming season.
The Cubs do still have Zach McKinstry on the roster, but his putrid hitting performance may not be enough to justify having him in the regular lineup, even if he is most likely the best defensive third baseman on the 40-man roster.
Christopher Morel is also a question mark defensively, but the Cubs will likely move him around the diamond in a utilityman-type role, so penciling him in as the regular starter may not be the answer either.
Is There a Spot on This Roster for Nick Madrigal?
Ah, Nick Madrigal, the player the Cubs had hoped would team up with Nico Hoerner to create a solid 1-2 punch of on-base machines up the middle of the diamond.
His seeming inability to stay on the field last season, only appearing in 59 games for the Cubs, and his struggles when he was in the lineup, slashing .249/.305/.282 in 228 plate appearances, didn’t exactly inspire confidence, and the team’s addition of Swanson will now move Hoerner over to second base, potentially creating a stumbling block for Madrigal as he looks for a spot on the field.
Yes, he has been taking reps at third base, but questions about his arm will likely accompany that move until proven otherwise in Cactus League play.
Running him out as a utilityman is seemingly off the table, as he hasn’t played a game at a position other than second base since he appeared in six innings of one game at shortstop for the White Sox Rookie League team in Arizona.
Unless Madrigal can prove he’s a real option at third base, or if Ross decides he has to get his bat into the lineup as a contact-hitting designated hitter, it may be a tough slog for Madrigal to find a fit on the roster.
Who Will be in the Starting Rotation?
The Cubs have made significant strides in bolstering their organizational depth in terms of starting pitching, and some of those strides may pay off in the 2023 season.
It would seem as though rotation spots are locked up for at least four starters, with Drew Smyly, Justin Steele, Marcus Stroman and Jameson Taillon all guaranteed roles in the rotation if they are healthy.
The big competition will be for that fifth spot, with Kyle Hendricks likely out of the running in the early going as he continues to work on a comeback from a shoulder injury.
Adrian Sampson would be a logical contender based on his strong performance at the end of last season, with a 4-5 record and a 3.11 ERA in 21 appearances, including 19 starts.
Hayden Wesneski also has a compelling argument if he has a strong spring training, having struck out 33 batters and posted a 2.18 ERA in six appearances last season for the Cubs.
Keegan Thompson will likely be kept in a bullpen-centric role, but you can never rule out giving a start or two to the talented right-handed hurler.
In all likelihood Caleb Killian will continue to get regular starts in Iowa as the Cubs seek to maximize his development, and Javier Assad could still get the same treatment after posting a 3.11 ERA in eight starts with the Cubs last season.