Cubs

Three questions answered — and three questions unanswered — through a couple weeks of Cubs spring training

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USA TODAY

Three questions answered — and three questions unanswered — through a couple weeks of Cubs spring training

March is almost here, and the Cubs are in the thick of spring training down in Mesa, with Cactus League games getting going over the weekend.

After watching workouts and hearing from players and manager Joe Maddon for two weeks, some of the offseason's biggest questions seem to have answers, while others still remain.

Here are three questions that have been answered and three that still need solving.

Answers

1. Yu Darvish gives the Cubs ultimate pitching depth

Heading into spring training, one of the biggest questions for this team was: What happens if a starting pitcher gets injured? Who would step into that spot in the rotation?

With the starting staff looking to be made up of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, Tyler Chatwood and Mike Montgomery, an injury meant someone the caliber of Eddie Butler shouldering the load in a pinch. But the Darvish signing changed all that.

Not only is Darvish one of the game’s best pitchers, an addition that gave the Cubs one of the best starting rotations in baseball, but he pushed Montgomery back to the bullpen, where Montgomery will serve in a variety of capacities. But the most important of those is starting-rotation insurance policy. Montgomery might want — and deserve — a shot at being an every-fifth-day starter. But squeezing him out of the staff means that in the event of an injury, the Cubs will be mighty confident in their replacement.

The Cubs went from having little depth past the fifth starter to having a terrific option at the de facto No. 6 spot in this five-man rotation, an added and very important benefit of bringing Darvish aboard.

2. Addison Russell and Javy Baez aren't switching positions any time soon

A minor controversy arose during the offseason when it was suggested that Addison Russell and Javy Baez should switch positions on the infield, with the defensive wizard Baez taking over full-time shortstop duties and Russell sliding over to second base. Yeah, that's not happening.

The Cubs view Russell as a top-notch defender at shortstop, as they should, and any of the struggles he had last year can't necessarily be chalked up to a lack of talent, as he was dealing with a pair of injured body parts and off-the-field issues that he admitted had an effect on his 2017 campaign.

No doubt about it, Baez dazzled at shortstop while filling in for the injured Russell last season. Between his arm, his range, his tags and his ability to make some truly jaw-dropping plays, it's no surprise that Baez has his sights on a Gold Glove in 2018. But if he wins it, it'll be at second base, where he was when the Cubs' infield took grounders last week in Mesa, with Russell lined up at shortstop. No surprise there.

Baez will likely still see a decent amount of time at shortstop when Joe Maddon plugs him in there to spell Russell on the latter's days off. But before any position switch is discussed, give Russell a season of full health to remind folks just how good a defender he is, too.

3. It looks like Victor Caratini will be the backup catcher

Willson Contreras could very well be baseball’s best all-around catcher. But the task of backing him up will be necessary considering the Cubs don’t want to burn out their young stud behind the plate.

There was plenty of speculation that the offseason addition of Chris Gimenez was intended to create another David Ross situation. Gimenez worked with Darvish and established a “personal catcher” type relationship when they played with the Texas Rangers.

But Joe Maddon threw some cold water on the idea that Gimenez would be the guy working with Darvish on a regular basis, and it might have signaled that Gimenez, a nine-year veteran who hit .220 in 74 games with the Minnesota Twins last season, won’t even make the Opening Day roster. Maddon pointed out that Contreras is the Cubs’ catcher and that it’ll be Contreras catching Darvish. The two already worked together during bullpen sessions early in spring training.

So with Gimenez’s main contribution — experience catching Darvish — seemingly unnecessary, wouldn’t it make sense that Victor Caratini will be backing up Contreras? The Cubs like Caratini, he’s been working with Contreras a lot, and he was decent enough at the plate in limited big league time last season, getting 15 hits and reaching base at a .333 clip in 66 plate appearances.

Questions

1. What’s up with Ben Zobrist and how much will he play this season?

Ben Zobrist showed up to camp talking about how great he felt and lamenting last year’s injury-filled season. Joe Maddon raved about his longtime player, saying how great of shape he was in. But then practice started, and Zobrist was nowhere to be found.

Maddon explained away Zobrist’s absence as a back issue and said that the utility man will be fine. But after last season’s battle with injuries and his increasing age made Zobrist’s playing time a question already, what does this latest ailment mean as the season approaches?

Give Zobrist credit for embracing a part-time role should his performance force him into one. But how much will his health limit that performance? It did last season, when he had perhaps the worst statistical season of his career with a .232/.318/.375 slash line while dealing with a particularly impactful wrist injury.

It’s plenty possible that Zobrist will be fine come Opening Day and that he’ll have a bounce-back season and a big role on another championship team. But for a guy coming off a rough season and entering one in which his playing time could be given away to the likes of Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr. and Javy Baez, starting the spring with another injury is not ideal.

2. Is Brandon Morrow ready for the closer’s role?

The Cubs’ biggest addition to the bullpen this offseason admitted that the team told him it was leaving the door open to bring back All-Star closer Wade Davis. That didn’t happen, and now the closing job belongs to Brandon Morrow.

That isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, as Morrow was terrific in plenty of high-leverage situations with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season, posting a 2.06 regular-season ERA and pitching in every game of the World Series. But Morrow hasn’t had a regular closing job in a decade. Thrust into the ninth for a team with World Series expectations, how will things work out this time?

The Cubs have a safety net of sorts. Steve Cishek, another offseason addition, has plenty of closing experience. And Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. have been effective in late-inning situations for the past couple seasons — even if that wasn’t the case during last postseason.

On a team that seemingly has no holes, how Morrow will fare as the closer remains the biggest question. And while it’s not likely to be solved before the Cubs leave Mesa for Miami and the season opener, it will remain a talking point.

3. How will Joe Maddon solve his everyday outfield puzzle?

The Cubs’ skipper readily admitted he doesn’t yet know how he’ll divvy up playing time to his wealth of outfielders, three of which had subpar seasons in 2017 and have other players knocking on the door for extra time in the lineup.

Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward will likely get the majority of the at-bats in the corner outfield spots, but that doesn’t mean they’ll produce at the levels Cubs fans with high expectations want them to. Heyward hasn’t hit well at all since joining the team on the largest contract in franchise history before the 2016 season. Last year, the numbers were better than they were the year prior, but despite Gold Glove defense in right field he hasn’t lived up to any of the expectations at the plate. And Schwarber, who still clubbed 30 home runs last season, had enough trouble to warrant getting sent down to Triple-A midway through the year. Then there’s Ben Zobrist, coming off the worst statistical season of his career.

Meanwhile, young guys like Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. seem to be heading toward a platoon situation in center field. But if Schwarber, Heyward and Zobrist continue to struggle again, will the young guys demand more of a role? And what if those three guys all bounce back nicely? How will Maddon find at-bats for those young guys to prevent them from, as Zobrist put it, “rusting” on the bench?

Maddon’s managerial style means there probably is a satisfactory answer to this question awaiting. He tends to find the playing time for everyone, and with the way this team is built, there are well more than eight guys qualifying as “starting” position players. But it will be a daily head-scratcher for the skipper.

'The Javy Baez Show' hits the All-Star Game, with El Mago taking his place among baseball's best

'The Javy Baez Show' hits the All-Star Game, with El Mago taking his place among baseball's best

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Asked not long ago how special Javy Baez is, Joe Maddon brought up another name: Jon Lester.

To paraphrase the Cubs’ skipper: When a player with the experience of Lester is raving about Baez, you know he’s something special.

It doesn’t take a lot to realize that Baez can do things on a baseball field that few others can. The man nicknamed “El Mago” is pulling a new rabbit out of his hat each and every game, it seems, leaving even those the closest to him consistently wowed.

And, yeah, Lester thinks pretty highly of his Cubs and National League All-Star teammate, saying Monday that Baez is the best infielder he’s played with during his big league career, now in its 13th season.

“I think he is, probably, the best infielder I’ve ever played with. That speaks pretty highly,” Lester said the day prior to the Midsummer Classic in D.C. “I’ve played with some pretty good ones: (Dustin) Pedroia, Mike Lowell, (Adrian) Beltre at third. These guys are pretty special defenders and players, and I think Javy’s athleticism makes him above and beyond those guys.

“How athletic he is, how he’s able to control his body. There’s times in the game where you feel like it’s almost going backwards for him it’s so slow. And the stuff he’s able to do at the plate, defensively, you guys all see that. He’s a special player to watch. I’m just glad he’s on our side and we get to do it every day.”

Baez’s breakout campaign has him in the MVP discussion at the season’s midway point. And he’s one of the stars of these All-Star festivities, a participant in Monday’s Home Run Derby and the NL leadoff hitter in Tuesday’s All-Star Game. While Cubs fans and observers have watched it all season long — Cubs teammate and fellow Derby participant Kyle Schwarber dubbed it “The Javy Baez Show” on Monday — these two days will put Baez on the national stage, one of the game’s biggest.

“I’ve seen him do some amazing things the past few years,” Reds second baseman and NL All Star Scooter Gennett said. “He couldn’t do anything that I’d be surprised (by). That’s just Javy doing some — what do they call him, ‘The Magician’ or whatever? — just doing some magic stuff. Nothing would surprise me. I’ve seen enough to be like, ‘Man, he’s extremely blessed and a really good baseball player.’”

“Javy is an electrifying player to say the least,” Houston Astros pitcher and American League All Star Gerrit Cole said. “Probably the most impressive thing outside of Javy’s glove work, which is just kind of magical in its own … I got to see him when he first came up and he knows how that first stint went in the major leagues and how he’s adjusted since he’s been there. And that’s probably the most important thing. He’s very flashy, he’s very flairy, which is great, is exciting, is attention grabbing. But his skill work and his talent is really what shines through, and he’s just a wonderful player and tough out.”

Though he paused, seemingly to take in the fact that Lester had such high praise for him, Baez himself said comparisons don’t mean much. It’s not a surprise from someone who has established himself as a unique talent not just in the current generation of ballplayers but perhaps throughout the game’s history.

“There’s a lot of comparisons with me. I just try to be myself, to be honest, out there, off the field, too,” Baez said. “There’s a lot of people who are scared to be them. I play the way I play because I do me. I do it the way I think. … I’m not trying to show anybody up. That’s the way I play, just me being me and trying to do the best for my teammates.”

The numbers and the highlight-reel plays have thrust Baez into the realm of baseball’s very best. His inclusion in the All-Star Game isn’t a surprise, it’s a necessity.

Baez said he’s hoping to learn a lot from this experience, and Lester, at his fifth All-Star Game, said the lesson should be a simple but important one.

“The biggest thing is — when I got my first All-Star Game, it makes you feel like you belong. It’s like, ‘I am pretty good,’” Lester said. “So I think to get rewarded for your hard work, to get to be able to do this, I think it’s kind of like the little pat on the back. Like, ‘Hey, good job.’ For me, it was like, ‘Maybe I am pretty good.’ It was like the big, eye-opening thing for me the first time I got to do this.

“Hopefully they (Baez and Cubs catcher Willson Contreras) see that, hopefully they feel like they are two of the best in the game and that just carries over to their game.”

Where Cubs and White Sox players will bat in All-Star lineup

Where Cubs and White Sox players will bat in All-Star lineup

The 2018 MLB All-Star Game lineups are out for the American and National League, and one former White Sox pitcher makes history.

Javier Baez, in his first All-Star appearance, was tabbed to lead off for the NL. Catcher Willson Contreras, also in his first Midsummer Classic, will hit ninth.

As for the White Sox, starting first basemen Jose Abreu is the lone Sox representative. He will bat eighth for the American League.

For both the AL and NL, the starting lineups look like this.

In a repeat of last year’s starting pitching matchup, the Nationals’ Max Scherzer and former Sox ace Chris Sale will oppose each other for the second consecutive season.

For Sale, this marks his third straight season starting the Midsummer Classic—a feat that hasn’t been done in over 50 years.