Lots to ponder as Chicago Cubs open spring training
The shortest off-season in the history of the Chicago Cubs is coming to an end.
Those magical words, "pitchers and catchers report," will ring throughout Arizona and Florida this week as spring training begins.
It was Nov. 2 when the Cubs took the field for the final time in 2016, and they won perhaps the most memorable seventh game in World Series history when they pulled out an extra-inning victory at Cleveland.
The short off-season brings its own set of challenges, but playing into November is the goal of every team, and the Cubs will gladly deal with those challenges as they open spring training Tuesday in Mesa, Arizona.
Many prognosticators like the Cubs to advance to the postseason and make another deep run. The journey begins now, and even though the Cubs are defending world champions for the first time since the spring of 1909, they face their own set of questions and issues. Here are a few:
Monitoring the workload:
Except for Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs have a veteran pitching staff. Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey have put some mileage on their arms in recent years, so it will be interesting to see how manager Joe Maddon and pitching coach Chris Bosio take care of those arms this spring and into the regular season.
There are two built-in off-days in March during the Cactus League season, so that will help. Maddon and Bosio may limit the innings load of their veterans during the spring.
Mike Montgomery and recently acquired Brett Anderson will be stretched out to start in spring training. Maddon went to a six-man rotation at times last season. Will he go to it earlier this season?
The X-factor with any team is injuries, and nothing will derail a repeat bid faster than injuries to key pitchers.
The swing is the thing:
Right fielder Jason Heyward won a Gold Glove for his play in right field last year, and his rain-delay pep talk during Game 7 of the World Series will become the stuff of legend over time.
But the Cubs gave Heyward that eight-year, $184 million contract a year ago because they want him to hit, too.
Last season was a nightmare at the plate for the 27-year-old Heyward, as he put up a line of .230/.306/.325 with 7 home runs and 49 RBI. His career line is .262/.346/.415.
Heyward hit well in the past, with Atlanta and St. Louis, and the Cubs spent part of the winter with him in Arizona to retool his swing and get back to his good old ways.
Game action is something different altogether, so we should get an early read on Heyward's progress when the Cactus League season opens Feb. 25.
Where does Schwarber play?
Speaking of legends, Kyle Schwarber added to his own last fall when he came back from major knee surgery to play in the World Series.
Schwarber was the designated hitter in the four games at Cleveland. The Cubs can't use the DH except for interleague games on the road, so finding a place for Schwarber and his electric bat throughout the year poses a challenge.
The Cubs' first-round draft choice in 2014 has always wanted to catch, but the knee injury may have put a crimp into those plans. The Cubs also have two bona fide backstops in Willson Contreras and Miguel Montero.
It's a good bet Schwarber again will see time in left field, with Maddon replacing him for defense late in games.
Who is the go-to guy now?
During the previous two seasons, Maddon always told leadoff man Dexter Fowler, "You go, we go."
Fowler did go this off-season: to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Filling Fowler's center-field spot should not be a problem. The Cubs signed veteran Jon Jay in the off-season, and youngster Albert Almora is already a major-league-caliber outfielder despite his inexperience.
The Cubs will miss Fowler is in the leadoff spot, where he indeed put the "go" in their attack. Fowler put up on-base percentages of .346 and .393 in his two seasons with the Cubs.
Maddon is not lacking in leadoff options. He has talked of putting Schwarber there. Ben Zobrist, who may fight for playing time this season, is another option, as is Jay, who has a lifetime OBP of .344 out of the first spot in the order.
The loose ends:
Javier Baez went from part-time player to indispensable part of the defense during the course of the 2016 season. His fielding ability and quick-tag artistry are the stuff that GIFs are made of. The Cubs will want Baez's defense and his powerful bat in the lineup as much as possible.
Wade Davis replaces Aroldis Chapman as the closer. Chapman replaced Hector Rondon, who moved somewhat uneasily to his new role as a setup man. Both Rondon and setup man Pedro Strop suffered late-season injuries and weren't quite the same after that.
World Series MVP Zobrist turns 36 in May. He still wants to play a lot, but the emergence of Baez and a crowded outfield may challenge Maddon to find playing time for Zobrist.
• Follow Bruce's reports from spring training via Twitter@BruceMiles2112.