5 issues facing the Chicago Cubs heading into spring training
The Cubs no longer have that "World Series hangover" to worry about as spring training prepares to begin.
Nevertheless, manager Joe Maddon wants his team ready from the get-go. The get-go happens Wednesday, when pitchers and catchers hold their first formal workouts in Mesa, Arizona. Position players will work out for the first time on Feb. 19.
While Maddon won't be handing out cans of Red Bull to his players, he came up with a working theme for this spring and beyond during Cubs convention week in January.
"Energy and enthusiasm," he said, referring to not only spring training but carrying through the regular season.
Saturday's agreement with free-agent starting pitcher Yu Darvish should provide an immediate shot of adrenaline.
The Cubs are coming off three straight trips to the National League championship series, including a World Series championship in 2016. The St. Louis Cardinals were the last team to reach the NL title series four straight years (2011-14).
A lackluster start to 2017 -- widely blamed on the "World Series hangover" -- had the Cubs scrambling to win the National League Central and huffing and puffing their way into the postseason.
This year, Maddon wants the Cubs fresh from the start. There's no reason that won't happen, and the Cubs are the favorites of many prognosticators to win the NL Central again.
Even so, this is a team facing several questions and issues. Here are five:
Is Kyle Hendricks the ace?
Heading into spring training, it appears so, but Darvish and Jon Lester will have something to say about that. When Maddon set his postseason rotation, he went with Hendricks as his Game 1 and Game 5 starter against the Washington Nationals in the division series.
Hendricks went 7-5 with a 3.03 ERA last year, and a hand injury limited him to 24 starts. The 28-year-old right-hander appears to be coming into his own. During his MLB career, he is 38-22 with a 2.94 ERA.
Lester is entering the fourth season of his six-year, $155 million contract. The 34-year-old lefty was 13-8 with a 4.33 ERA last season. In his first three years with the Cubs, he is 43-25 with a 3.33 ERA. He shouldn't be counted out easily. Darvish is 56-42 with a 3.42 ERA for his career. The Cubs are suddenly deep in starting pitchers again.
Is the rotation deep enough?
It is now.
The Cubs spent all winter trying to replace Jake Arrieta, who remains an unsigned free agent, and John Lackey in the rotation. After a long and icy off-season, the Cubs broke through with Darvish on Saturday, and that changes everything, both for the Cubs and the National League Central.
Early in the off-season, the Cubs signed Tyler Chatwood from Colorado and then went into a holding pattern as the market for top-of-the-line pitchers ground to a halt.
Jose Quintana should feel more comfortable as a Cub heading into spring training after last summer's trade from the White Sox.
Left-handed swing man Mike Montgomery will be stretched out again in spring training, but he's just as likely to return to the bullpen. Eddie Butler, who appeared in 13 games for the Cubs last year, will get another chance this spring, and the Cubs would love for a homegrown pitcher to step up at last. Jen-Ho Tseng and Duane Underwood are on the 40-man roster and will get a look in the Cactus League.
Who leads off?
Here we go again. The Cubs were spoiled for two years with the consistency of leadoff man Dexter Fowler in 2015 and 2016. And 2016 was a bonus year after Fowler fell into the Cubs' laps after a free-agent deal with Baltimore fell through before spring training. Maddon likes to change his lineups almost daily, and Fowler was a constant amid all that shuffling.
Last year, Maddon opened the season with left fielder Kyle Schwarber in the leadoff spot. That didn't work, as Schwarber went .190/.312/.381 at leadoff and earned a short stint at Class AAA Iowa. Maddon attributed Schwarber's struggles not to batting first but to his inexperience. Perhaps to prove his point, Maddon has not ruled out using Schwarber at leadoff this season.
Spring-training games may tell us how it may go when Opening Day arrives. It may turn out to be that the leadoff spot is a shared arrangement that involves Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr. and Ben Zobrist, depending on the matchups.
Who is the closer?
With Wade Davis signing with Colorado after one solid season in Chicago, the Cubs lack a true, big-name closer. For now, they'll go with Brandon Morrow, whom they signed after getting an eyeful vs. the Dodgers in the NLCS.
Morrow, who has 18 saves in his career, went 6-0 with a 2.06 ERA and a WHIP of 0.92 for the Dodgers last year.
Bullpens are the most fickle part of a team, and the bullpen a team begins the season with is never the one at the end.
The Cubs have added veteran right-hander Steve Cishek to the mix, and lefty Brian Duensing is back after quietly have a good season last year.
Another year of maturity and experience should help Carl Edwards Jr., a possible closer of the future. Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm are the right-handed veterans.
Can Heyward get better?
During last month's Cubs convention, new hitting coach Chili Davis said he had spent time with Schwarber and right fielder Jason Heyward.
Heyward also spent a lot of preseason time last year with since-fired hitting coach John Mallee. The results in 2017 were only marginally better than they were in 2016, the first season of Heyward's eight-year, $184 million contract.
In 2016, Heyward had a line of .230/.306/.325 with 7 homers and 49 RBI. In 2017, it was .259/.326/.389 with 11 homers and 59 RBI.
After the Cubs lost to the Dodgers last fall, Epstein said he wanted to get Heyward back to a 6-win (as in wins above replacement, or WAR), as he was, according to Baseball Reference, in 2014 and 2015. Heyward's two Gold Gloves with the Cubs and his undisputed leadership qualities are valuable, to be sure, but a little more offensive production would help the team and take some of the pressure off the other hitters in the lineup.