McGraw: All about the bounce-back as Hoyer's Cubs open spring training

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Chicago Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer talks on the phone during team's baseball practice at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Wednesday, July 8, 2020.

    Chicago Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer talks on the phone during team's baseball practice at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Wednesday, July 8, 2020. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 2/16/2021 6:19 PM

During a start of spring training Zoom call with reporters Tuesday, the moment someone mentioned the name Theo Epstein, manager David Ross was ready with a loud, "Who?"

Yes, it's a new era for the Cubs as chief architect Theo Epstein moved on to a job with MLB. But plenty of things are still the same, mainly the leftover World Series nucleus of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Willson Contreras, Kyle Hendricks and now Jake Arrieta, back after a three-year absence.

 

Here's a rundown of some of the basics as the Cubs open 2021 spring training in Mesa, Ariz.

A rotation without Darvish

President of basketball operations Jed Hoyer painted this underwhelming assessment of the Cubs pitchers:

"This staff, certainly we're not going to be lighting up radar guns," Hoyer said. "I think we're running a little bit counter to some of the trends in Major League Baseball. But what I do feel really strongly is this is a group of pitchers, I think they do a lot of things really well and things that our pitching infrastructure has been able to see real results with in the past."

The Cubs created a new stat description -- "pitchability" -- to suggest this group of relative soft-tossers can do well based on a combination of throwing the right pitches in the right spots at timely moments. Contreras' improved pitch-framing is also part of the equation, supposedly.

As it stands today, the rotation will likely include Hendricks, Zach Davies, Alec Mills, Adbert Alzolay and Arrieta, although guys like Trevor Williams and Kohl Stewart could be factors. Ross was asked if a six-man rotation is possible.

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"No, I don't think that's where we're looking," Ross said. "We've got a lot of flexibility of some guys that can be swing men and fill different roles for us. If you do go that route, you shorten the bullpen a guy and those guys have to be really stretched out for that to happen."

Monster years ahead?

Here's a suitable theme for the 2021 Cubs: They won the NL Central last year with all their key hitters having horrible seasons, so imagine what's possible if they return to form.

"If they get their numbers offensively, we're going to be monsters, I think," Ross said. "I know these guys know how to win. That's all they've really done since they've been here. Maybe not to the level of their expectations, but they're still winners. (Last year) to me speaks volumes about the defense and little things that they do well to find a way to win a game."

Ross said he still pictures center fielder Ian Happ as the leadoff man. There are really no lineup changes to speak of beyond former Dodger Joc Pederson stepping in as the primary left fielder.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Ross mentioned he thinks the Cubs did a nice job of adding depth in recent weeks. Presumably that means backup catcher Austin Romine, who spent eight years with the Yankees; and the pending addition of outfielder Jake Marisnick, who saw action in 23 playoff games with Houston.

Bryant, Rizzo and Baez are all headed into the final year of their contracts, so expect that to be a popular storyline until they're either re-signed or headed out of town.

"Rossy and I have spent a ton of time over the course of the winter talking about how we can get this group back to where they belong," Hoyer said.

Will there be more moves?

Hoyer suggested an addition to the bullpen is on the way. But otherwise -- no, not really. There's no imminent Bryant-to-Mets trade, according to the Cubs' front-office boss.

"I'm expecting that for the most part, this is going to be the group we open up against Pittsburgh (on April 1) with," Hoyer said. "I would say that we were involved in a lot of rumors this year, some were just completely inaccurate and I would say some were just sort of exaggerated, the seriousness of those discussions.

"Certainly teams called us and we had discussions. Right now things are quiet and they have been for some time."

Hoyer gave a couple of notes on relief pitchers. Kyle Ryan will likely begin spring training on the COVID list, while Rowan Wick is still working his way through an injury.

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