5 questions facing Cubs heading into spring games

Written By BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter Posted: 02/26/2014, 09:40am

MESA, Ariz. — It’s close to March and time for spring games to start – do you know where your Cubs are?

Do you even know who they are?

With a first-year manager, five new coaches and 28 players (of 66) in their first spring training as members of the organization, most of the first two weeks of camp has been about introductions.

The next four promise to be about answering questions like these:

1. Will Jeff Samardzija be the starter on Opening Day – or gone by then? The powerful right-hander is expected to get his second consecutive opening assignment if he’s here and healthy – team president Theo Epstein expressed that repeatedly over the winter — although manager Rick Renteria has been emphatically vague about those plans. With the dust-covered notion of a contract extension long idled, he’s been considered available all winter, though no talks are happening now with any team. The expectation is he’ll be traded in July near the deadline, but if a motivated buyer calls with a strong offer, a deal could come together quickly.

2. Any chance Jake Arrieta opens the season on time, and if not, who opens in his spot in the rotation? Carlos Villanueva? Chris Rusin? James McDonald? Arrieta still has not thrown off a mound since the staff prescribed a slow-and-cautious approach to camp after he suffered shoulder tightness early this month. He says won’t need much time to build strength once he’s on a mound – “At this point I could throw a 50-pitch bullpen [if allowed],” he says – but the team isn’t going to let him push it, either. Likely scenario: He opens on a back-dated DL stint and misses a start or two.

3. Who’s on third? For a team without an everyday starter last year, the Cubs got the second-highest home run total (30) and fifth-highest OPS (.748) out of the position among National League teams. And the plan going in this year is that lefty-hitting Luis Valbuena and righty Donnie Murphy will give the Cubs another platoon there. But don’t sleep on Mike Olt. Once considered among the top prospects in the game, the third baseman acquired from Texas in the Matt Garza trade appears fully recovered from the vision/tear-duct issues that derailed his 2013 season and has a chance to challenge for the job.

4. Is there a leadoff hitter in the house? Renteria has mentioned Starlin Castro every time he’s been asked about his leadoff plans this year, and Castro said he prefers batting first or second. But Renteria plans to use March to decide. Newcomer Emilio Bonifacio has experience there, but as a utility guy will he be in the starting lineup enough to consider him a regular option there? Four weeks might not be enough time to find a clear-cut, much less ideal, choice.

5. How long can Javy Baez last with the big club? Team officials have the organization’s top prospect slated to open the season as the starting shortstop at Class AAA Iowa. But his powerful bat provided many of the highlights of last year’s camp, and coming off a monster minor-league season the biggest question for him this month is whether there’s enough he can show this spring to win a job out of camp. At the very least, the opportunity to see him and other top hitting prospects Albert Almora, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler promise to be among the top attractions during the Cubs’ exhibition schedule.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

Twitter: @GDubCub

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