For openers, Cubs still looking for a few answers this spring
MESA, Ariz. — From the start of spring training, the biggest questions for the Cubs have been how most of them plan to spend their World Series shares and whether they’ll wear their 2016 championship rings on the left hand or the right.
More than a month later, little has changed, which baseball people define as a good spring.
But aside from continued good health for key players, the Cubs have at least three things to focus on or evaluate with two weeks before Opening Night in St. Louis.
First: 12 or 13 pitchers for the opening roster?
It’s probably going to be 13 if everybody’s healthy, in part because the Cubs are planning to use a Mike Montgomery-Brett Anderson “hybrid” plan for their fifth starter spot (which at points in the season will morph into two spots in a six-man rotation). The seven other bullpen guys all include veteran, productive, big-league players, five of whom are on multi-million-dollar contracts and the youngest of whom — Carl Edwards Jr. — might be the best setup man in the bunch.
Left-hander Brian Duensing is over his back problem that sidelined him the last couple of weeks and expects to return to game action early this week, which would put all 13 pitchers on track for a healthy start.
But manager Joe Maddon insisted in recent days that the Cubs haven’t locked into a 13-man staff, regardless of health.
“We’re keeping an open mind about all that,” he said.
Which brings up the second item on the list: infielder Tommy La Stella or outfielder Matt Szczur? If the Cubs keep 13 pitchers, there’s room for only one.
Szczur, a right-handed hitter who can play all three outfield spots well, ranked sixth in the majors with 12 pinch hits last year, but he faces a more crowded outfield picture this year with the return of Kyle Schwarber, the addition of Jon Jay and the likelihood that second baseman Ben Zobrist could be used at times in the outfield, as he was in the postseason.
La Stella, an adequate fielder at second and third with a contact bat and a refined approach at the plate, was hitting .295 with an .846 OPS when he went AWOL for three weeks last year after he was optioned to the minors. He was just 9-for-43 (.209) with four walks and three extra-base hits over the final month once he returned.
There are also these factors: Szczur is out of options; La Stella is out of touch with reality at times (see reference to “AWOL for three weeks” in previous paragraph).
And, finally, the third big, $184 million item: What do you do with Jason Heyward?
The Gold Glove right fielder with exceptional baserunning skills has spent the spring trying to regain some semblance of big-league hitting comfort, rhythm and performance after the worst offensive season of his career. He was a bench player for much of the postseason because of that, and he figures to bat somewhere in the vicinity of where he was in Sunday’s spring lineup (seventh) when the season opens.
But Heyward’s results this spring have been mixed at best: 5-for-35 (.143) in Cactus League games, plus a 2-for-3 “non-counting” game against Japan’s World Baseball Classic team on Saturday that made him 5-for-9 over his previous three games overall.
Maddon said he likes Heyward’s look and says he has hit into a lot of bad luck this spring. Fact is, Heyward hasn’t looked especially comfortable at the plate over the last week, and depending on the scout you talk to, he either looks the same as last year or shows signs he might be better. Check back in a couple weeks.
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