Batter up! Joe Maddon looks for few, key things from Cubs in spring games

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MESA, Ariz. – When Travis Wood takes the mound for the Cubs in their spring opener Thursday, his new manager isn’t looking for much. A little command, maybe.

Beyond that, all spring, Joe Maddon probably won’t look much deeper than it takes to get a sense of general health and strength, basic form, approach, mental skills.

Same goes for Edwin Jackson, the other veteran, former All-Star trying to win the fifth-starter job.

“Honestly, I’m not a big spring training performance guy,” said Maddon, who starts focusing Thursday for the monthlong process of building the Cubs’ first roster since Derrek Lee that figures to open the season with anything resembling high expectations.

“A lot of it has to do with what you’ve done in the past,” he said. “Some of it might just be based on a projection of what you’re seeing, too, even with a guy that may have been around for a bit.”

He’s watched these guys in drills for two weeks, but the real measure of how Maddon plans to use his roster, run a game, build a team and judge his players starts Thursday.

Some things to watch this spring from Maddon (and what he’ll be watching):

– General base running to understand some of his position players’ game IQ.

“When I’m looking at a younger player, I’ll just really bear down with him on the bases to try to figure out how high I think his baseball acumen is,” Maddon said. “I think that’s something you can definitely [key on during spring games].”

– Specific first-to-third emphasis on the bases.

Maddon talked about it with players during early-camp drills but said it’s not something that can really be effectively practiced without live game action.

“Let’s try it, let’s push it, let’s see what happens,” he said. “It’s an attitude kind of a thing. And when everybody buys in it’s beautiful. It’s really beautiful. Because when you’re a pitcher you’d much rather pitch with somebody on first and second as opposed to first and third.

“You can’t really make a mistake going first to third,” he added, pointing out he trash-cans the adage about never making the first or third out of an inning at third base. “We’ll just talk about it if it didn’t work. But you really can’t make a mistake.”

– Lots of lineup looks and guys playing different positions – maybe even the occasional pitcher batting eighth late in camp.

Maddon said he plans to get career second baseman Tommy La Stella acclimated to third base this spring, move middle infielder Javy Baez around a little bit, play super utility candidate Arismendy Alcantara all over the place and mix-and-match outfield combinations.

Out of the gate, Anthony Rizzo – who batted third in 135 of 140 games during his breakout season last year – is hitting second in Thursday’s lineup, Maddon said.

“I just want to try guys in different slots,” he said. “You’re going to see them in different spots the whole camp.”

He said he won’t start seriously putting together lineup plans for the season until he starts working with combinations toward the middle and late part of March – though he suggested Wednesday Rizzo could see real-life time in the No. 2 hole if he decides to bat the pitcher eighth.

But for all the lack of emphasis on spring training results for decision-making, “I do like to win in spring training,” Maddon said, alluding in part to his lone “run hard” rule.

“I want us to play the game the same whether it’s March 15 or July 15 or Oct. 15,” he said. “ When you build that mindset, then in particular when you get to the end of the season, when it’s a playoff situation, you don’t change your game.

“I think that’s a trop a lot of groups fall into, that `I’ve got to try harder,’ or `I’ve got to do more,’ `I’ve got to step up.’ I really don’t like the phrase `step up’ at all. that insinuates that you’ve not been trying prior to that.”

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