MESA, Ariz. – Last spring Cubs manager Joe Maddon called his first camp with the team Cubs University.
Whether that makes this one grad school, with the additions of guys like Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, one thing’s for sure a month into this camp: There’s a lot we’ve learned (and a few things left to study until graduate theses come due in two weeks).
What we’ve learned: The Cubs welcome kids in their clubhouse – and even encourage having them on the field.
“We’re all for kids on the infield,” Maddon said. “We were pretty good with that last year. They do have their own lockers, too.”
Kris Bryant’s locker has even been moved close to Addison Russell’s this spring as last year’s rookies get even better at playing together.
“And we get them whatever toys they would like, put their names on their toys,” Maddon said. “It’s something we kind of advocate.”
Still studying: How quickly the next group of likeable kids – such as catching prospect Willson Contreras and third base prospect Jeimer Candelario — can matriculate after getting sent back to the minors Friday following impressive big-league camps. “We graduated a class [of minor leaguers] that’s up there right now and a pretty class, and maybe you would think that it should be barren after that,” Maddon said. “But then I get to see these guys, and `wow, there’s another good [class].’ “
What we’ve learned: Munenori Kawasaki is more than just a pretty voice.
The backup infield candidate who serenaded the team with a karaoke version of Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” early in camp and on Friday sang “Happy Birthday” to David Ross and Dexter Fowler, also happens to take one of the best at-bats in camp (.500 on-base percentage, team-high five walks) and plays a better middle infield than most.
“I really like the way he is. He fits our culture extremely well here,” Maddon said.
Still studying: Whether backup infielder Tommy La Stella is allergic to Cactus. Since the Cubs traded for the young lefty hitter, his first two springs in Arizona have resulted in an oblique injury almost as soon as camp ended last year, sidelining him most of the season; and a “sore” calf that has sidelined him nearly two weeks this spring. He looked good in agility work with the strength coach Friday, so answers could be close.
What we’ve learned: The way the Cubs have it lined up, the opening rotation order, barring injury, will be: Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks. That would give Lester the home opening start April 11 against Cincinnati.
Still studying: Whether the Cubs have any starting pitching coming from the farm system in time to backfill the rotation when Hammel (free agent after this year), Lackey (2017) and/or Arrieta (2017) cycle into free agency. Their top starting prospect, Duane Underwood, was slowed this spring with tightness in the same elbow that sidelined him last season for nearly two months. Pierce Johnson, the first-round pick ahead of Underwood in 2012, has struggled with command in the minors, and had a lot of his strikes clobbered this spring. Ryan Williams? The control pitcher named Cubs’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2015 has earned an extended look this spring and could be an intriguing right-hander to watch.
What we’ve learned: The Gold Glove already is being cast for center field prospect Albert Almora, who has dazzled in the field all spring. If he gets to the big leagues in the next year or so, he and right fielder Jason Heyward could give the Cubs’ one of the better outfields in the game.
Still studying: Left field, where Kyle Schwarber has the edge on Jorge Soler for slightly more advanced work in progress, but where neither looks like a Gold Glove threat anytime soon.