Fight club: Cubs to come out swinging Saturday with three heavyweight bouts on spring card

Two major positions battles are being waged as the Cactus League schedule begins, along with one must-see — or not — fight.

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Jason Kipnis (foreground) looks like the early favorite over Daniel Descalso, David Bote and other contenders in the spring fight for second base.

John Antonoff photo

MESA, Ariz. — The thunderstorms forecast for Saturday already had backed up the Cubs’ spring-training opener by five hours Friday afternoon. 

But it has done nothing to dampen David Ross’ enthusiasm for his managerial debut — or to cool the heat on the hottest, biggest fights for jobs in camp.

Heading into the Cactus League opener against the Athletics, these are three of the biggest fights playing out in camp, along with how they started and how they might finish:

Fifth Starter

Favorite: Right-hander Tyler Chatwood.

Other contenders: Right-hander Alec Mills, right-hander Adbert Alzolay, right-hander Colin Rea.

How the fight started: The farm system’s failure to develop a back-of-the-rotation starting pitcher in eight years has meant no pipeline to backfill for aged-out veterans or free agents. And the high cost of buying pitching has helped create a payroll budget crunch entering its third season that prevented buying more when Cole Hamels left as a free agent.

Who finishes it: Chatwood, a $38 million free-agent acquisition who was demoted to the bullpen halfway through the first year of a three-year deal, rebounded as a key performer in the pen last year. And he says he’s in the best shape of his life as he enters camp with the job considered his to lose. He takes his first turn of the spring Sunday against the Dodgers.

Intriguing storyline: Mills, who has looked good when healthy since coming to the Cubs from the Royals in a minor-league trade three years ago, is out of options this spring. So he either makes the club or is exposed to waivers.

In three stints in the majors last year, Mills made four starts and five relief appearances ranging from one inning to six while producing a 2.75 ERA. He allowed six earned runs in 20 innings as a starter (2.70).

A command guy whose fastball sits around 90 mph and who relies on changing speeds and deception, Mills said last year’s success — including a scoreless start against the Cardinals before the Cubs slid out of contention — boosted his confidence.

He also knows he can succeed in any role. 

“I’ve done it,” he said. “I’ve pitched one inning, multiple innings out of the pen. And I know I can start. Whatever they ask me to do, I’ll be ready.”

As for his contract status: “When you start running out of options, it’s time to have a little bit of pressure on you where you’ve got to perform,” Ross said. “And I look forward to seeing that, how they handle that. It’s a little bit of adversity to overcome and [a chance to] rise to those occasions. And guys that do that usually turn out to have a nice long career.”

Second base

Favorite: Jason Kipnis.

Other contenders: Nico Hoerner, Daniel Descalso, Hernan Perez, David Bote.

How the fight started: When Ben Zobrist left as a free agent and Addison Russell was non-tendered in December, it left a vacancy the Cubs had little resources to fill with an impact acquisition because of a payroll budget crunch entering its third season.

Who finishes it: Kipnis, a two-time All-Star who signed a minor-league deal after struggling in recent years, looks promising early in camp and has the postseason chops and clubhouse presence the Cubs seek to toughen the team culture. He also has a left-handed bat with extra-base pop when healthy — at least until the last three years (.236 with a .708 OPS and 119-game average).

Intriguing storyline: Hoerner, the right-handed-hitting rookie who debuted in September last season because of injuries, handled himself with enough poise and success to be a realistic candidate to earn a big-league job out of camp.

In Hoerner’s favor: He’s one of only two players in camp (also Perez) whom Ross considers a viable backup for Javy Baez at shortstop, where Hoerner spent the final month of last season. 

Working against him: The Cubs’ first-round draft pick in 2018 skipped Class AAA on his way to the big leagues last fall, and if he can’t win enough big-league at-bats to be more than a bench player, he’ll have to go to Class AAA to play regularly.

“I don’t know if that’s the toughest decision [in camp], but it will be a big decision,” said Ross, who promised a serious look at Hoerner after last year’s impressive debut.

Marquee Sports Network vs. Comcast/Xfinity

Favorite: Pick ’em.

How the fight started: The Cubs cut broadcast ties with regional cable networks to launch their own Marquee network, which debuts Saturday. But despite agreeing with more than 30 carriers in their regional territory, the Cubs haven’t been able to reach an agreement with the biggest one, which for now means roughly half of the cable subscribers in the Chicago area don’t have access to Cubs games.

Who finishes it: Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney suggested again this spring that Comcast customers should lobby the carrier to make the deal (which all but assures higher cable bills). As of now, it doesn’t look promising until chairman Tom Ricketts gets “fairly complicated” negotiations resolved during the 29-game slate of spring broadcasts.

“I think that in the end everyone will do what’s right for the actual customers,” Ricketts said. “And that’s where I’m confident we’ll get this all behind us by Opening Day, or pretty soon, anyway.”

Stay tuned. If possible.

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