The Cubs may be in a weird year of transition, but you can’t say they’re not keeping things interesting.
With the rest of the roster seemingly ready to go, the Cubs made one final tweak on Friday by closing in on a one-year deal with longtime Cub Jake Arrieta.
The reunion between Arrieta and the Cubs is an interesting one. The Cubs were in desperate need of starting pitching depth, which Arrieta provides. Arrieta, who pitched for the Cubs from 2013-17, was a key contributor in their run to the 2016 World Series title and won the National League Cy Young Award in 2015.
The 34-year-old right hander also provides the Cubs with some much needed experience, but he has sustained injuries in each of the past three seasons, which has affected both his performance and availability. Add in a 12-12 record and a 4.75 ERA over the past two seasons and it’s easy to wonder if the veteran has anything left in the tank at this point.
When the calendar flipped from December to January, it looked like the Cubs would be starting spring training with some serious holes.
But the National League Central champs have stated all offseason that they’re not ready to relinquish their crown and with a boost in additional resources over the last few weeks, the Cubs have made a flurry of moves to bolster the 2021 roster.
They’ll finally get to showcase what they have in store this season when spring training officially begins Wednesday, when pitchers and catchers report. Here’s where their roster stands:
Hoyer didn’t mince his words about the Cubs starting pitching on Monday and after some significant subtractions to the starting staff, it’s easy to understand the concern.
“[Our] pitching, yes, I think that’s a concern,” Hoyer said. “That’s something we have to continue to add. We’re going to need some really good performances out of people. But, yeah, I think we have a little bit less depth.
“If there’s an area that sort of keeps me up at night, an area that I wake up in the morning and think about how to deal with, I think it’s definitely the pitching.”
Even with the addition of Arrieta, the Cubs’ rotation will be their biggest question all season. After trading Yu Darvish and letting Jon Lester and Jose Quintana depart, the rotation went from being an area of strength to one with some major concerns.
Hendricks will be called on to lead the staff, which he has proved capable of doing. But after Davies, there are more questions than answers.
Can Alec Mills be more than a cool story? Will Adbert Alzolay finally stick? Can Trevor Williams revert to his 2017 form? Is there a prospect who can make an impact? Even Arrieta, who had his longest run of success with the Cubs from 2014-17, comes with his own set of questions.
There’s a lot more ‘if’ in the Cubs rotation than in years past and there’s a lot that needs to go right if they plan on making a push toward the postseason.
The bullpen was one of the worst in baseball to start last season, but it rebounded and became a strength later in the year. Craig Kimbrel’s recovery from a miserable start was a major factor, and he’ll loom large again this season.
Another major part of the bullpen’s success was Jeremy Jeffress, who became the closer when Kimbrel was working on his mechanics. But Jeffress is still a free agent, so the late-inning, high-leverage situations will go to Rowan Wick. Over the last two seasons, he has shown he can be that guy.
The bullpen will need more from its left-handers. The loss of Brad Wieck early last season put a lot of pressure on Kyle Ryan, who struggled after a strong 2019. With southpaw Andrew Chafin re-signing and Wieck healthy, all three should be positioned for success.
Willson Contreras remains entrenched behind the plate. Though he was part of trade rumors this offseason, it would take a massive haul for the two-time All-Star to be dealt.
Austin Romine, who signed a one-year deal this offseason, will be the backup. However, unlike his predecessor, Victor Caratini, Romine isn’t an offensive threat off the bench.
Contreras will have a much bigger workload with MLB returning to a 162-game season, and with no universal designated hitter expected, manager David Ross must find ways to get his top catcher a breather.
The bulk of the Cubs’ offense will have to come from the infield. Javy Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are coming off poor offensive seasons, but with little change to the lineup, the Cubs are betting on their stars bouncing back.
All three are set to be free agents after the season, though at least one of them figures to have his contract extended. Still, they need to play well not only to keep the Cubs competitive in a division that has improved over the last two weeks, but also to keep their stock high if and when they reach the open market.
“You go around the field, and we have a lot of All-Star-caliber, great players at different positions,” Hoyer said. “We just straight-up underperformed last year. There’s no way around it.
“Do I believe that that group is going to struggle in the same way [this year]? I don’t. Maybe that’s stubbornness or maybe it’s looking at the back of their baseball cards. But I have a hard time believing that this group of players, with a lot of guys in walk years, is going to struggle that way. So I have a lot of optimism about the offense.”
Nico Hoerner will get the lion’s share of time at second base and figures to continue moving around the diamond. David Bote will remain the team’s primary bench option and provide some offense.
The battle to watch in camp will be for the second infield spot off the bench between Ildemaro Vargas and Sergio Alcantara. Both are seen as defensive specialists and could spell Baez at shortstop in a pinch.
After removing Kyle Schwarber and plugging in the newly acquired Joc Pederson, the Cubs’ outfield has a chance to be a strength again. Pederson helps the Cubs’ offense and boosts their defense in left field. Ian Happ (132 wRC+) and Jason Heyward (131 wRC+) carried the Cubs on offense in 2020.
The team also picked up defensive wizard Jake Marisnick, who will be a defensive replacement and pick up the occasional start. He also will provide some much needed speed off the bench. Phillip Ervin now has an uphill battle with Marisnick on the roster, but he could provide organizational depth.