Storylines to follow at Cubs spring training camp

Spring training officially begins Wednesday for the Cubs, as they hold their first formal pitchers and catchers workout.

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Nick Madrigal works out at third base at the Cubs spring training facility in Mesa, Arizona.

Nick Madrigal works out at third base at the Cubs spring training facility in Mesa, Arizona.

John Antonoff/Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs’ spring-training facility was already a hub of activity Tuesday, the day before the first official workout for pitchers and catchers.

Marcus Stroman came out early to play catch. Cody Bellinger stood in the batter’s box for Jameson Taillon’s bullpen session. After pitchers cycled through their sessions, three waves of hitters took batting practice on an adjacent field.

This is the first normal spring training since 2019. Those in 2020 and 2021 were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the one in 2022 by the MLB lockout. With plenty of offseason additions, the Cubs are getting an early start this year.

And it’s not only pitchers and catchers. The rest of the position players don’t have to report until next week, but they were well-represented at the complex Tuesday, including appearances from Dansby Swanson, Bellinger, Seiya Suzuki, Ian Happ, Nico Hoerner, Patrick Wisdom, Nick Madrigal, Miles Mastrobuoni and Zach McKinstry.

Here are storylines to watch as spring training officially begins Wednesday:

Rotation battle

The fifth spot in the starting rotation is shaping up to be the most compelling position battle in camp.

Stroman, Taillon, Justin Steele and Drew Smyly likely will begin the season in the other starting spots, not necessarily in that order. But with Kyle Hendricks still working up to throwing off a mound in the coming weeks, several other players might compete for a place in the Opening Day rotation.

Keegan Thompson has impressed both as a multi-inning reliever and as a starter. Adrian Samson broke into the rotation when it was hit by injuries last season and only improved as the season progressed. Hayden Wesneski turned heads in six appearances last season, the first of his major-league career. Javier Assad proved he could be a stabilizing force.

Those who don’t make the rotation might move into the bullpen or provide depth at Triple-A. The Cubs also have three days off in the first three weeks of the regular season, so they could use those to push back the decision on a fifth starter.

Third-base committee

Bench coach Andy Green joined Madrigal in Arizona for a week this offseason to work with him at third base. Madrigal, who estimates the last time he played third was as a teenager for an inning at a showcase, is expected to play multiple positions this season.

‘‘I really appreciate him taking the time just to make sure I’m prepared with everything I need over there,’’ Madrigal said.

Madrigal has played second base almost exclusively in his professional career. But the signing of Swanson this winter moved Hoerner from shortstop to second, making versatility a priority for Madrigal.

‘‘I haven’t bounced around too much in my life, but I feel like I’m fully capable of doing it,’’ Madrigal said. ‘‘And we’re all here to win.’’

He joins Wisdom, Christopher Morel and McKinstry as options at third base.

New team, new me

First baseman Eric Hosmer said at the Cubs Convention last month that he doesn’t think a ‘‘change of scenery’’ is always helpful.

‘‘But for me, in this instance, I think it’s going to be good,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s a lot of good veterans that they signed. It’s a lot of good young guys that have good energy that come up.’’

Hosmer is one of several new Cubs looking to bounce back from offensive dips in 2022, including Bellinger, Trey Mancini and Tucker Barnhart. There were multiple factors, such as injuries or organization changes, that might have contributed to their individual slumps.

But with a change of scenery also comes a fresh set of eyes on swing mechanics. This spring, they’ll test out any adjustments they’ve made during the offseason.

Similar recommendations will play out on the pitching side. Taillon, for example, is working on a more sweeping slider as the Cubs try to maximize his potential.

Rule changes

Before spring training, the Cubs outfitted the fields at their complex with digital pitch clocks behind home plate and attached to the batter’s eye.

At least initially, the pitch clock likely will have the most noticeable effect among the 2023 rule changes, which also include limits on infield shifts and larger bases.

‘‘It’s just getting the reps,’’ pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said of the pitch clock.

He plans to integrate live batting-practice sessions into training earlier than usual. One advantage will be a more flexible and varied buildup, something the Cubs are confident they’ll be able to implement because of their consistent communication this offseason. They were limited in that regard last spring because coaches couldn’t talk to players during the lockout.

‘‘The other part of it is to get them into that game-type feel as quick as possible,’’ Hottovy said.

With the pitch clock comes a limit on pickoff attempts. Pitchers can disengage from the rubber twice. The third time, they’ll be charged with a balk unless they pick off the baserunner. The count resets if the runner advances.

The key there, as Hottovy sees it, will be making sure pitchers know the intricacies of the rule and exactly what counts as a disengagement. He’s planning to hold a rules meeting once camp begins.

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