Bullpen, lineup already had Cubs talking about another October run as camp opens

Even before the Cubs landed big-ticket starter Yu Darvish in the final days before spring training, players and staff boasted about their chances to win their third consecutive division title and reach the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.

A rotation of Darvish, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood looks as formidable as any the Cubs have had the last three years on reporting day. Pitchers and catchers arrive Tuesday.

RELATED STORIES
Yu Darvish deal with Cubs quiets winter noise of uprising by NL Central rivals
MORRISSEY: Thinking warm thoughts as Cubs sign Yu Darvish, White Sox build momentum

But as Hendricks said well before the Darvish deal, “Regardless, we’ll be ready for another run.”

Albert Almora Jr. is among a large number of Cubs who have been working out early in camp. /John Antonoff photo

Why the great optimism beyond the usual upbeat emotion of new baseball life in February?

Two big reasons, at least on paper, that looked potentially formidable pre-Darvish:

First, a revamped and potentially deeper bullpen was designed to play a bigger role, regardless of the rotation’s relative strength. It includes the additions of former closers Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek and the return of lefty Brian Duensing, and it promises to significantly reduce one of the highest bullpen walk rates in the majors (4.25 per nine innings).

Second, the Cubs return almost intact the group of hitters that finished second to the Rockies in the National League in runs scored, including all of the 20-somethings that make up one of the youngest groups of hitters in the majors.

One of the biggest storylines of the spring could be how those young hitters — Willson Contreras, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr. — develop with another year of experience and new hitting coach Chili Davis.

Almora, coming off his first full year in the majors, and Happ, who’s entering his first full year, bear watching as the Cubs settle their outfield plans for the start of the season.

Almora, a potential Gold Glove-caliber center fielder, could be an impact player if he hits well enough to earn regular playing time.

Lefty slugger Schwarber could be a difference-maker if he -rebounds from his struggles last year and looks more like he did in the second half of 2017 (.894 OPS, 17 home runs) than he did in the first (.178 average and a demotion).

“It’s super exciting,” said Kris Bryant, the 2015 NL Rookie of the Year and 2016 NL MVP. “So far this year it feels a little weird just because there’s so many changes on the coaching staff, but it’s nice to know that the group of players we’ll have is still kind of the same.

“The core that we’ve had here the last three years is still intact, and that’s nice to know, and they’ll be here for a while.”

One of the biggest differences for that group might be the -mindset this spring after experiencing post-championship fatigue, a slow start to the season and a second-round playoff elimination last year.

“The [2016] World Series is still fresh in our minds,” Bryant said, “but that happened a while ago so now it’s, ‘Do it all over again.’ You can’t use that as an excuse anymore. I don’t like excuses.”

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com 

KEY DATES

  • Tuesday: Pitchers and catchers report to spring training, Mesa, Arizona
  • Wednesday: Pitchers’ and catchers’ first official workouts
  • Feb. 19: First full-squad workouts
  • Feb. 23: Cubs’ Cactus League opener, at Brewers, 2:05 p.m., Maryvale, Arizona
  • Feb. 24: Cubs’ home spring opener, vs. Rangers, 2:05 p.m., Sloan Park
  • March 29: Season opener at Marlins, 11:40 a.m.

NUMBERS GAME

.324 – On-base percentage from the Cubs’ leadoff spot in 2017, 11th in the National League (after they ranked first in the majors at .381 in 2016, before Dexter Fowler left for St. Louis as a free agent).

.312 – Kyle Schwarber’s on-base percentage in 37 games batting leadoff in 2017 after replacing Fowler at the top of the order to start last season.

822 – Runs scored by the Cubs in 2017, second only to the Rockies (824) in the NL.

2.80 – Career ERA in the ninth inning for newly acquired Brandon Morrow, who’s expected to open the season as the Cubs’ closer. That’s his second-best career ERA for an inning (he’s 2.28 in the seventh).

18 – Career saves for Morrow.

8 – Career blown saves for Morrow.

3 – Consecutive seasons the Cubs have reached the league championship series, baseball’s longest current streak.

97.3 – Average number of regular-season wins for the Cubs the last three seasons.

COMINGS

RHP Yu Darvish, RHP Tyler Chatwood, RHP Brandon Morrow, RHP Steve Cishek, LHP Dario Alvarez, LHP Drew Smyly, C Chris Gimenez (minor-league contract), OF Peter Bourjos (minor-league contract), pitching coach Jim Hickey, hitting coach Chili Davis, third-base coach Brian Butterfield, first-base coach Will Venable.

GOINGS

RHP Jake Arrieta (free agent), RHP John Lackey (free agent), RHP Wade Davis (signed with Rockies), RHP Hector Rondon (signed with Astros), RHP Koji Uehara (free agent), OF Jon Jay (free agent), C Alex Avila (signed with Diamondbacks), C Rene Rivera (signed with Angels), pitching coach Chris Bosio (signed with Tigers), hitting coach John Mallee (signed with Phillies), assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske (signed with Angels), bench coach Dave Martinez (hired as Nationals manager), third-base coach Gary Jones (hired as Phillies Class AAA manager).

KEY QUESTIONS

Who’s the Cubs’ 2018 leadoff hitter?

“I really don’t know yet, honestly,” said manager Joe Maddon, who continues to insist that Kyle Schwarber’s struggles last year had nothing to do with starting the season as a .190-hitting leadoff man. Maddon hasn’t seemed to rule out using Schwarber there again.

“We’ll go to camp, we’ll sit down, and we’ll try to evaluate everybody as [they look] at that particular moment,” said Maddon, whose best option on the roster for most matchups might be
Ben Zobrist.

Is Brandon Morrow – who pitched himself out of the closer job in Seattle twice early in his career – really the Cubs’ ninth-inning man in 2018?

“We’re really confident in Morrow,” Epstein said of the right-hander, who emerged as a dominant setup man for the Dodgers in 2017 after years of battling injuries. He was almost perfect in the playoffs against the Cubs. “That’s the guy we anticipate in that role and having a great year for us.”

Can touted new hitting coach Chili Davis fix what went wrong with Schwarber much of last season and Jason Heyward much of the last two?

Schwarber and Heyward obviously will have the most to say about that, but Davis said during the Cubs Convention that he has focused on, and communicated with, those two hitters more than the others since being hired. The Cubs’ hitting roster is largely unchanged since last year, and the team is counting on still-developing young hitters to take a collective step forward this year.

“I’ve been on three World Series teams as a player, and the common denominator with those three teams was how we approached games day in and day out as an offense,” said Davis, who is credited with helping some of the Red Sox’ young All-Star hitters develop in recent years. “We just kept applying pressure, applying pressure until eventually the right guy comes up to the plate and the floodgates open.”

HE SAID IT

“The whole industry has really been moving at a snail’s pace, and sometimes you just have to play along with the pace of play.”

– Cubs president Theo Epstein, 3½ weeks after meeting with free-agent pitcher Yu Darvish and four weeks before agreeing to terms with him Saturday