The Rundown: Games About to Start, Cubs Comeback Players, Zobrist’s Back, Starters Easing In

Good morning, baseball games are here. Say what? 

Players have reported to major league spring training camps and it’s game on for most teams, with a full schedule of Cactus and Grapefruit League games starting tomorrow. One game was actually played yesterday. Granted, it was just the Diamondbacks vs. Arizona State but still, we’ve got baseball.

I know, I know…there are still a number of unsigned free agents and some teams are still trying to find their identities, but the games will help decide the fates of about 100 fringe players across baseball. The Cubs — huge beneficiaries of a stunted free agent market and loaded with young, offensive weapons — have a set roster for all intents and purposes.

The rebuilt pitching staff will garner a lot of analysis this spring but I’m going to keep my eye on Kyle Schwarber. The young left fielder starts the season as an ideal candidate for Comeback Player of the Year. As a rookie, Schwarber hit 16 home runs in 69 regular season games. Then he blasted his way to a 1.301 OPS during the Cubs’ 2015 postseason run against the Pirates, Cardinals and Mets. If Schwarbs can hit .250 this year and keep his OBP above .330, he’ll have a shot at the award.

Another player I’ll be watching is Albert Almora, Jr. The speedy centerfielder dominated left-handed pitching last season with a 342/.411/.486 slash line. Though his numbers against right-handers were not nearly as gaudy (.271/.291/.420), an uptick in his OBP could mean 500 plate appearances and an opportunity to lead off. If not, Ian Happ will take a significant number of at-bats away from Almora.

Finally, there’s Jason Heyward. Outfield web gems aside, the enigmatic right-fielder has been stuck in first gear offensively since the Cubs signed him. This spring marks the third straight year Heyward has adjusted his mechanics, and he will either be the most prized pupil of new hitting coach Chili Davis or his first failure.

‘‘We’re trying to bring [Heyward] back a little closer to [when he hit 27 homers with the Braves],’’ Davis said of the outfielder. Heyward certainly wants to prove he is worth his contract, and even predicted he will be the team’s 2018 MVP. I’m one of the few Cubs fans who genuinely likes J-Hey. If he can generate any kind of consistent offense, he could be a must-see experience at Wrigley Field this summer and drive this team the way Dexter Fowler did in 2016.

Cubs News & Notes

Ben Zobrist has a minor back injury and has been limited in his routine this week. Though insignificant, it bears watching as the super utility player hopes to bounce back from an underwhelming 2017 campaign due in large part to a nagging wrist injury. Maddon reiterated that there is no reason for major concern moving forward, saying, “We’re just slow-playing it. He’s fine.” Last year Zobrist hit a career-low .232 with 12 home runs and 50 RBI.

Cubs starters this weekend for the team’s first three Cactus League games: Michael Roth, Eddie Butler and Jen-Ho Tseng.

It’s not like he said “Winning, is like, better than losing,” but Maddon certainly sounded a lot like Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh yesterday. “I love the slow dance of Spring Training. You need to treat Spring Training as though your players just came down from Mars. Even though they might be accomplished players, you need to take it back to step one. In the off-season, everything goes to the back of your mind and you need to bring it back to the front.” Maddon could make a mint if he published a book of quotations.

Mixed Martial Artist and noted Cubs fan CM Punk is buying into Joe Maddon’s 2018 gospel:

How About That!

Major League Baseball released the hats all 30 teams will wear this weekend in honor of the victims of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The Rays signed outfielder Carlos Gomez to a one-year $4million deal that makes the veteran a possibility to be flipped for prospects at this year’s trade deadline. The Rays have made a series of cost-cutting moves this week, also trading outfielder Steven Souza Jr., pitcher Jake Odorizzi, and designating Corey Dickerson for assignment.

The Giants and Madison Bumgarner hope to work out a contract extension this season.

The Blue Jays are not done adding to their roster and imminent additions seem likely.

The Rangers executed a deal with the Cincinnati Reds to acquire a reported $350,000 in international slot money. It seems that Texas has its sights set on top Cuban prospect Julio Pablo Martinez.

It’s true that baseball audiences were indeed once segregated in minor league stadiums. Sometimes history can be so embarrassing.

Hot Takes & Syrup

Walk Up Song of the Day

Desperate Heart by Gram Rabbit. Time for five weeks of desert fun. #EverybodyIn

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