The sun has shone for three or four days in a row here, so I’ve finally allowed myself to accept the reality that baseball is almost back. Spring training is a little over a week away and a good chunk of Cubs players and prospects are already out in Mesa getting ready. The team just announced 32 non-roster invitees who will be joining members of the 40-man roster at big league camp, then you’ve got dozens upon dozens of others who will turn the backfields into a baseball nerd’s dream shortly.
If you have never been to Sloan Park, or if you just went to Sloan and didn’t make the short trek over to the four practice fields on the campus, you are missing out. A mix of fans, family, staff, and prospects mill around with the staccato crack of BP providing a mesmerizing siren’s song that makes you want to linger indefinitely. Stick around past the morning and you’ll see one or two Cubs teams taking on squads from other organizations.
You’re basically taking the intimacy and unassuming nature of minor league ball and stripping away every shred of pomp or promotion. It’s like going to a youth tournament except these are all professional ballplayers, many of whom you read about here and via other outlets. Oh man, now I’m jonesing to be back in Mesa.
With that in mind, I wanted to lay out a few questions I’d like to see answered before the Cubs pack their equipment truck back up to break camp and head back to Chicago. It’s not always easy to get those answers because the organization may be looking for something very specific from a given player or position, and those motives aren’t necessarily being shared with the public.
Even so, I think it’s worthwhile to head into spring with a checklist of sorts to help make sense of what can feel at times like a chaotic stretch.
Can Matt Mervis keep mashing?
I believe the answer is yes, but the Cubs weren’t willing to bet everything on their Minor League Player of the Year. Mervis improved his approach at each level last season and has proven he can make adjustments as pitchers become more skilled, so now he gets a chance to show what he can do against the highest level. I suspect we’ll see him thrown into some tough matchups to test his mettle, though even having tremendous success might not guarantee him a roster spot.
Since he’s not on the 40-man roster, the Cubs aren’t going to rush Mervis to the bigs. As we’ve mentioned here before, it’s entirely possible they’re looking at this like how Anthony Rizzo was treated when he first got to Chicago following the trade with San Diego. Still, I’d love to see Mervis press the issue.
How does Cody Bellinger‘s swing look in live action?
We’ve only seen Bellinger in BP so far and he looks great, though the real test will come when pitches aren’t coming from the hitting coach throwing behind an L-screen. If Bellinger is truly healthy, which he certainly seems to be, he could be a real weapon.
Who bats leadoff?
While the top spot will undoubtedly be manned by a rotating cast throughout most of the spring, I’m very interested to see whether and how things solidify toward the end. Can Nico Hoerner adapt his contact-heavy approach to be a more patient table-setter? He had a .382 OBP across 170 plate appearances in 2021, which certainly plays at the top of the order.
Bellinger is a tremendous baserunner who still boasts a double-digit career walk rate despite plummeting in that regard over the last two seasons. Ian Happ is also willing to take free bases and Seiya Suzuki had a .402 OBP across nine seasons in Japan. How David Ross addresses what has been a weakness for the Cubs over the last several years could determine whether they exceed or fall short of expectations.
Who’s not being stretched out to start?
The Cubs figure to work several pitchers as starters throughout the spring as they sort through who will make up the rotation, so this could be pretty murky. I’m mainly looking at whether Keegan Thompson and Adbert Alzolay will be stretched out, though they figure to be multi-inning relievers either way and will thus be used almost like starters for much of the spring.
Hayden Wesneski could work in a relief role in the early going, especially since Drew Smyly is being paid like a starter. Kyle Hendricks isn’t expected to be ready for action until late April or even into May, so we probably won’t see him at all.
Will Ross name a closer?
We’ll stick with the pitching for a bit here as we move to the other end of the staff to see if spring games yield a primary closer. This is like the leadoff spot in that there doesn’t really seem to be a perfect fit on paper. I’ve plugged Jeremiah Estrada for the role and I think he could excel there in time, but he may not have enough runway to prove that during the exhibition slate.
There are a lot of relievers in camp and the smart money is on Ross working with a committee for the most part.
Which NRI reliever(s) earn(s) a spot?
It still feels like Jed Hoyer would like to add another veteran on a big league deal to take some of those high-leverage innings, even if he’s not necessarily trying to cover the 9th. Andrew Chafin, Matt Moore, Will Smith, and Zack Britton have all been mentioned and the Cubs might make a move if the reported asking prices drop soon.
If nothing materializes on that front, however, there are a bunch of non-roster relievers battling for a spot. Danis Correa, Jordan Holloway, Ben Leeper, Mark Leiter Jr., Ryan Borucki, and Anthony Kay are just a few of the names we’re going to see frequently.
Will friendlier confines allow Trey Mancini to bust back out?
Sloan in February and March isn’t the same as Wrigley in March and April, so this one may be tough to answer even if Mancini hits well. That said, the right-handed hitter may find himself hitting more power away from the reconfigured left-field wall at Camden Yards. Prior to the 2022 season, Baltimore made the curious decision to push the wall back by 26 1/2 feet while also raising it from 7 feet 4 inches to 13 feet.
That put left field at 384 feet and left-center at 400 feet. Getting off to a hot start at Sloan might flow into a better performance during the regular season, where the NL Central’s dimensions will be far cozier than those back in Baltimore.
Do the new shift rules help Eric Hosmer, others?
Hosmer is one of the most prolific groundball hitters in the game, which isn’t a good thing. However, it may mean he’s going to be disproportionately aided by the shift restrictions in place since more of those grounders will sneak through the right side without being snagged by a shortstop playing in the grass.
“I think a lot of us are really looking forward to that,” Hosmer said about the new rules. “It just kind of seems like there’s going to be more hits out there for guys. There’s no worse feeling than hitting the ball hard up the middle and seeing the shortstop standing right there. So maybe this could be better for the offensive player, especially the left-handed hitter.”
Happ and Bellinger could also see a few more balls land safely.
Does a regular third baseman emerge?
Christopher Morel is more of a utility player and Patrick Wisdom struggled with whiffs — both at the plate and with the glove — but the Cubs don’t have a ton of options here. Unless you buy the notion of Nick Madrigal actually getting reps at the hot corner in certain matchups.
How long will it take Pete Crow-Armstrong to make a highlight play?
I’ll put the over/under on two games and I’ll take the under. This will be the first chance for a lot of fans to see him play live and I believe he’ll make the most of it.
Who surprises us with a huge Cactus League performance?
There’s always someone who comes out of nowhere to lead the league in homers or steals or ERA, now it’s just a matter of seeing who makes the most of their shot. I’m not even making any predictions here, but you’re welcome to throw some names out there.
Baseball is almost back and I can’t wait to have something real to follow and cover again.