Finally, baseball fans can rejoice and enjoy the fact that, as they attend to their responsibilities here in the negative wind chills, gloves are popping and bats emit that wonderful sound as ball meets lumber over in the comfortable Arizona climate.
Yes, pitchers and catchers are finally reporting which means actual baseball games are a little over a week away. After an offseason that brought more optimism to Cubs faithful than the previous three seasons combined, players and fans alike are anxious to see how well this pool of talent performs in 2015. There is a lot to look forward to over the course of this season and the storylines begin at Spring Training. Our Jamie Bradley already put together a list of what to watch for among the Cubs’ position players, so I will shift the focus to the pitching staff.
Believe it or not, this particular Cubs roster has more changing parts and flexibility than any other roster I can remember them having. As a result, there will be a great deal to watch for not only in Spring Training, but the ENTIRE season.
The Cubs are going to be interesting to follow all season?! Crazy, I know. Here are some storylines you should follow up until April 5th.
Who Will Fill the Final Two Rotation Spots?
This is possibly the biggest storyline of the Spring. You could argue that the competition for the opening day third and second base positions that Kris Bryant and Javier Baez will be involved in is bigger. In the end, however, they will eventually play a major role in the Cubs ability to be successful and the time table of their inevitable call ups should not make a big difference.
I guess the Cubs have a good problem to have with their starting rotation, as their top three spots are set in stone. As for the final two, there will be an all out bloodbath between a handful of candidates, which puts the Cubs in a rather favorable position. The Cubs feel as though they can compete right now, so the final two rotation pieces are key in their attempt to develop consistency.
If you want to talk consistency, then eliminate Edwin Jackson and Travis Wood right off the bat. E-Jax’s failed Cubs tenure to this point is not news to anyone, as he accumulated an ugly 5.58 ERA with a horrid 14-33 record, WHIP (1.541) and ERA+ (69). Jackson may have lost his opportunity at a rotation spot after last season, and even with a strong Spring, it doesn’t look like anything will change. The Cubs have the option to either trade him (who wants him?), cut him and eat the $26 mil remaining (ew), or move him to the bullpen where he could become a valuable strike out option late or early in games.
As for Wood, there have been reports all offseason suggesting the Cubs want to move Wood, but to no avail at this point. Things can change, and if the Cubs do not end up dealing him, Wood could be moved to the bullpen. However, Wood has been a starter his whole career and will likely not take the bullpen demotion lightly. He has a reasonable shot at the fifth spot, but his inconsistent 2014 is a rather ugly blemish.
Kyle Hendricks is a heavy favorite to win a rotation spot, while the remaining position will likely be battled between Travis Wood, Felix Doubront, Jacob Turner, Eric Jokisch, Dallas Beeler and Tsuyoshi Wada.
Jason Motte’s Value
The Cubs signed former Cardinals reliever Jason Motte to a one year, $4.5 million contract. Motte missed the entire 2013 season due to Tommy John surgery and struggled in his return to the mound in 2014. This will be Motte’s first Spring Training since 2012 and he could be a very valuable piece in the Cubs already impressive bullpen.
Motte, 32, was a dominant piece in the Cardinals bullpen before his injury and the Cubs are hoping he will return remotely close to that form. The hard throwing right hander accumulated 42 saves in 2012, and appeared in 72 total innings totaling an impressive 86 strikeouts.
When scanning the box scores of Spring games, keep an eye out for random appearances from Jason Motte. Hopefully he can develop some sort of consistency and make the Opening Day roster.
Monitor Jake Arrieta
I am 90 percent sold on Jake Arrieta. Last year, after throwing nearly three or four no hitters, it looked as though Arrieta had finally put it all together. However, I am a bit weary to fully commit to this Jake Arrieta because remember, his career can be described in one word: inconsistent.
If Arrieta really did figure out how to command his array of nasty pitches, he should have a rather successful Spring (although the Spring doesn’t tell the whole story, as he may be subjected to just throwing fastballs and changeups for a game or two).
There is no question that Arrieta has the ability to be a dominant top of the rotation starter, especially after the success he had last season. There is just that small bit of doubt in the back of my mind that Arrieta may regress.
That bit of doubt can be eliminated as early as May.
Diamond in the Rough: Eric Jokisch
There is a 25-year-old lefty by the name of Eric Jokisch who made a pretty significant stride last season in Triple A Iowa. Jokisch put together a quietly impressive 3.58 ERA in 26 starts and 158.1 innings with a 1.175 WHIP, a 8.1 K/9 ratio, and a very strong 1.8 BB/9 ratio.
Jokisch is considered a rather long shot to win a starting rotation spot on the Cubs’ 25-man roster out of Spring Training, but with continued consistency in Triple A, Jokisch may establish himself as a consistent big-league starter.
Bullpen Competition Should Be Fun
The Cubs bullpen is a very, very important part of their potential success in 2015. The Royals had the most dominant bullpen in baseball, particularly their 7th, 8th, and 9th inning guys. The Cubs have a similar blueprint with Neil Ramirez, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon.
Players like Justin Grimm, Brian Schlitter, Jason Motte, Joseph Ortiz (left-handed reliever), Zac Rosscup, Blake Parker, and Drake Britton (left-handed reliever) all will be competing to win a spot in the bullpen this Spring.
They may have the toughest task to fufill because the losers of the starting rotation battle may succumb to bullpen duties.
Opening Night needs to get here. I need my fix of Cubs baseball. This year, it should actually mean something.