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Joe Maddon, Cubs 'slow-dancing' toward regular season

Maybe the biggest question of spring training for the Chicago Cubs just got answered: Cy Young Award-winner Jake Arrieta has life in his arm again.

Not that it was ever dead, but coming off a fatigued finish to Arrieta's 2015 postseason, it was nice to hear the pop of his fastball -- which reached a legitimate 96 mph Wednesday in Mesa, Arizona -- in the catcher's glove and then watch hitters freeze at the dramatic movement on his breaking stuff. Two perfect innings against the Cleveland Indians doesn't say much for the upcoming season, but if it did, the headline would be "He’s back and better than ever." Next we'll see Jon Lester and newcomer John Lackey take the mound and, barring any health issues, the Cubs' starting staff should be on the way to getting ready for April.

Speaking of Lester -- talk about flying under the radar right now -- it was a year ago at this time all eyes were on the left-hander after he signed a mammoth contract to become the face of the Cubs' next phase. But he got off kilter by pushing himself too hard too early, and though he eventually recovered, it didn't feel to him or to many observers like a dominant season, just a very good one. I'm interested in seeing Lester in his second season in the National League looking and sounding so much more comfortable. And now he has a running mate in Lackey to bounce things off of and keep him moving in the right direction. I'm sure Lester and Lackey have spent time apart this spring, but I have yet to see one without the other.

Decent pitching aside, the Cubs don't exactly have the best record in the Cactus League: 1-7 after Wednesday's loss. But unlike last year at this time, it hasn't been horrible baseball, so there's less to be concerned with. As long as there are positives from Cubs regulars on a daily basis, it seems manager Joe Maddon can live with negative outcomes. Kris Bryant just hit his first home run, as did Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward. Miguel Montero has been sharp, while Kyle Schwarber's two hits off lefty Clayton Kershaw is a nice building block and a confidence boost for him against southpaws. Even David Ross homered and doubled in the same game.

And no one in camp has looked better than shortstop Addison Russell. The amount of conversation about his potential on offense has dwarfed talk about his defense -- and that's his specialty. He's in great shape, wearing a smile on his face every day. Think about how far the 22-year-old has come. The Cubs not so quietly will admit he was probably brought up too soon last season. Remember when he looked completely overmatched at the plate? But Maddon's genius paid off, batting Russell ninth and not wavering when he easily could have been sent to the bench or back to the minors. A midseason swing change by hitting coach John Mallee has taken hold and Russell looks ready for even bigger things -- one of which could be a Gold Glove.

That brings us to Jorge Soler and Javier Baez. Since the end of last season I've been a big proponent of the Cubs keeping as many of their key position players as possible. At the moment they have enough pitching, and if they need to make a deal later on they still don't necessarily have to trade from their major league depth.

Having said that, it worries me that two young players won't exactly know their roles until things get going next month. Will they embrace learning how to come off the bench late in games? The return of Dexter Fowler has changed the equation for both, more so for Baez. Is he even needed in center field now that Fowler and Heyward are available there? If anything, perhaps Baez should learn the corner outfield spots to get good enough to replace Schwarber or Soler for defense. But here's the thing to remember: Neither player is going to sit for six straight days. Maddon managed a bloated roster to perfection late last season and got the best out of many players. He'll do the same again while resting young players and veterans alike.

There's definitely a different feel to camp this year, but not because the Cubs are favored to win it all. It's simply because everyone is more comfortable in his role. Maddon knows his players and his players know what to expect and where they're playing -- save Baez, who's played all over the diamond so far. And anyone that sees Maddon's antics and thinks the Cubs are messing around too much doesn't understand what spring training is like. I'm sure television reports from Arizona show the humorous moments and not the work being done on the back fields. The Cubs lighten things up every morning for about seven minutes before they stretch, then they get back to business. There's little doubt what's on their collective minds: an historic season. Make no mistake, they know they have the team to do it.

The Cubs' plan to back off most of their key pitchers is an indication they're thinking more about September and October than ever before. And they should be. We'll need to see some key bullpen guys in the coming weeks -- they've also been held back -- but staying healthy is more important than any sort of spring production anyway. The less Pedro Strop pitches, the better. If the reliever shows a moment or two of rust come April, so be it. Better to be rusty now than fatigued later. Maddon has said several times he likes the "slow dance" of spring training. He doesn't want anyone rushing anything.

So about halfway through a much-anticipated camp there aren't a lot of conclusions to be made. The main guys are just getting going and there's literally one roster spot/decision to be made: Take an extra pitcher or extra outfielder? My vote would be for pitcher right now. If you're trying to find at-bats for Soler and Baez, why cram another position player into the dugout? But not even that decision has to be made soon. The sense of real urgency hasn't arrived at Cubs camp just yet, but that's how they've designed it. It's coming. We know that. And it'll last for six or more months. For now they're just trying "not to suck" and doing a pretty good job of it.