MESA, Ariz. -- With camp set to open Thursday, let's examine five key things to watch in this highly anticipated spring training for the Cubs.
What: Cubs spring training at Sloan Park in Mesa, Arizona.
When: Pitchers and catchers report on Thursday. Position players are due in camp on Feb. 25.
What's open to the public: All workouts are open to the public, usually starting after 9:30 a.m. local time. Most fields are visible from a designated area, including the one closest to the Under Armour Performance Center where the team trains.
Cactus League play: Beginning on March 5, the Cubs will play 31 Cactus League games, including four days of split-squad affairs. They'll send a team to Las Vegas on March 12 and 13 to take on the Oakland Athletics and will conclude their stay in Arizona with two exhibition games against the Arizona Diamondbacks on April 3 and 4 at Chase Field.
What to watch:
Will we see swing changes immediately? Baez just missed striking out 100 times in both the minors (130) and the majors (95) last season; it doesn't mean he's not talented and can't get moving in the right direction, but it did need addressing. At this winter's Cubs fan convention, Baez said he had trouble catching up to fastballs, and that was evident in the numbers, as he ranked last in the league in every measurable category on pitches in the upper half, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Baez and new hitting coach John Mallee addressed less pre-pitch movement during the offseason, and Baez also dropped a lot of weight that should make him quicker overall. In the field, Baez was decent at second base, but a full spring training at that position will benefit him greatly. But it's at the plate where all eyes will be on him from the outset.
It's well-documented that Bryant might not be able to make the team out of spring training, as service time issues might have him in the minors for a few weeks in April. But that doesn't mean we can't marvel at what he does at the plate in hitter-friendly Arizona. Bryant is all about making necessary adjustments -- usually quicker than most at his age. With his first full year of being a professional behind him and an offseason of work at home -- where he was taking nearly 200 swings a day -- Bryant could very well lead all Cactus League players in several hitting categories when it's all said and done. Exhibition games or not, it's simply fun to watch the Cubs' 2013 first-round pick at the plate.
No. 5 starter
The Cubs probably will need all the depth they can get, but let's assume all potential starters are healthy heading into the regular season. What does the team do with both Tsuyoshi Wada and Travis Wood? Both can't make the rotation, but both are making rotation-type money. That doesn't mean Wada's $4 million salary can't go to the bullpen when you consider the Cubs aren't paying much to the rest of their relief staff, save a few bucks ($4.5 million) for newcomer Jason Motte. It's a good problem to have right now, but Wood needs to be given a chance to pitch to the team's new veteran catching duo. If anyone could use some pitch framing, it's Wood and his need to hit his spots. Just think, if Wood can return to All-Star form, the Cubs' starting staff gets a huge boost.
Of all the things the Cubs made a priority in the offseason -- like starting pitching and catching -- lefty relief specialist wasn't one of them. They didn't feel Wesley Wright was worth the money to spend on a sixth-inning guy when the real need is a big out against a lefty in the eighth or ninth inning. As mentioned in this blog's spring previews, the Cubs aren't too concerned with that role since their righties can get lefties out. But there will be a time when a dangerous left-handed hitter is at the plate and the Cubs want to give him a look from a same-sided pitcher. Zac Rosscup or Drake Britton might be the guys to find the spotlight unless they go outside the organization before April. How lefty relievers fare against left-handed batters during Cactus League play might tell a lot of the story.
We should start to get a feel for that mad scientist reputation Maddon brings to town. He'll undoubtedly try out all sorts of lineups, including possibly having his pitcher bat eighth. Has anyone ever done that in the spring? Expect the unexpected when it comes to Maddon, and as much as spring training isn't all that different from one manager to the next, Chicago's new skipper will most certainly insert a twist or two. Maybe we'll get a feel for his "less is more" ethos when it comes to players being around the ballpark too much. That might come into play later in the regular season when players are dragging from the grind, but either way, Maddon will keep everyone on their toes.
Jackson and Castillo
One more note of interest this spring is what happens to catcher Welington Castillo and pitcher Edwin Jackson. Less of a concern is Castillo. He's going to be traded; it's just a matter of time. But will the usually affable backstop be frustrated by the situation? After all, the Cubs said a lot of nice things about him all winter but then went out and replaced him. Jackson is more complicated. Most observers assumed he wouldn't be back after his disastrous first two years in a Cubs uniform. But here he is entering the third year of a four-year deal that pays him $22 million more before it ends. With Wood, Kyle Hendricks and even Wada around it would be a major upset if he made the rotation, and the only possible role in the bullpen would be as a long man. Maybe that's the answer until a deal can be made, but it might mean a more talented pitcher isn't on the roster. That won't sit well with Cubs fans.