Cactus League will help determine roles

MESA, Ariz. -- Let the games begin! The Cactus League starts Thursday for the Chicago Cubs, and here’s what you need to know:

The Cubs will play 31 games before ending their stay in Arizona with two exhibition contests against the Arizona Diamondbacks on April 3 and 4. The only day they don’t have a game scheduled is March 23. Thursday’s split-squad openers feature Travis Wood taking on the Oakland Athletics at Sloan Park and Jacob Turner pitching against the San Francisco Giants in Scottsdale.

While spring statistics are mostly meaningless, that may not be the case for those vying for roster spots. Manager Joe Maddon has said a player’s “body of work” is most important, but if all things are equal, the guy who dominates in the spring could win the job. The opposite is true of the player who struggles all month. Last year Jose Veras never found his groove during the spring, and he struggled to start the season. The same was true of Carlos Marmol in 2013.

But be wary of the hitter who puts up monster spring numbers. Maddon doesn’t put much stock into it. However, again, the player who never gets it going is the one the Cubs should keep an eye on. Is it part of the process or the next Veras?

“I want to have that one outing where everything clicks,” pitcher Jason Hammel said Wednesday. “As long as the progression is there and then I have that game, I’m good.”

Fifth starter: For all practical purposes, this is Wood’s job to lose. But if Edwin Jackson somehow regains any kind of decent form, he could end up being the fifth starter. Crazier things have happened. More than likely, if everyone is healthy, the Cubs will trade one of those two pitchers -- or Tsuyoshi Wada. Turner and Felix Doubront are long shots for the job. Turner thinks he can be better after a year that produced a 6.13 ERA and then a winter of reflection.

“It’s tough to make adjustments during the season,” Turner said. “That’s what the offseason is for.”

Javier Baez: There’s plenty to watch when Baez comes to the plate, starting with his approach.

“For now, we are going to be working on making more contact and seeing the ball all the way through the zone,” Baez said.

Baez was asked if he’ll shorten up with two strikes, something he never did last year.

“You’re probably going to see me doing it with one strike too so I can work on it,” he responded.

Remember, early offensive results in the spring should be taken with a grain of salt, as hitting conditions are ripe for batters and pitchers aren’t throwing their hardest -- or with their best stuff.

Lefty in the pen: It doesn’t get much attention -- until the eighth inning of an April game on the line -- but the Cubs need a lefty specialist, or at least a lefty long man, in the bullpen. There is no clear cut favorite for the job.

“I don’t think one person has the job over another,” southpaw Zac Rosscup said. “Its fun to compete. They’re all great guys.”

Rosscup joins a group that includes newcomer Drake Britton and Joe Ortiz as candidates to make the bullpen.

“This is a great opportunity for me,” Britton said. “There are a lot of good lefties here. We’re in a friendly competition. I’m going to do everything I can to get it.”

If there is any position on the team that spring games will determine a roster spot, it’s left-handed reliever.

Third base: The other position up for grabs is third base. Is it Tommy La Stella or Mike Olt? Or maybe Arismendy Alcantara finds his way there. Their defense at the hot corner might help determine a winner, as only Olt has played there on a regular basis. But is the winner really winning when he’ll lose his job as soon as the Cubs bring up Kris Bryant from the minors? In a way, he is, because if he’s playing well, he may retain his roster spot even though he might not be the starter for more than a few weeks.

The lineup: Maddon revealed a partial lineup for Thursday’s home game against the Oakland Athletics. He’ll try different combinations throughout the spring:

Dexter Fowler

Anthony Rizzo

Starlin Castro

Miguel Montero

Javier Baez