MESA, Ariz. – From his ideas about how to utilize both Edwin Jackson and Travis Wood to employing three catchers, Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon is keeping people guessing on much of the Cubs' 25-man strategy as they head toward the final couple of weeks of spring training.
On Sunday he continued to drop hints about the roster, claiming to have had an “epiphany” the previous day. He was telling reporters to dig deeper.
“Beyond the more obvious stuff,” Maddon said. “What about his defense? How does he run the bases? What does it take to win a ballgame? A lot of answers lie below the surface.”
He wasn’t talking about any player in particular, but is describing what he’s looking for besides the long balls.
“There’s some stuff here I really like that I don’t think is being talked about a whole lot,” Maddon said.
So let’s take a stab and start talking about it:
Mike Olt: Setting Kris Bryant aside for a moment, Olt has to be playing his way onto the team. First off, he’s by far the best defensive third baseman the Cubs employ --- in fact, save Bryant, he’s the only natural third baseman they employ. With Maddon stressing defense, it would be a shock if Olt weren't part of the mix.
“He’s done a nice job,” Maddon said. “Not only that, he’s swinging the bat really well.”
Olt earned his team-leading seventh walk of the spring on Sunday, a huge change in his game from last season. His walks-to-strikeouts are getting better aligned, which would be music to the ears of the Cubs' front office. With Bryant’s situation as is, Olt has earned the right to start the season with the Cubs at third base. After that it’s on him, as the leash should be shorter than last season.
Welington Castillo: I don’t believe the Cubs had any intention of starting the season with three catchers, but that might be changing with the way Castillo is playing, combined with the apparent lack of trade chatter. Castillo is 4 for 8 throwing out runners and while his .375 batting average might be a spring aberration, he’s simply looked very good. Limit his playing time, use him late to shut down the opponent’s run game and find the right matchups for him at the plate. Castillo’s game might be giving the Cubs some new ideas to play with.
Matt Szczur/Junior Lake/Ryan Sweeney: Did you even know Sweeney was around? He’s under contract for one more year, but the former two players have shown much more to their games this spring. It doesn’t mean Sweeney won’t be the right choice as a veteran player, but he’s not the defender that Szczur is and Lake has more to his offensive game – when he’s making contact, of course. Plus, Szczur has shown plenty of pop in the batter’s box, claiming to have found his stroke after years of concentrating heavily on football. Maddon has already expressed how impressed he is with Lake’s baserunning and decisions in the outfield. And we know the athleticism Lake brings to the game. Sweeney might be looking over his shoulder before the end of the month.
Javier Baez: This one is more obvious because Maddon keeps talking about Baez’ baseball instincts away from the batter’s box, including his defense. He made a stellar throw from deep in the hole in Sunday’s game against the San Diego Padres.
“He tags as good as anyone,” Maddon said. “I’m a tag freak. It’s about run prevention.”
Baez is tied for the team lead with three stolen bases in addition to playing good defense. Is it really enough to offset some offensive woes?
“The strikeouts are a product of chase, chase, chase,” Maddon said.
The manager might simply be pumping up the confidence of the Cubs' top draft pick of 2011, as Baez leads the team with 13 strikeouts, though he has the most spring at-bats of any Cubs hitter.
Summary: Defense and baserunning are the two parts of the game that Maddon keeps stressing, but don’t show up much in a spring box score. If other things are equal, or the Cubs believe they might have enough power at the plate, these are the areas that can win or lose jobs.
Lake and Szczur, in particular, have to be giving the Cubs some pause when it comes to Sweeney’s role on the team, at least based on the spring.
“I’m seeing some things differently,” Maddon reiterated mysteriously. “I like defense, man. I like [the] ball being caught. There’s no unilateral decisions being made here.”
But there will be soon.