What to watch for as Cubs' spring games begin

MESA, Ariz. -- Cactus League games begin on Thursday for the Chicago Cubs as they take the next step in preparing for the 2016 season. Three players in big league camp won’t participate in the action as Christian Villanueva (broken fibula), Matt Szczur (oblique) and Zac Rosscup (shoulder) are down with injuries. Only Szczur is due to return sometime next week.

Here are things to look for as the games begin.

Individual results: Everyone says to not pay attention to individual results in spring games. About 95 percent of the time that’s true, but I’ll remind you of Carlos Marmol in 2013 and Jose Veras in 2014. Both looked awful in Cactus League action yet opened the season as the Cubs closer, no questions asked. Neither survived very long in the role -- or on the team -- but before they left, they caused all sorts of damage. It was foreshadowed during the spring. I believe pitchers need at least one outing at any point where they look like the regular-season version of themselves. Wouldn’t they want to mow down hitters just once before the real thing starts?

Wins and losses: Now here’s an area where spring results don’t matter. The Cubs could finish first or last in the Cactus League and it would have no bearing on the regular season except, of course, if their underperformance is strictly due to their regulars looking lost in the field, at the plate and on the basepaths. I suppose that could carry over, but in reality it’s hard to judge the spring season in such black-and-white terms. Minor league players are in and out of the lineup while some veterans might be working on specific things they may not attempt during the regular season. Plus the adrenaline won’t be there, especially for the Cubs, who are predicted to do big things this year. "Save it for April" undoubtedly is Joe Maddon’s advice. But if fundamentals aren’t attended to, the Cubs manager will step in. He did last year in an infamous rant that got his point across.

Players to watch: Despite not worrying about their results, there are some Cubs players to keep an eye on, if for no other reason than you might see them later in the season. Few have looked better over the last few years in spring training than Albert Almora. I would expect the same this year, as Almora can pick it with anyone in the outfield -- and when his timing is on at the plate, the ball jumps off his bat. His problem is what happens come April. It’s been a slow progression for Theo Epstein’s first draft pick as the Cubs’ boss.

Ryan Williams is on the same kind of track Kyle Hendricks was on a few years ago, and the two have similar repertoires. Williams was 14-3 last season between Class A and Double-A. Newly acquired pitcher Aaron Brooks also is eligible for a spot start later in the season, so he’ll want to impress his new team when he takes the mound. Reliever Neil Ramirez is another player to keep an eye on as he’s out of options. Will he force the Cubs’ hand as he attempts to return to form or is he destined to move on? Spring games will tell his tale.

Finally, two “veterans” to watch as much for their defense as anything else are Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez. Let’s see what an offseason of work in the outfield did for both players as they’ll man left and center on Thursday against the Milwaukee Brewers. Taking the right routes to the ball doesn’t change just because it’s spring. We could probably include Jorge Soler in that group as well.

The schedule: Finally, so you aren’t lost looking for Cubs games, here is the schedule for this spring including radio, television and Internet-only games. Enjoy!