Unfortunately, I don’t have time to do a deep dive into expectations for this Cubs season just yet – their first trying to repeat as World Series Champs since spring training 1909! (Did they have spring training in 1909? Might have to look into that…) I anticipate Cubs coverage will ramp up as the Illini basketball season winds down, which could be as soon as their first game in the Big Ten Tournament on March 8th. *Sigh* But then there will be a coaching search, so this site will probably continue to be Illini heavy for a bit.
Anyway, here’s a quick look at some story lines to keep an eye on as the Cubs pitchers and catchers officially report to camp today.
Joe Maddon’s got some new themes. Last year, he was famous for “Try not to suck.” I feel like it’s generally a good idea to try to aim higher, but, hey, it worked. He also encouraged his players to “Do simple better” and “Embrace the target.” Good stuff, Joe. Also solid T-shirt fodder. This year, it sounds like he’s focusing on authenticity, pushing beyond your comfort zone, and remembering the human and emotional side of a game that is increasingly quantified. Carrie Muskat over at cubs.com has a good write up of the new slogans, and I expect we’ll hear more about them after the whole team reports on Sunday. I’m a fan of this year’s themes, and I especially like the sentiment behind “don’t forget the heartbeat.” Maddon references the team meeting called by Jason Heyward during the rain delay in Game 7 as the particular inspiration behind this one. You can’t put a number on heart, and as much as stats have contributed to the game, motivation and camaraderie and state of mind matter. A lot. I might have to check out the “heartbeat” T-shirt.
Since it’s pitchers and catchers day, a couple of bits of news related to the Cubs’ battery mates. A big question coming into the season was who would catch Jon Lester now that his personal catcher, David Ross, had retired. Miguel Montero is a savvy vet and calls a good game, but 2nd-year man Willson Contreras can control the run game better with his arm and showed steady improvement in game management while learning on the job last season. Looks like it’s going to be Contreras. This isn’t a huge surprise, as Lester is notoriously bad at preventing stolen bases. It helps to be able to throw to first, which he can’t seem to do with any reliability. Problem partially solved by getting a crafty catcher with a rocket arm to pick those runners off for him. Brett Taylor over at Bleacher Nation has a good breakdown of Lester’s struggles in 2015, his improvement last year, and how Contreras could help. Also fun, Ross will be at spring training to teach Contreras the ropes of catching one of the best lefthanders in the game.
More on catching: Sounds like the door isn’t completely closed on Kyle Schwarber getting some time behind the plate. After a serious knee injury cost him most of 2016, he wasn’t medically cleared to play the outfield until recently (I don’t think I’ve ever been so grateful for the DH rule in America League parks!). Schwarber will be spending most of his time improving his play in left and learning to trust his surgically repaired knee, but at least during spring training he’ll go through some of the catching training, primarily thinking through situations and such until his doctors tell him whether he can get behind the plate. Catching is notoriously tough on knees, so it may end up being too much of a risk for a player with such offensive potential who is also a valuable member of the clubhouse. But what a weapon for Joe Maddon if he could rely on Schwarber to catch every couple of weeks and on double switches! Last year, the Cubs carried three catchers for most of the season. Part of this was because Ross was Lester’s guy, but it helps to give catchers more rest and have flexibility with situational subbing. And Maddon likes to use all his guys. In any case, Schwarber wants to catch, the Cubs see the value in that, but both are realistic in stating that his regular position will be left field and he’ll catch only if it’s not at an undue risk to his health. Both Bleacher Nation and Cubs.com have stories on this.
And, finally, the dream that Travis Wood would return to the Cubs to pitch, make back-to-the-ivy catches in left, and hit homers has died. I talked a bit about Wood in an earlier post and held out hope he’d resign with the Cubs until just yesterday. The Cubs did make him an offer, but the Royals gave him 2 years/$12 million and a solid chance at the starting rotation. Tough to turn down. It is a bit of a bummer that he won’t get to show off his outfield and hitting skills in the American League.
I love the start of the baseball season. It’s all hope and possibility. This year especially, I think we all could use a little baseball.