The Chicago Cubs have gathered in Mesa, Arizona to begin their preparations for the 2021 season, and even after making their fifth playoff appearance in six seasons, there are still plenty of questions surrounding the North Siders.
Of course, the offseason brought several high-profile changes, including the departure of Theo Epstein from the organization. Slugger Kyle Schwarber and starting pitcher Jon Lester, both key figures on the 2016 Cubs world title-winning squad, are both gone as well, as is starting pitcher Yu Darvish, who was traded to the San Diego Padres.
With all of the changes both on the field and off, there are plenty of challenges surrounding the Cubs, and we have five of the biggest questions that the team will face not only in spring training, but during the regular season as well.
1 How will the team react to the contract uncertainty surrounding its biggest superstars?
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New President of Baseball Operations Jed Hoyer says that the team will discuss potential contract extensions with Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez this spring, but also made it clear that the team likely won’t be able to bring back all three of the long-time members of the team.
The offseason has already sparked plenty of trade speculation around the Cubs, especially in Bryant’s case, but if all three players go into the regular season without new contracts, how will they respond to it? How will the team respond to it?
Hoyer spoke repeatedly during his first presser in Mesa about the prospect of free agency being a motivating factor for the three players, but it will be fascinating to see how they’ll react if they make it through Cactus League play without putting a pen to paper on a new contract.
2 Who will begin the season in the team’s starting rotation?
A massive overhaul has taken place this offseason in the Cubs’ pitching rotation, with the aforementioned Darvish and Lester out of the mix, along with José Quintana, who is now reunited with Joe Maddon with the Angels, and Tyler Chatwood, who inked a contract with the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Cubs have brought in several contenders for rotation spots, including Zach Davies, acquired in the Darvish trade, and Trevor Williams, signed in free agency.
Those two, along with Arrieta, Alec Mills, Adbert Alzolay and Tyson Miller would all figure to have shots at joining Kyle Hendricks in the Cubs’ rotation on Opening Day, but how will things shake out in that battle.
Naturally, one would assume that Arrieta will make the team’s rotation, based on track record and compensation, and Williams and Davies would also seem to have the best shots out of the group to slot into that mix as well.
The big question falls to whether Mills, Alzolay or Miller would potentially lock down the fifth spot. Some Cubs experts have said it’s possible Alzolay would be the fifth starter, with Mills serving as a swing-man and occasional spot-starter, but David Ross and Tommy Hottovy have an interesting decision to make when it comes to the make-up of the rotation.
3 What about second base?
Most of the Cubs’ positions on the diamond are locked in, with Bryant, Báez and Rizzo locking down three of the four infield spots, but second base remains a giant question mark, especially with the departure of Jason Kipnis and the absence of a locked in veteran player to take over the spot.
The Cubs have at least three candidates who will likely figure into the competition for second base, starting out with Nico Hoerner. The former first round pick batted just .222 last season with 13 RBI’s and three stolen bases, but at just 23 years old, he has plenty of time to round his game into shape and become an everyday contributor for the Cubs.
David Bote also figures to see plenty of playing time at second, although he could potentially see some reps at third base as well if Pederson ends up sitting against lefty pitchers (something he did a lot of in 2020, although the Cubs have seemingly indicated that he’ll get a chance to go up against southpaws early in the season). Bote is probably the best hitter of the bunch right now, but his defense would likely be ranked against the other two main contenders for the spot.
Ildemaro Vargas will get a shot to earn regular playing time at second base, but the Cubs see him as more of a utility player, able to fill in at multiple spots on the infield. He appeared in six games for the Cubs last season, with a home run and a pair of hits in nine at-bats.
Ross mentioned the second base competition during the first full week of workouts:
4 Who will lead off games for the Cubs?
The most obvious candidate to lead off right now is Ian Happ, who is coming off a strong 2020 campaign for the Cubs. He posted an OBP of .361 last season, with 12 home runs and 28 RBI’s to his credit, and his ability to work counts and hit for power even in two-strike counts is something the Cubs could certainly use at the top of the order.
Outside of a return to Bryant or Rizzo in the leadoff spot, Ross could also turn to Pederson, who started 249 games in the leadoff spot during his Dodgers career. He slashed .235/.325/.503 in that role, according to NBC Sports Chicago’s Tim Stebbins.
Ross has indicated that he envisions Happ serving as the team’s leadoff hitter this season, but his versatility as a switch-hitter could come in handy further down in the lineup as well, giving Ross a lot of options at the top.
5 Who will earn spots in the bullpen derby?
At this point, the Cubs have very few absolute locks to set up their bullpen this season, with Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Chafin and Rowan Wick (assuming he can finally get healthy as he battles an intercostal injury) seemingly locked into roles.
From there, things get a bit more murky. One would assume that Brandon Workman, who signed a free agent deal with the Cubs, has a really good shot at making the team, along with Dan Winkler, who is on a big league deal with the Cubs.
A few other players will be worth keeping an eye on for Cubs fans, including veteran hurler Shelby Miller, who signed a minor league deal with the Cubs this offseason. Justin Steele, one of the team’s best prospects, could also be in the mix, as could Brailyn Marquez, although it’s far more likely that Marquez will open the season in the minor leagues.
The last player to really keep an eye on is Dillon Maples, as he enters spring training without any minor league options remaining. This could be his last chance to secure a spot on the Cubs’ roster, so make sure to watch him closely during Cactus League play.