Storylines have been rather few and far between for the Cubs down in Arizona this spring. There was of course the intrigue around Yu Darvish and then the outside hope at a Jake Arrieta return. But now that the flames behind both have fizzled out, Cubs fans are primed for the regular season to finally begin. As we approach two weeks from Opening Day in Miami, the roster is all but set. Roles may increase or diminish based on what we are seeing in Arizona, but there will likely not be any major roster surprises in the next couple weeks. Thankfully, Spring Training is nearly complete, and for fans on the North Side, Opening Day at Wrigley is quickly coming in to focus.
Any Spring Training performances have to be taken with a grain of salt. Hitters are typically going to look sharp given the prime hitting conditions. On the other end of the spectrum are pitchers. They tend to struggle because they generally are still working to regain a feel for their pitches and command. But clearly there have been a few guys that have been cause for early season excitement, and others that have left a little to be desired. At the halfway point of Cactus League action, let’s take a look at the good and the bad for the Cubs.
.393/.485/.1.071, 5HR, 8SO, 4BB
Happ’s monstrous spring has Cubs fans wondering if he is ready to become an everyday player. Others are wondering if Happ is ready to take over the lead-off role. After being drafted ninth overall out of Cincinnati in 2015, Happ became more of an after-thought amongst Cub prospects. However, after shooting up the minor league system, and performing well in limited MLB action, the 23 year-old may be ready to take the next step in 2018.
Happ’s spring numbers speak for themselves, but the power is what has really jumped off the page. Five home runs in limited at-bats is impressive. The one knock on Happ’s big time spring is still the strikeouts. In only 28 ABs Happ has already struck out eight times, equating to nearly a third of his plate appearances. Obviously that rate would decline over the course of a 162-game season, but if Happ has plans to earn any type of lead-off hitting success, these occurrences must be limited.
Opening Day Projection: tOPS+ projections would have you believe Marlins’ Opening Day starter, Jose Urena, fares worse against left-handed hitting. Expect the switch-hitting Happ to lead-off and play center field, where he an Albert Almora will be used interchangeably throughout the season.
.333/.429/.700, 3HR, 12SO, 5BB, 3SB
The name of the game for Schwarber is always going to be offensive output versus strikeouts. Though he is only in year three of an abbreviated big-league career, Schwarber is what he is at this point. He’s going to always be toward the top of the league in strikeouts, but he will also give you 30+ home runs. The real question is whether the Cubs can limit his boom or bust nature. A .211/.315/.467 slash line is not going to cut it again in 2018.
However, early returns on Schwarber look very positive. Schwarber should get a lot of credit for working hard this off-season to get in better shape and gain a little more athleticism in left field. The weight loss certainly has not hampered his power, as he has knocked three homers in limited at-bats.
I also love to see the spike in stolen bases. Who would have thought last season that Schwarber would turn himself into a base-stealing threat?
Schwarber has certainly rebranded himself as more than just a one-dimensional slugger. He looks ready to add several new components to his game in 2018. However, the strikeouts are still an issue. 12 strikeouts in 30 at-bats is unsustainable. Similar to Happ, I would expect this rate to diminish over a full campaign, but it is an area of concern no doubt.
Opening Day Projection: Schwarber has left-field locked down, but his spot in the batting order is a bit fluid. For now, I’ll go with second in the order. This stacks three lefties in a row against Urena, and will allow Schwarber to see more pitches in the strike zone with Rizzo & Bryant looming.
11.0IP, 12K/5BB, 0.82 ERA, .118 Opp BA, 0.82 WHIP
Chatwood has looked downright masterful in Mesa so far this Spring, a great sign for the newly acquired back end of the Cubs’ starting staff. With a staff comprised of names like Lester, Darvish, Hendricks, and Quintana, anything received from Chatwood is gravy.
Overall, Chatwood is an interesting case study in pitching. Being stashed in Colorado for his entire career, Chatwood was rarely pitching in the spotlight. The first time I saw him pitch live was during a Sunday afternoon Cubs-Rockies series finale at Wrigley in 2016. I recognized the name Tyler Chatwood, but any scouting report I could muster would be scarce. I quickly realized that he was no joke. After the second or third 95MPH fastball I saw him blow by a Chicago hitter, I dug a little deeper into the young right-hander. The verdict? A talented pitcher, who has been severely affected by having half his starts take place at pitcher-hell, Coors Field.
Chatwood’s home/away splits as a Rockie are drastically different. A change of scenery should make a world of difference. However, summer days at Wrigley can be just as difficult to navigate as Coors Field. At this point though, we are seeing yet another quality acquisition executed by the Cubs front-office.
Opening Day Projection: Chatwood will remain as the fifth starter in a vaunted Cub rotation, likely making his debut April 2 in Cincinnati.
.194/.219/.484, 2HR, 4SO, 0BB
Not a whole lot of production from Almora so far this spring in 31 at-bats. Almora has made a couple highlight-reel catches in center field, but at the plate he has left a little more to be desired. This seems to be the trend with Almora though. Always seemingly on the cusp of becoming a star, but just never hitting that level. Now, that is not to say there is cause for concern. The 23 year-old is still well on his way to becoming a core player in the Cubs outfield. But this is the season where you would really like to see him make a jump.
Going in to Spring Training, Almora was one of three or four players who was competing to be the everyday lead-off hitter. However, given Happ’s breakout, I’m not sure Almora has done enough to earn himself the spot. He’ll certainly get his chance during the regular season though. His glove is too valuable to keep on the bench.
The main progress point for Almora is to get on base. He is still not taking walks, which is of some concern. For a rare non-power hitter in the Cub lineup, Almora needs to be one of the hitters that sets the table for the horses in the middle of the lineup.
Opening Day Projection: Sits against the right-handed Jose Urena. Then, he’ll enter the game late as a defensive replacement in center field.
3.1IP, 1K/2BB, .353 Opp BA, 2.50 WHIP
This is a good spot to remind Cubs fans of my earlier point that Spring Training performances are not bellwethers for the season. However, I can already feel Cubs fans clamoring about Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease. This is certainly not the start that Quintana would have liked to get off to, but Quintana mainly relies on pinpoint control and deception, so its really of no surprise that there are struggles occurring in March.
Quintana has done enough in his career where there are no question marks about him going into the season. I expect him to be his efficient self once the regular season kicks off, and quickly silence any fans that are a bit unnerved by last season’s blockbuster trade.
Opening Day Projection: Remains the Cubs’ fourth starter. Quintana will likely make his debut on April 1 in the series finale against Miami.
.154/.267/.231, 0HR, 9SO, 4BB
It’s time for J-Hey to shows us something, anything, on the offensive side of things. Since signing a lucrative free-agent deal two years ago, Heyward has produced nothing at the plate. He’s been a leader and a Gold-Glove caliber outfielder, but for the price he was signed for, there needs to be better production.
Cubs fans are certainly rooting for Heyward. He seems to be everything you would want in a ballplayer, but he just cannot figure out his swing in a Cubs uniform. The power is gone, and the ability to hit the opposite way is lacking. He’s struck out a heck of a lot so far down in Mesa in 26 at-bats. In year three as a Cub, Heyward has to start showing signs of improvement if he wants to stay in the good graces of the Wrigley faithful. In limited appearances this spring, Heyward does not seem to be on his way to that achievement.
Opening Day Projection: Joe Maddon will continue to give Heyward a majority of the starts in right field, unless his offensive game completely collapses. I expect him to start in right field Opening Day, and bat toward the bottom of the lineup, possibly seventh.