Top ten questions heading into spring training -

Top ten questions heading into spring training

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By Adam McDonald By Adam McDonald
ST. LOUIS, Mo.--
1.  WHEN DOES THEO PULL THE TRIGGER?........Because the gun is still loaded.  The Cubs aren't paying any position players above market rate, and with more youngsters on the way, that won't change.  Combine that with the new TV deal, and the fact that the Cubs were in the James Shields derby until the end, and it's only a matter of time before Theo pulls the trigger on another starting pitcher.  There are three in season possibilities:  spring training, the trade deadline, and the waiver deadline.  I think you can throw out the waiver deadline.  If the Cubs are anywhere over .500 during the season, and in contention for at least a wildcard spot, I don't see a team that's sitting on cash waiting around until the end of August to make its move for a starting pitcher that would only have a half dozen or so starts left.  Similarly, but for opposite reasons, I doubt Theo makes his move in the spring unless the Cubs face significant pitching injuries.  With so much uncertainty over whether the kids are ready to produce yet, it makes sense for the organization to step into the water first, and see if the team is able to tread water for a while.  That makes the trade deadline the most likely scenario, but remember, the trade deadline has not meant July 31 to Theo in the past, as the Cubs have elected to strike early with the Matt Garza and Jeff Smardzjia deals.  My guess is that the Cubs hang around .500 for the first couple of months, sending Theo shopping in June.  And if they are still there come the All-Star break, we will be all in on a starting pitcher.  Who?  Probably a pitcher in his walk year.  Expensive, high profile players would be Johnny Cueto, Zach Greinke, David Price and Jordan Zimmerman.  To make that kind of move, the other team would need to be a seller.  The only apparent seller from that list would be Cincinnati with Cueto.  Cheaper, lower profile candidates would be Mark Buehrle, Matt Latos, Mike Leake, and Kyle Lohse.  And then there are teams trying to move contracts, where the likes of Cliff Lee and Tim Lincecum might sit.  And now........what are you willing to give up, because you know what they are asking for.  The best scenario is with the Cubs willing to take on salary, thus giving up less in prospects.  Theo will look for a team out of the race, with an overpriced pitcher that the Cubs can rent for three months, without giving up a top prospect.

2.  WILL JOE MADDON REALLY MAKE THE DIFFERENCE?.......He is widely considered among the best managers in the game, but so were Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella, and they were ushered out of town.  Maddon survived in a low pressure, low market situation in Tampa.  He also benefited from a wonderful farm system that kept producing major league talent.  He comes to the most desperate dugout in baseball, with a now wonderful farm system that has yet to get most of its chips on the field.  Tampa was also pitcher friendly, meaning bullpens weren't wrecked by June.  Wrigley has been known to send it's hurlers to Rush street by 6pm.  Madden has also been known to move players around the diamond, and employ numerous lineups.  We'll have to see if that's an effective strategy with such a young team, as players are trying to get acclimated. There's no question Maddon is a plus.  But just like with the players, we may need a year for everyone to get on the same page.    

3.  WHO IS THE REAL JAKE ARRIETA?........Is it the prospect that struggled mightily in Baltimore before being sold on the cheap, or the pitcher in Chicago last year who was one of the best pitchers in all of baseball?  If it's the former, the Cubs will be way short on starting pitching this year.  If it's the latter, and we can add one more big arm at the deadline, then we will be playing October baseball in Wrigley in 2015.  This is a giant question facing the Cubs.  The good news is that we should know the answer fairly quickly.  Arrieta was so strong last year, for the entire year, that it's hard to discount him.  You're talking about a starting pitcher in Wrigley with an ERA at 2.5, a WHIP at 0.9, and a guy who hardly ever threw up a home run ball.  Players sometimes revert to past form for various reasons.  But Arrieta had all the numbers covered last year.  He's got a very good chance to bring it back.

4.  5TH STARTER, COME ON DOWN!.........well, take your pick.  Felix Dubront?  Travis Wood?  Tsuyoshi Wada?  Jacob Turner?  Edwin Jackson!!!!!!!  Well, we are paying EJAX $12M, so I assume he gets every chance to be terrible again.  The Cubs would like Dubront to get this job, but may need him in the pen.  Wood was pretty good in 2013, and awful in 2014.  Wada filled in last year when the games meant nothing.  Turner is a one-time hot shot whose star has fallen fast.  Pitching depth can never be under rated.  We don't need everybody to step up here.  But we do need one of them to. 

5.  IS THERE A SOUTHPAW IN THE HOUSE?........I have seen a lot of incredibly bad Cub bullpens over the years from the left side.  But this one shapes up as possibly the worst.  I don't think anybody has a clue who comes out of the mix of Dubront, Drake Britton, Eric Jokisch, Joseph Ortiz, or Zac Rosscup because nobody has ever seen or heard of any of them before.  It's possible none of them make the team, although it's likely one has too.  It's also quite possible the Cubs make a move to address this during the spring either thru a deal or the waiver wire.

6.  CAN WE FIND A HOME FOR WELLINGTON?........We won't be carrying three catchers, and as Miguel Montero came in a trade and David Ross is attached to Jon Lester's hip, there's just no room at the inn for Castillo.  He's still young with some offensive ability, and projects as a low level starter or a high end backup for most teams, so there should be a market.  But teams know the Cubs have to make a move here, so the chances of getting anything of value is slim.  Theo will wait this one out as long as possible, waiting to see if someone has an injury situation.  It's just a trade for a mid-level prospect, but it's a trade that has to happen.  I'm not sure that Castillo does for you in Iowa.  Montero is signed for a while, and those innings need to go to Kyle Schwarber or Victor Caratini. 

7.  BAEZ:  BOOM OR BUST?...............There's just no middle ground year.  There are scouts who are convinced Baez is the best prospect in baseball, the rare middle infielder with the giant bat, capable of hitting 50 home runs, and becoming the next Alex Rodriguez.  And there are others who see a .200 batting average combined with defensive shortcomings that will be impossible for the Cubs to live with.  Usually, the truth is in the middle, but it might not be here.  It might be possible that Baez is all of the above, and therefore a player we really haven't seen before at 2B.  What do we know for sure?  That he hits homers and strikes out.  Chances are, that won't change.  But the batting average might improve, and the defense might improve.  And if that is the case, he really will be the offensive monster that some believe.  If any of these Cub prospects needs time to develop, and fix their holes, it's Baez.  But if July comes around and he's hitting a buck-90 with a bunch of homers and whiffs, it will be his name being discussed in trade talks.  

8.  WE'RE NOT SHORT ON SHORSTOPS........Castro, Baez, and Addison Russell give the Cubs an embarrassment of riches at the premiere position.  All young, all under team control for years to come.  The Cubs could trade any of the three to get the pitcher they want, or all three could wind up playing together for years to come.  I doubt that option is reality.  Castro would lose value if he moves of short, as his offensive numbers would be less impressive at third.  Baez would hold equal value at second or short, but until the Cubs really know what Baez is, he's in a holding pattern both for the Cubs and for any trade partner.  And Russell is probably the best defensive player of the bunch, and probably the best all-around shortstop prospect, meaning if both Russell and Castro are up together, Castro has to move.  When the Cubs do make a trade for a pitcher, and refuse to move Schwarber or Kris Bryant, it's likely one of the shortstops is on the board.  If they are down on Baez it will be him.   If they are high on Baez it will be Castro.  I see no scenario where it is Russell.

9.  WHEN IS SUPER TWO OVER?............Or, when is the soonest we can see Kris Bryant at third?  This is the question I get most often, and there is no exact answer.  It's a complicated formula in the baseball collective bargaining unit.  the bottom line is if Bryant begins the season in Wrigley, he can become a free agent after 2020. If the Cubs bring him up closer to May, they have him until 2021.  In other words, he won't be there in April.  So how soon?   Again, the Cubs are not dealing with an exact date, but they are going to want to make certain they have gone past whatever date is necessary.  Most of the speculation lands the safe area after April 15, and surely anytime in May.  The most likely scenario is we see Bryant as soon as we see May flowers.   

10.  EVENTUALLY, WHO'S IN LEFT?...........Well, it could be Chris Coghlan.  The Cubs need a leadoff hitter, an on base guy, and a veteran presence on a young team.  But with so many high profile prospects that might be moved because of positions, Coghlan likely has a shot shelf life.  If Schwarber's bat is way ahead of his catching, left field is the option.  If Russell bumps Castro to third, Bryant is heading to left.  Or if Bryant can't play third, he's heading to left.   None of those options are probably happening in 2015, but they are all on the table going forward.  It would help Coghlan if both Schwarber and Bryant could play their current positions. But the most likely scenario is that Schwarber's bat is ready soon, and he lands in left.

About the author: Bob Cyphers has 35 years of experience as a journalist in newspaper, radio and television.  Sadly, he has even more experience as a die-hard, heartbroken, beaten down Cub fan.  And although he promises that his beloved Cubs, as Ernie Banks predicted, will be "Supreme in 2015," deep down Bob understands that life, and the Cubbies, offers no guarantees. 

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