In advance of today’s split squad Cactus League openers for the Chicago Cubs, it’s worth pointing out some things about Spring Training stats:
(1) The games do not count in the standings, and players are getting ready for the season. The ways in which these two facts impact performance are numerous, layered, and impossible to quantify. In other words, you must, must, must regard the stats cautiously in the Spring. Pitchers are throwing lots of fastballs (sometimes only fastballs). The hitters might be working as if they are in a count they are not in. The lineups are screwy. The substitutions are screwy. The rosters are screwy. It’s not quite real.
(2) All of that goes triple for veterans. A vet slumping in Spring means nothing. A vet breaking out in Spring means nothing. Sometimes, younger players do need to try and put on a good show in the Spring, and that can be reflected in the stats. But that’s basically never true for established players, and, even for younger guys, it’s all super small sample and subject to the not-quite-real-ness of point one.
(3) We’re starved for baseball by this point in the year, and this is still kinda sorta baseball. So it’s OK to enjoy the performances, and talk about the stats – because it’s fun. If you want to use it for evaluative purposes at the margins or where you know there’s a very specific competition going on? I think that’s fine. I’d put a little more stock in the scouting reports or coaches comments that you hear (they’ve got way more information, especially this time of year, than we do), but you can look at the numbers a little, too.
So, against that backdrop, we have to acknowledge that, for some positions and roster spots, Spring Training really does matter. And, this year, the Cubs seem to have an unusually large number of spots up for grabs or questions unanswered. In the Cubs’ case, that’s because of quality depth, though, rather than a bunch of terrifying unknowns. The addition of Phil Coke today, for example, really highlights the force behind the many questions facing the Cubs this Spring: so many quality options for so few spots.
Among the things to watch, and that could be affected at the margins by performance in Cactus League games …
- The front four of the Cubs’ rotation is basically set, but who’s going to win that fifth starter job? I think Spring performance, scouting, and health are going to go a long way to determining this one, together with what the Cubs are able to do roster/trade-wise. I’ve written at length about the fifth starter competition if you missed it.
- Similarly, and relatedly because of the spillover, the bullpen isn’t quite yet fully set. Assuming health, it’s a very good bet that all of Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Neil Ramirez, Justin Grimm, and Jason Motte will have jobs. The Cubs are likely to carry seven relievers to start the year, so that means two more spots to be won among a large group of primarily lefties, a reverse-split righty, and guys who don’t make the rotation (some of whom – Tsuysohi Wada, Felix Doubront, Jacob Turner, Travis Wood, and Edwin Jackson – make things tricky because they can’t just be optioned to Iowa). And you also wonder when power righty Armando Rivero will get a shot.
- The Cubs have some bench spots to sort out, too, which becomes extremely complicated when you factor in the uncertain starting situations at second and third base, when you factor in the significant positional versatility offered by many Cubs players, and the looming threat of having to carry three catchers for a little while. As you’ll see in a moment, even as I’m trying to address specific positions, the bench conversation necessarily comes up … and gets complicated.
- Speaking of which, the Welington Castillo situation is likely to sort itself out by the end of the Spring, and scouts will be watching him closely.
- At second base, specifically, the Cubs would probably love to see Javier Baez hold onto the gig and run away with it in the Spring. But I think it’s probably going to be tough to judge his readiness given the pitching he’ll be facing. The Cubs may have to make the Baez decision – starting at second, or optioned to AAA Iowa for more work – largely based on their own, internal evaluation, rather than the numbers he puts up in Cactus League play.
- If it’s not Baez, second base could wind up going to Arismendy Alcantara or Tommy La Stella … who could, himself, be playing for a job at third base, too. And that’s where Mike Olt would like to win the job … and where Kris Bryant will probably eventually find himself, but probably not on April 5. Depending on who lands where, this all impacts the bench and outfield depth situation, too. It gets complicated very quickly, but, the main thing to note: because of all of the versatility, the Cubs can keep the best players and sort out the positions later. Guys like Olt, La Stella, Ryan Sweeney, Junior Lake, etc., all have a realistic shot of making the team, even without a rash of injuries. In years past, it wouldn’t quite be that wide open, because positional placements were relatively narrow.
- As the Spring goes on, we’ll also start to get a sense of the lineup Joe Maddon is thinking about using. So that will be fun.