Spring training story lines: From the Cubs to the World Baseball Classic – USA TODAY
Just 101 days ago, the Chicago Cubs rewrote history. Does it seem longer since the night a smiling, stumbling Kris Bryant tossed the ball across the diamond to Anthony Rizzo, capping a wild Game 7 that clinched the Cubsâ first World Series championship since 1908? Well, next year is here. Pitchers and catchers report to most camps beginning Monday, with first workouts a day later. USA TODAY Sportsâ Bob Nightengale and Jorge L. Ortiz break down the important story lines to play out under the skies in Arizona and Florida.
Ready for a baseball fix? Well, pace yourself. Opening day remains 50 days away.
Can the Cubs handle prosperity?
Thereâs a new story line for the first time in 109 years as the Cubs enter spring training with their shortest winter season in franchise history.
The Cubs are bidding to become the first National League team to win back-to-back titles since the 1975-76 Cincinnati Reds.
The Cubs are favored to win it again considering that their only major defections were center fielder Dexter Fowler, starter Jason Hammel and closer Aroldis Chapman.
And now theyâll have slugger Kyle Schwarber for an entire season, along with closer Wade Davis, whom they acquired from the Kansas City Royals. Their top four starters are all back, too, in Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey. They combined for a major league-leading 989 innings while the rotation led MLB with a 2.96 ERA last season. And now Mike Montgomery and newcomer Brett Anderson join the group.
âI want us to be uncomfortable,â Cubs manager Joe Maddon says of their new mantra. âThe moment you get into your comfort zone after having such a significant moment in your life like that, the threat is that youâre going to stop growing.â
Yes, thereâs a T-shirt in there, somewhere, to supplant the Cubsâ Try Not To Suck message of a year ago.
The Cubs will focus this spring on pitching and defense, Maddon says, and that means finding a center fielder to replace Fowler. They enter the spring with Albert Almora and Jon Jay in center. They would love for the talented Almora to win the job, but Jay is a veteran with a proven bat, and they could wind up sharing the job.
This will also be a huge test for Schwarber, who hasnât played the outfield since having reconstructive knee surgery in April. Itâs highly unlikely heâll return to a backup catcher role this year, and the Cubs hope to find out this spring whether he can play nine innings without the need of a late-inning replacement. He also might be used as their primary leadoff hitter, replacing Fowler and his .393 on-base percentage.
Yet the Cubsâ biggest question of all will be whether they can have the same drive and motivation of a year ago and not be content to have that shiny new ring on their fingers.
Can the Nationals close it down?
Washington tried to re-sign free agent closer Mark Melancon and came away empty-handed, watching him leave for the San Francisco Giants.
They tried to lure free agent closer Aroldis Chapman, only to see him return to the New York Yankees.
They went after free agent closer Kenley Jansen, only to watch him stay with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Now they plan to go with, well, Blake Treinen?
Treinen, who throws 95-97 mph, has terrific stuff but just one career save.
Shawn Kelley? The same guy who has had two Tommy John elbow surgeries and gave up a crushing two-run triple to Justin Turner in the Nationalsâ NL Division Series Game 5 loss to the Dodgers?
Koda Glover? The 23-year-old was drafted two years ago, has 19 games of big-league experience and a 5.03 ERA in those games last year and is recovering from a torn labrum in a hip.
Bring back Jonathan Papelbon?
The Nationals say they are willing to go into the spring with an open mind, but thereâs one man who makes all the sense in the world.
His name is David Robertson, the Chicago White Soxâs closer.
The Nationals tried to include him in their deal for White Sox center fielder Adam Eaton last winter and looked like they were close to sealing the deal last week, but thereâs still no trade.
The White Sox remain optimistic a trade will be consummated. But a high-ranking Nationals official, speaking on condition of anonymity because talks are ongoing, says the two sides have hit a stalemate and no trade is imminent.
It might just be a matter of who blinks first.
Who knows, perhaps one of Treinen or Kelley dominates all spring. Still, do you trust one of them to be the man to secure the Nationalsâ first back-to-back division titles?
Of course, they could take the gamble of going into the season with one of their own and reassess at the July 31 trade deadline. The Nats have traded for a closer at the deadline the last two summers, acquiring Melancon last year and Papelbon in 2015.
Certainly, it worked for the Cubs last year when they acquired Chapman at the deadline. In fact, the last four World Series champions all had different closers in October than who started the season.
The Nationals could take the gamble, too, but all signs lead to a Robertson trade before the start of the season.
Can the World Baseball ClassicÂ do no harm?
Every four years, teams brace for the departure of some of their players for at least a week and up to 16 days as the World Baseball Classic interrupts the gentle routine of spring training.
Aware of the tournamentâs importance to Major League Baseball, clubs mostly bite their tongues publicly while praying their players return in one piece. Those worries might be heightened this year with the U.S. team loading up with stars Buster Posey, Nolan Arenado, Giancarlo Stanton, Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller.
In previous tournaments, concerns about injuries have proved to be mostly unfounded, as WBC rules and careful handling of players have minimized ailments. Still, accidents can happen: Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Hanley Ramirez needed thumb surgery after getting hurt in the 2013 final while playing for the Dominican Republic.
This yearâs U.S. squad will be led by three-time Manager of the Year Jim Leyland.
âHeâs a guy that is going to look after the players. Itâs just who he is,â said Giants manager Bruce Bochy, whose club is sending three key players in Posey, Johnny Cueto and Brandon Crawford to the WBC. âHeâs a great manager because he cares about his players. Heâs not going to abuse anybody.â
However, one of the functions spring training serves is giving players a chance to bond and get to know new teammates. The WBC disrupts that process while taking players away from their teamsâ purview.
The Detroit Tigers will have no less than 15 players leaving in early March to play in the tournament. The New York Mets have the second-largest total with 13, followed by the Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners, Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Cardinals with 11 apiece. All six clubs figure to be contenders.
Yasiel Puig: AssetÂ or hindrance?
Joc Pedersonâs defensive skills and his second-half surge last year cemented his status as the Dodgersâ starting center fielder, at least against right-handers. The question of who will flank him will be answered during the spring. Much like last year, thereâs no shortage of candidates.
The Dodgers added one more to the mix last week when they signed former Gold Glover Franklin Gutierrez, a hint that Trayce Thompsonâs back problems likely will continue to sideline him. He didnât play in a game last season after July 10.
Perhaps the biggest intrigue for the Dodgers is what can they expect from the enigmatic Yasiel Puig, whose on-base-plus-slugging percentage has dipped each of the last three years and who earned a one-month demotion to the minors in 2016.
The Dodgers were tired enough of his act to shop him around last year, but they also realize heâs immensely talented, just 26 and perhaps their best solution to the teamâs well-chronicled woes against lefties. Puig led the club with a .784 on-base-plus-slugging percentage when facing left-handers.
âIf Yasiel is going to get 600 at-bats, then the Dodgers are in a pretty good place,â manager Dave Roberts told the Los Angeles Times. âWith the skill set of Yasiel, if heâs performing and warrants being out there every night, then weâre in a good place.â
Puigâs at-bats have shrunk from 558 in his All-Star season of 2014 to 334 last year, partly because of injuries, partly because of performance.
The other outfield options come with caveats. Andrew Toles, who batted .314 with a .365 on-base percentage as a rookie, has played in only 48 major league games. Veteran Andre Ethier missed most of the season with a broken leg and turns 35 in April. They both hit left-handed.
On the right-handed side, Scott Van Slyke is coming off a down season in which he was hampered by a wrist injury, Thompson is still healing from his back fractures and Kike Hernandez is more of a utility type.
Gutierrez, who registered a .780 OPS with the Seattle Mariners last season, brings added depth and experience, but the Dodgers could really use a productive Puig to clear up their outfield picture.
Will the MetsÂ strike a balanceÂ in the outfield?
The Mets struggled with a World Series hangover a year ago, with nearly all of their returning starting pitchers coming to camp this year recovering from an injury or surgery.
With Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, Jacob deGrom and Zack Wheeler expected to be healthy, their most urgent question this spring might be sorting out their outfield.
They re-signed Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year, $110 million contract to play left field, and the rest of the outfield is a crapshoot.
They still have Juan Lagares and Curtis Granderson in center field. And Jay Bruce, whom they tried to trade all winter, in right field. And Michael Conforto will play wherever there is room.
Thatâs four outfielders for two spots, which could lead Conforto back to the minors or Bruce or Conforto to shift to first base if Lucas Duda struggles.
Conforto, who hit .220 in his second season last year, vows to be part of the mix. He says he learned from his struggles, is coming to camp in better shape and has the fiery temperament to prove he belongs on the opening-day roster and not with Class AAA Las Vegas.
The Mets wonât worry about hurting anyoneâs feelings. Theyâre built to win right now. Theyâll go with the hot hand, and outside Cespedes, the other outfielders will be vying for a starting job.
The results could provide the difference between the Metsâ first World Series title in 31 years or a good but unsatisfying season.
Gallery:Â MLB Spring Training caps
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