Cubs: Five big-picture questions for spring training

Cubs: Five big-picture questions for spring training
February 8, 2013, 10:30 pm
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MESA, Ariz. – As Theo Epstein said last year, sometimes a winter can stretch so long that you “forget what you do for a living” and “feel like an accountant or something.”

After months spent analyzing price points for free agents, reviewing medical information, running trade scenarios, wooing Kyuji Fujikawa out of Japan and closing the $52 million deal with Edwin Jackson, the Cubs president is about to get a look at the product.  

At this time last year, Epstein predicted that the buzz around a new front office would fade, and the focus would shift back onto the field. Cubs fans – who almost across the board have bought into this rebuilding plan – are still looking for answers.

So here we are, 101 losses later, with the sun shining at Fitch Park, and players already at the complex. While Chicago dealt with a messy mix of snow and ice – and the East Coast braced for a monster blizzard on Friday – the Cubs worked out in shorts and had music blasting out of the weight room.

Before Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and manager Dale Sveum meet the media on Sunday in Mesa, here are five big-picture questions for spring training:

What are the health risks?

Some 11 months ago, Kerry Wood sarcastically congratulated the media for finally catching onto his spring schedule, which the team framed as “saving bullets” for the regular season: “It only took you guys a week to notice I wasn’t out there. You guys are on top of it.”

Wood made it to Game 39 and retired on May 18, hugging his son by the Wrigley Field dugout in what turned out to be an almost perfect ending.

Reporters are going to be all over Matt Garza (elbow) and Scott Baker – who didn’t pitch in 2012 while recovering from Tommy John surgery – wanting to know if they’ll be ready for the Opening Day rotation.

Arodys Vizcaino, another Tommy John case, should be waiting in the wings at Triple-A Iowa, and the Cubs dream about him becoming a frontline starter who can hit 100 mph. Ian Stewart checked out in the middle of last season to undergo wrist surgery and will have to prove he’s an everyday third baseman.

Any best-case scenarios for 2013 rely in part on the Cubs getting – and staying – healthy. Alfonso Soriano is 37 years old and has a history of leg problems. A freak injury to, say, Anthony Rizzo or Starlin Castro would be devastating.

Who wants to come and get it?

Playing off that classic Ryan Theriot line – before he lost the shortstop job to Castro and won World Series rings with the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants – we’re interested to see if anyone takes a huge leap forward.

Remember that in the spring of 2010, Castro had only played 31 games above the Class-A level.  

Junior Lake is blessed with freakish athleticism and a rocket arm, but hasn’t quite put it all together yet. Robert Whitenack and Trey McNutt could show what once made them two of the most intriguing pitching prospects in the system. The Cleveland Indians once felt that way about Rule 5 pick Hector Rondon.

Top prospect Javier Baez is going to continue playing shortstop, until or unless the organization moves him to another position in the future. Already the Cubs are trying to dial down the hype.

“Do we think he could bust out? No question,” Hoyer said. “But he’s going to have to prove himself level to level. There’s no prospect favoritism.”

Who steps up to become leaders?

You got an idea watching Rizzo and David DeJesus run through agility drills on Friday – nine days before the first full-squad workout.

This is Rizzo’s team, with DeJesus a steady veteran presence willing to help young players. Soriano leads in his own way, and a Gold Glove should give Darwin Barney more currency in the clubhouse.

Wood will be a spring-training instructor and Ryan Dempster should be a good influence for the young pitchers around the Boston Red Sox. Glue guys like Reed Johnson and Jeff Baker are gone.

Look for Jeff Samardzija – who over the past few years has gone from not knowing if he’d get cut to possibly being the Opening Day starter – to fill the void and speak his mind.

“There’s not going to be any more pressure than having to have 12 clean innings in spring training to even make the team,” Samardzija said. “What I went through (has) kind of hardened me (and) really taught me to learn and deal with myself and get myself ready to play.

“The older you get, the more veteran role you (take on). I definitely understand the important part for me is every fifth day come out and make sure this team gets off to a hot start. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll be the first one to tell you that it was my fault. I’m just excited to get out there on the mound.”

Where will the distractions come from?

The clubhouse makeover has made this a much more quiet place.

You won’t find Marlon Byrd walking around like the smartest guy in the room after appearing on HBO’s “Real Sports” and detailing his relationship with BALCO founder Victor Conte, like he did in February 2011. But you don’t always see this stuff coming. Who would have guessed that laid-back Aramis Ramirez would almost fight Carlos Silva in the dugout that spring?

There’s a growing performance-enhancing drugs scandal out of the Biogenesis clinic in Miami. Curt Schilling and the rest of the chattering class will get more airtime. Carlos Marmol will face questions about his legal situation in the Dominican Republic.

It will be on Sveum and his experienced coaching staff to maintain the same level of focus and professionalism in Year 2.

Why the sense of urgency?

The Cubs know they need a good start to avoid another sell-off at the trade deadline. Their early schedule is brutal, with only one day off between April 3 and May 5, and that includes 22 games against the Giants, Atlanta Braves, Milwaukee Brewers, Texas Rangers and Cincinnati Reds – followed by five straight games against the Cardinals and Washington Nationals.

There will be no easing into it, and that’s what makes these next seven weeks so important if the Cubs want to be part of those rags-to-riches stories written by the Oakland A’s and Baltimore Orioles last season.

“Guys are going to have big years,” Rizzo said. “We all need to pull for each other and be that team – that young team – just like the A’s were, where you could see that everyone was living each at-bat. Everyone was up there together. Everyone (was) optimistic.”