Ten things to watch for this Cubs season

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Ten things to watch for this Cubs season

MESA, Ariz. Theo Epsteins reserved parking spot is clearly marked by the entrance to the main building at Fitch Park.

Even if the compensation issue with the Boston Red Sox still isnt resolved word from commissioner Bud Selig is expected soon theres obviously no turning back now.

The baseball operations staff is here in Arizona for organizational meetings, where they will try to define and explain The Cubs Way. Several groups of players were working out on Thursday at the teams complex in Mesa, including Marlon Byrd, Darwin Barney, Jeff Samardzija, Bryan LaHair and Tony Campana.

That morning, the front page of USA Todays sports section featured a photo collage of 10 players Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes among them. But Epstein was at the center of the spring training preview, standing in front of the Wrigley Field marquee.

The new president of baseball operations doesnt really want to be the face of the franchise, so here are 10 other story lines to consider before pitchers and catchers officially report on Saturday:

1. Camp Sveum

Dale Sveum doesnt want his players to take the easy way out and slide. He believes catchers should fear you when youre coming into home plate. He doesnt want to see any dogs or hear about any excuses. Win or lose, he figures, at least make it a fistfight.

Sveum met with Red Sox ownership last November in Milwaukee, sensing hed be getting an offer to manage a win-now team that never came. Instead of answering questions about fried chicken and beer in the clubhouse, hell be on the ground floor of Epsteins rebuilding project. The first-year manager will be given every opportunity to develop into the next Terry Francona. This is Sveums time to put his stamp on the team.

2. The next big thing

The Cubs were shocked by the changes to the collective bargaining agreement, which limit the amount of money teams can spend in the draft and on the international market. Jorge Soler wouldnt count against that cap if hes signed before July 2, one reason why the 19-year-old Cuban defector could spark a bidding war.

The Cubs own the sixth overall choice in the June draft, plus supplemental picks for losing Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena. Now,their talking point is that its going to become a scouting contest. New executive Jason McLeod who once ran drafts for the Red Sox that produced impact players like Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz and Daniel Bard becomes one of the most influential people in the organization.

3. Strength up the middle?

At the age of 21, Starlin Castro made the All-Star team and led the National League in hits, but the gifted shortstop still has much to prove. The Cubs expressed support while his lawyers had to deny sexual assault allegations last month. But even without the negative publicity, hed still have to show that hes learned what it takes at this level. This will be his third season in the big leagues, time to cut down on the careless errors and improve his focus. Because of his personality and big smile, there will be many people rooting for him to become a franchise player.

4. Whos on first?

It is LaHairs job heading into spring training. Last years Pacific Coast League MVP will get a chance to show that he belongs in the majors, where he has only 195 at-bats on his resume. The Cubs insist that Anthony Rizzo will begin the season at Triple-A Iowa, where the top prospect will try to erase last years audition with the San Diego Padres (18-for-128 with 46 strikeouts). At 22, Rizzo is seven years younger than LaHair, and projected as someone who will be a force in the lineup and the clubhouse when the Cubs see their next window to contend.

5. Coach em up

Sveum knew exactly who he wanted to be his pitching coach, and this might be the most important relationship in the dugout for a first-year manager. Chris Bosio pitched more than 1,700 innings in the majors, and that should give him some instant credibility. It will be on Bosio to unlock the potential in former first-round picks Travis Wood and Chris Volstad, and help push Matt Garza and Randy Wells to their next levels. The Cubs have talked a lot about the depth theyve added to their pitching staff. Bosio will have to sort it all out.

6. Endgame

Twelve months ago, Carlos Marmol was rewarded with a three-year, 20 million deal. It was a nice story about the 16-year-old kid the Cubs once signed out of the Dominican Republic, who eventually had to be talked into pitching and emerged as a dominating closer. Marmol didnt live up to the contract in 2011. No one in the majors finished with more than his 10 blown saves. Between the return of Kerry Wood and the progress shown by Samardzija and James Russell, the bullpen could be a real strength. But it starts with the closer regaining the feel for his slider, and then his confidence.

7. Follow the money

Local television deals helped juice the baseball economy this winter and shift the balance of power to the American League. Fox Sports regional networks helped bankroll the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers, who combined spent more than 425 million to sign Pujols, C.J. Wilson and Yu Darvish. The Cubs have multiyear broadcasting commitments to both WGN and CSN, and their business executives are no doubt wondering: Wheres ours?

8. Your ad here

The newsiest item out of last months Cubs Convention was the plan to steal business away from the surrounding rooftops by building a patio deck in the right-field bleachers and installing a big LED board to show game information and advertisements. Skeptics will wonder where this is all heading (Jumbotron?) and how it could change the look and feel of Wrigley Field. Either way, this should be a pivotal year for finding a way to finance those stadium renovation plans, which hopefully wont include any yellow noodles outside the building.
9. Ready for prime time?

The crosstown series against the White Sox wont be nearly as explosive without Ozzie Guillen and Carlos Zambrano, who took their talents to South Beach, but there are still dates to circle on the calendar, like April 17-19 in Little Havana. The Cubs will be there at Busch Stadium when the St. Louis Cardinals unveil their World Series banner and hand out championship rings (April 13-15).

Fielder will swing away at Clark and Addison, but only in a Detroit Tigers uniform (June 12-14). The bars around Wrigleyville will be jam-packed when Red Sox Nation invades (June 15-17). By then, it could be time to count down the days until the trade deadline, to see how the market develops for Garza, if a contender needs Byrd and if anyones desperate enough to take on a fraction of Alfonso Sorianos contract.
10. Are we there yet?

Epstein joked that the Cubs led the league in press conferences. The narrative now will be how they stick to their plan, and if everyone will really have the patience to see it through.

What we want to do is create a sustainable team that every single year has a chance to make the playoffs, general manager Jed Hoyer said last month. Its like taking a shot on goal. The teams that win World Series are teams that make the playoffs year after year.

The Florida Marlins' model of making the playoffs and winning the World Series every time they do itthats not really one to follow. We need to get to the point where we make the playoffs every single year and once we do that, a championship should follow. How long its going to take to build that sustainable team? I cant tell you. But I can tell you thats what were working on and, hopefully, it will come sooner rather than later.

Jason Heyward surprised Cubs fans didn’t boo Rajai Davis more

Jason Heyward surprised Cubs fans didn’t boo Rajai Davis more

MESA, Ariz. – The Cactus League crowds are different than the ones packed into Wrigley Field. It was only a meaningless split-squad game on a Saturday afternoon in the Arizona sunshine. Finally winning the World Series must have somewhat dulled the edge.

But Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward still thought Rajai Davis would hear it from the sellout crowd of 14,929 at Sloan Park, the what-could-have-been anxiety bubbling up when seeing the Oakland A's leadoff guy who nearly changed the course of baseball history.

"I was surprised he didn't get booed more, but that's just how our fans are," Heyward said. "They're fun like that. They have fun with the game. They acknowledge it. That's pretty cool for Cubs fans to boo you. If anybody boos you from last year, that's kind of an honor, I would say. To be on that side of things, it means you did something great."

As Alfonso Soriano liked to say, they don't boo nobodies. With one big swing, Davis almost unleashed a miserable winter for the Cubs and ended the Cleveland Indians' 68-year drought.

Manager Joe Maddon kept pushing closer Aroldis Chapman, who fired 97 pitches in Games 5, 6, and 7 combined. Davis timed seven straight fastballs in the eighth inning – the last one at 97.1 mph – and drove a Game 7-tying two-run homer just inside the foul pole and onto the left-field patio. In a now-famous rain-delay speech, Heyward gathered his teammates in a Progressive Field weight room as the Cubs regained their composure.

"They booed him, but only the first at-bat," Heyward said. "The second at-bat and the third, I was like: ‘Eh, they kind of just let him off the hook.' They let him be."

The fans who stuck around until the end got to hear "Go Cubs Go" after a 4-3 win. Davis parlayed that big moment into a one-year, $6 million contract with the A's. The Cubs will see the Indians again on Sunday afternoon in Mesa.

"As players, we're all onto the season and enjoying this ride and a new journey," said Heyward, who went 0-for-3 with an RBI as he worked on his new swing. "All the teams that we played in the playoffs are obviously out here in spring training, so it's just really fun and it's good for the makeup of your team when you compete that way.

"You're thrown right back into the fire when you talk about the competition and remembering things that happened in the postseason. But we don't dwell on it too much."

Cubs envisioning ‘hybrid' roles for Mike Montgomery and Brett Anderson

Cubs envisioning ‘hybrid' roles for Mike Montgomery and Brett Anderson

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs believe Mike Montgomery will be so much more than just the answer to a trivia question or a cameo appearance in the highlight film.

The symmetry became impossible to miss on Saturday at Sloan Park, where the Cubs put the World Series trophy on display behind home plate and set off fireworks at 1:06 p.m. Three minutes later, the guy who threw the last pitch of 2016 threw the first pitch 2017 pitch in Mesa.

That it came against Rajai Davis added to the moment. Scattered boos greeted Davis when the Oakland A's leadoff guy walked toward the batter's box, a reminder of how he almost turned a dream season into a nightmare when he slammed Aroldis Chapman's 97.1 mph fastball onto Progressive Field's left-field patio just inside the foul pole for a Game 7-tying two-run homer for the Cleveland Indians.

A year that began with Montgomery thinking he might be playing in Japan ended in that mosh pit. A lefty who had been viewed as a low-leverage swingman for the Seattle Mariners notched the final out of the World Series for a franchise that hadn't won one since 1908.

"Be ready for anything," Montgomery said when asked about the "hybrid" job description manager Joe Maddon laid out for him and Brett Anderson, the other lefty in the mix for the fifth-starter job.

"The big thing with both of them (is) neither one has really been stretched out anywhere close to 200 innings over the last couple years," Maddon said before a 4-3 split-squad win over Oakland. "So we're thinking it's almost like a hybrid moment. Maybe fold one back into the bullpen while the other one starts. And vice versa. Or just jump a sixth guy in there now and then to keep the other guys from being overworked too early.

"It's in theory right now. We haven't actually laid it down on paper. We feel pretty fortunate. If everybody stays healthy, you got six guys that you like right there. It's hard for anybody to say that. That's the point. These guys have not been really satisfactorily stretched out over the last couple years.

"How do we keep them both active and helping us? That's going to be our challenge early and through the beginning part of the season."

Anderson (29) is older and more experienced and working on a one-year, $3.5 million deal that could max out at $10 million if he rips off the injury-prone label and makes 29 starts. Montgomery (27) is the more raw talent (23 career big-league starts) the Cubs now control through the 2021 season.

"There's a lot of different possibilities that they could go with," Montgomery said. "For me, it's just continuing to build up my arm strength and getting my timing down, my mechanics down and that way I'm ready to go and do whatever it is that they need me to."

Pitching in front of 14,929 and an All-Star infield, Montgomery walked Davis and Matt Joyce and notched two strikeouts in a scoreless first inning. Montgomery felt the adrenaline rush, but nothing in Arizona can compare to the 10th inning of a Game 7.

"The sky's the limit," Maddon said. "He's like a 10-plus game winner on an annual basis as a starter. I think he definitely has that within his abilities. I've told him that (winning) 10 to 15 games is within his abilities, no doubt. That comes with fastball command and then knowing what to do with his breaking pitches. He's got really high-quality stuff.

"I'd like to think that moment will increase his confidence. But then again, it's a new year. And you have to go out there and pitch."