Cubs: Five storylines heading into spring training

Cubs: Five storylines heading into spring training
February 12, 2014, 6:45 pm
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Uh, anyone else releasing another prospect list?

All this focus on the future creates an optimistic narrative for Theo Epstein’s front office, which has lost 197 games across the last two seasons. It gives cover to the Ricketts family, Crane Kenney’s business operations department and an austerity program that has turned this into a small-market team. It feeds the media beast in the dead of winter, because fans will click on anything related to Kris Bryant and Albert Almora.

But the Cubs will have to deal with the reality on the ground when pitchers and catchers officially report to the new complex on Thursday in Mesa, Ariz. A last-place team didn’t make any signature moves, other than firing Dale Sveum, and missing their shots at a marquee manager and the star Japanese pitcher who would have changed the way everyone felt about this offseason.

[RELATED: Five questions heading into White Sox training camp]

All that distrust and frustration boiled over in the viral reactions to a furry mascot named Clark the Cub. So while Joe Girardi and Masahiro Tanaka will be listening to “New York, New York” and wearing Yankee pinstripes, here are the five storylines to follow:

-- Camp Renteria

How long before the smile is wiped off Rick Renteria’s face?

The 53rd manager in franchise history is supposed to be an excellent teacher with a strong track record in player development, but then again Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer said the same thing about Sveum. The Cubs hope Renteria’s bilingual background and upbeat attitude will help their young core players grow.

[MORE: Sports Illustrated grades Cubs' offseason]

It wasn’t just the hoodies – Sveum had a bit of a Bill Belichick complex, wanting to run the hitting program his way and making some power plays behind the scenes. That quirky, 24/7 baseball personality also helped build a solid infrastructure for advance scouting and game-planning.

Don’t underestimate Sveum’s role in creating a professional clubhouse culture that was usually distraction-free. He was a stand-up guy with the media, someone who didn’t shy away from direct questions, taking heat for the rest of the organization.

If Sveum liked wearing his “Sons of Wrigley” motorcycle-gang T-shirt, then Renteria is supposed to make this one big happy family. We’ll see how that message is received across the next six weeks.

-- Samardzija Watch

Once an All-American wide receiver at Notre Dame, it’s now going to take a Hail Mary for the Cubs to sign Jeff Samardzija to a long-term deal.

The two sides finally settled at $5.345 million last week, roughly 48 hours before a scheduled arbitration hearing, and there’s not much optimism left in those extension talks.

If Samardzija stays healthy – remember Matt Garza strained a lat muscle during the team’s first full-squad workout last February – the Cubs will keep shopping their Opening Day starter. It will take a win-now team rich in pitching prospects – and Samardzija performing like the frontline guy he thinks he will be.

Look for the rumors to keep popping up until the July 31 trade deadline, when Samardzija will be roughly a season-and-a-half away from free agency and the Cubs believe the market forces will be in their favor. 

-- The Baez Show

Cubs fans will be going crazy on Twitter every time Javier Baez hits a home run in a Cactus League game off a pitcher you’ve never heard of before.

But club officials have made it clear Baez will be Triple-A Iowa’s Opening Day shortstop. It will be interesting to see how he responds to playing second base and third base in Arizona and if that gives the front office a better read on his long-term position.

Baez drew comparisons to Gary Sheffield and Miguel Cabrera last season, generating 37 homers and 111 RBI in 130 games split between advanced Class-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee.

Assuming Baez keeps hitting – and after all the service-time considerations are taken into account – you can start the pool: When will he get called up? Late June? The Fourth of July? Coming out of the All-Star break?

-- The Faces of The Franchise?

Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo should be motivated to bounce back from disappointing seasons. Alfonso Soriano and David DeJesus won’t be around to push them each day and help with their routines. Outside of Samardzija, no one else in the room has that much clubhouse juice. All these spending restrictions guarantee the focus will be on two young core players.

[RELATED: Rick Renteria knows all about proving people wrong]

Castro is supposed to be in much better shape after all that strength-and-conditioning work back home in the Dominican Republic. Rizzo will get a chance to work with Bill Mueller in the cages, and maybe begin to learn how to slow the game down, like the new Cubs hitting coach once did with the 2004 Boston Red Sox.

Can Castro still hit .300 and be an All-Star shortstop? Can Rizzo be counted on for 30 homers, 100 RBI and Gold Glove defense at first base? This is their team now, and that has an or-else feeling to it, because the Cubs have invested more than $100 million in those foundation pieces. 


-- Business vs. Baseball

This is the tension running throughout the franchise. Don’t lose sight of that while wondering who’s going to hit leadoff and getting updates on hamstring injuries.

The Cubs punted on the $500 million Wrigleyville renovation, losing another offseason of building while sniping at the rooftops and allowing people to pretend that somewhere like Rosemont would be a good place to move the team.

It’s also unclear how the Cubs will cash in before the TV bubble bursts. They’re locked into WGN for one more season but can’t start their own cable network before 2020. Behind the scenes, the powerbrokers at Fox, NBCUniversal and City Hall will have a ton of influence over the product you will see in the years to come.