After the longest season in Chicago Cubs history, physical and mental stress is a concern. Taking time to rest players in Spring training and in the season is crucial.
The long and rewarding season for the Chicago Cubs lasted 179 games. From April 4 to November 2, the team played ball. And since then there have been parties, special appearances, and a trip to the White House. It is the season that never ends. Now, a new pressure of repeating replaces the old pressure of never winning.
The routine is different, charging from players working hard in mid-January to preparation for the season to come, to still celebrating the championship. The players barely have a chance to breathe instead of prepare. Add in the fact that Spring Training is a week early due to the World Baseball Classic, resting players and easing them into the season will be important.
There is no reason to push the 25-man roster early in Spring. This is especially true for the four returning starters Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta, and John Lackey. Each of these pitchers threw over 188 innings in the regular season. Additionally, Lester pitched 35 innings in the post-season, with Hendricks adding 25 innings and Arrieta with 22. We can expect to see Mike Montgomery stretched out early to see if he is ready to start. But it also means prospects will get their chance to show their growth.
The Cubs saw the quality of their pitching depth in 2016 as several prospects played Major League innings. Rob Zastryzny and Spencer Patton both saw quality time, with mixed results. Now, Patton is on his way to Japan, having signed with the Yokohama BayStars. Zastryzny showed that he is ready for more time, and could be a valuable part of the team out of the pen. This Spring, the team will likely see what they have in Caleb Smith and Duane Underwood. If they perform well, they could see significant time in the majors. Or, they could be used as trade bait.
We know the infield is set as it is one of the best in all of baseball. The only true question mark is at second base. Who plays? Veteran Ben Zobrist proved his ability to hit and produce on a consistent basis. Javier Baez shined brightest in the postseason. Both players are great options and deserve significant innings. The bat of Zobrist will be the deciding factor. Baez will be away from the team for a while as he is the lone Chicago Cub playing in the World Baseball Classic.
Still, Maddon will delay the start of the regulars and let the prospects take over. Ian Happ and Jeimer Candelario get their chance to prove their worth. Both have performed well in the minors, but are block by young players already on the team. Happ’s versatility is important to watch. While he will see time at second base, his natural position, Happ will also play the outfield. Should injury accord this year, Happ will be called up.
As for the outfield, Albert Almora and Kyle Schwarber will play often. As may Jon Jay and Jason Heyward in order to build chemistry and consistency in at-bats. But, the team will keep a close eye on Jacob Hannemann. The young outfielder has not hit for average in the minors but does get on base. And, he steals bases. In the last two seasons, Hannemann swiped 50 bases total. While it is not a dimension Manager Joe Maddon uses often, it could prove important.
If the Chicago Cubs want to repeat success in 2017, knowing the depth and abilities of their current prospects will be important. Letting regular players ease into Spring Training will provide needed rest after an eventful off-season. If the prospects perform well, they add value to the team in multiple ways. How that value is used remains to be seen.