New skipper leads Cubs into new territory

July 22nd, 2020

CHICAGO -- Cubs manager David Ross has been preparing for his first game at the helm for more than eight months now. During the three-month break brought on by the COVID-19 crisis, Ross did some managing simulations with the team's analytics department, but that is hardly a substitute for the real thing.

Come Friday, Ross will be in the dugout at Wrigley Field, managing the Cubs and taking on the Brewers on Opening Day -- 120 days after the previously planned 2020 opener. Ross decided to hand the ball to starter Kyle Hendricks for the first game, and the significance was not lost on the first-time manager.

"You think about getting the first win," Ross said. "Is Kyle Hendricks' name the one that's going to be on that? That's super exciting for me. It doesn't get much cooler than that -- no matter who it is. Thinking about your first win."

Ross was teammates with many of the players he now manages, a core group that has been trying to rediscover the magic of their World Series run in 2016. This was already an important season for that cast, and they have been happy to have Ross leading the way, given the challenging circumstances at hand.

"He can be loving and joking, but lock it in real quickly," Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "He holds us to a very high standard. One, because he's played with us and he's seen what we're capable of. And two, because that's what he expects. He's a championship player, and he expects perfection. That's what we want to give him."

What needs to go right?
The Cubs need Hendricks and Yu Darvish to pitch like aces to lead a rotation chock-full of uncertainty and low on reserves. Chicago needs a handful of relievers to rise up and run with impact roles in a shortened season. The Cubs need their core group to do the heavy lifting offensively, with hitters like Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. taking big steps forward.

And above all else, the Cubs need to lean on their collective experience from the past few years to navigate through this challenging, abbreviated campaign.

"This core group has won a championship here," Rizzo said. "We got to experience the ultimate high: the parade and all the fans and everything. ... Everyone will remember this year. At the end of the day, you still won a championship, and this year is going to be more unique than ever.

"So to be able to be the last man, last team standing here, is going to be something special."

Big question: Is there enough pitching?
Right before the Summer Camp opener, the Cubs announced that José Quintana underwent surgery to repair a lacerated sensory nerve in his left thumb. That struck a blow to a starting rotation that is already thin on depth. In the bullpen, the Cubs are hoping closer Craig Kimbrel can rebound from a rough 2019. Otherwise, there will be a host of arms -- each coming with its own question mark -- jockeying for high-leverage work. The pitching could make or break this season for the Cubs.

Prospect to watch: Nico Hoerner
During the original Spring Training, there was an argument to be made for sending Hoerner, the Cubs' No. 1 prospect, to Triple-A Iowa for more development. The now-shortened season has eliminated that possibility, and Hoerner will be one of the main options for Ross at second base. Hoerner's offensive profile fits well in the Cubs' lineup, giving the group a good contact-based hitter with speed on the basepaths. He could wind up in the National League Rookie of the Year mix.

"We want guys to drive the baseball, which Nico does," Ross said. "He's got a great approach. He's continued to develop. He's only going to get better with that skill set. Yeah, he brings a lot to the table for us, especially on the defensive side. He looks good at second base. He gives us depth at shortstop."

On the schedule
The Cubs will be tested out of the chute with 17 consecutive games (13 vs. NL Central foes) before the first off-day of the season. That stretch includes Chicago's only trip to St. Louis (Aug. 7-9) to face the rival Cardinals. The season will also end in exciting fashion for the city of Chicago with the Cubs and White Sox finishing the slate with a Sept. 25-27 series on the South Side. The Cubs host the Sox on Aug. 21-23 at Wrigley Field.

Team MVP will be ... Willson Contreras
Maybe you should not believe everything you see in Spring Training (or Summer Camp), but Contreras arrived in an exceptional zone at the plate. If Contreras can maintain that scorching bat and carry it through the next couple of months, he could be an MVP-caliber package. With the designated hitter here for 2020, Contreras can stay in the lineup more often. The season will show if he has made more strides with pitch framing, but the arm is still there. Contreras showed that off by catching Luis Robert stealing in an exhibition on Sunday.

Team Cy Young will be ... Yu Darvish

Over the final three months of the season in 2019, Darvish turned an incredible corner. The righty spun a 2.95 ERA in that stretch with 124 strikeouts against seven walks in 88 1/3 innings. He had 42 strikeouts and just one walk in 31 1/3 innings in August, and then turned in a 2.39 ERA with 46 strikeouts and four walks in 26 1/3 innings in September. If Darvish can harness that same ability in these next two months, look out.

Bold prediction: Darvish will win the NL Cy Young Award
On July 3 last year, Darvish had a 5.01 ERA and 49 walks in 18 starts. His 11.7 percent walk rate was the third-highest mark among qualified MLB pitchers to that point. Then, things changed dramatically for the righty. He adopted what he called a "hard cutter," began mixing in a knuckle curve and was given the freedom to mix and match his growing arsenal at will.

From July through the end of last season, Darvish's 2.2 percent walk rate was the best in the Majors, and his 35.6 percent strikeout-minus-walk rate was second, trailing only Gerrit Cole (38.6 percent). There is now an offseason and a three-month intermission separating Darvish from that dominant '19 second half, but it was Cy Young-level production.