'Something to prove': Positive camp for Cubs
This might be a season of transition for the Cubs, but the players around the team still have the same goal. Chicago is coming off a division title and plans on contending for a spot in the postseason with a World Series run in mind.
And the Cubs are not worried about any preseason prognosticators picking other teams as favorites in the National League.
"Our focus is always the same coming in here," Cubs Opening Day starter Kyle Hendricks said. "We try to limit that outside noise. We're really, really excited with the group we have in this clubhouse right now.
"And I think there's a lot of guys with a chip on their shoulder, guys with something to prove in a way. And definitely, as a group, we feel like that."
That includes a core group -- led by Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo -- coming off down seasons, entering walk years and wanting to soak up what could be their last run together. It includes a revamped rotation and a bullpen filled with uncertainty.
Newcomers like Joc Pederson, Trevor Williams and Jake Marisnick, among others, have looked right at home with the Cubs this spring. The players battling for the job at second -- led by Nico Hoerner and David Bote -- have been on a Cactus League tear.
All things considered, it has been a successful spring for the Cubs, who begin this season against the Pirates on Thursday at Wrigley Field.
There has been skepticism over the Cubs' ability to make a rotation centered around contact-based pitchers work in this velocity-driven era. This spring, however, the front of the overhauled starting cast -- Hendricks, Jake Arrieta, Zach Davies and Williams -- has been collectively impressive.
That has been a critical development this spring, and it will need to remain steady if the Cubs are going to contend in 2021.
"Everybody's been putting in the work," Hendricks said. "It's just been a fun group to be a part of. We're already kind of pushing each other, trying to make each other better every single day."
Rowan Wick has spent this spring working his way back from what the Cubs called an intercostal issue (related to a prior oblique injury). It took time for the team to pinpoint the source of the problem, and things finally began to progress positively in the final weeks of camp.
Even with some recent strides, Wick will be sidelined early this season. That lost layer of late-inning depth threw a wrinkle into a bullpen already full of question marks. Veteran Craig Kimbrel will resume his role as closer, but manager David Ross will be mixing and matching with the setup duties in search of the right combination.
Player who opened eyes
Remember Shelby Miller? Once a promising prospect, the right-hander was a key piece in multiple blockbuster trades before injuries stalled his career. He was an All-Star in his last full season -- back in 2015. Miller then posted a 6.89 ERA from 2016-19, logging 183 total innings. He elected not to play in the '20 season.
Over the offseason, the Cubs took a chance on the 30-year-old Miller without requiring a throwing session beforehand. Chicago offered him a Minor League deal, a non-roster invite to camp and a real chance to prove he belonged with the Major League staff.
This spring, Miller has hovered around 94-95 mph with his fastball and has flashed a new slider, which he began developing last year. He has opened eyes around the Cubs, who believe the veteran righty could help this season as a part-time starter or multirole reliever.
It is never too early for the first El Mago moment of the season. On March 12, Gold Glove winner Báez practiced a new defensive trick against the Brewers. Báez chased down a grounder and used his glove to flip the ball through his legs for an out at second base.
"I've seen a lot of games, you guys," longtime Cubs voice Pat Hughes said on the Marquee Sports Network broadcast. "I don't think I've ever seen that exact play in my entire life."
In case you missed it
Early in his career, Hendricks said he leaned on Arrieta as a veteran resource. Hendricks has since grown into the unquestioned leader of Chicago's rotation. Back with the Cubs this year, Arrieta found a new protégé this spring in right-hander Adbert Alzolay. Arrieta and Alzolay partnered often for catch or conversation.