Who's having most impressive spring for Cubs?

March 4th, 2020

MESA, Ariz. -- was not sure what to expect when he walked into the Cubs' clubhouse for the first time, following so many years with the Indians. Right away, he was impressed with the camaraderie that existed around his new team.

"They have a core the way we had one in Cleveland," Kipnis said. "The way they mess around with each other, it's been like, 'I haven't seen this in a few years. God, I missed this.' I'm used to this environment. It reminds me of the one I had.

"So, I can see the relationships have developed over years with these guys and how comfortable they are with each other. It's fun to be around. It gets me more excited about the season ahead of us."

With Spring Training in full swing and Opening Day only a few weeks away, there has been ample time for teammates to get a good feel for the environment and a look at the early results of all the offseason work. This week, MLB.com surveyed the Cubs' clubhouse and asked players what or who has impressed them the most through the first half of the preseason.

Here are some of the Cubs' responses, with players listed in alphabetical order:

Albert Almora Jr., CF
Almora is coming off a tough '19 campaign -- a season that featured subpar offensive results and was mentally draining for the center fielder. This spring, he is competing for the starting job in center and he arrived to camp in a better mental place and with a revamped swing.

Quote: "I think the way Albert has made some changes to his swing, his approach, has been impressive," said Daniel Descalso. "We talked a lot last year about some stuff. He seems like he really took advantage of the winter and worked hard and you can see it's paying off early."

Kris Bryant, 3B, and Anthony Rizzo, 1B
Descalso actually mentioned Bryant and Rizzo first, but not for anything they have done on the field this spring. The veteran utility man was blown away by how entertaining the duo was while mic'd up for ESPN's Monday broadcast of the Cubs-Angels game.

Quote: "Can I go with Kris and Rizz as the commentators? I thought they did a really good job. I wasn't quite sure how it was going to go with them being mic'd up in the box and in the field and talking back and forth. But, I thought they did a really good job. They were really entertaining."

Victor Caratini, C
Two-time All-Star catcher Willson Contreras garners most of the attention, but his backup, Caratini, could probably be a starter on plenty of MLB teams. Caratini is a switch-hitter who posted a .266/.348/.447 slash line in '19. Chicago's pitchers rave about his game calling and receiving, and manager David Ross has repeatedly mentioned how Caratini provides a "professional at-bat" off the bench.

Quote: "Caratini," picked Bryant. "His swing from the right-handed side -- there's more pop. I don't know what he's changed in his swing, but everybody kind of sleeps on him, just because he doesn't get as much playing time. But, he could be a starter on pretty much any other team. He's kind of showing it in spring. Numbers don't really mean anything in spring. But just watching him in BP and his at-bats and catching and receiving and framing, he kind of does it all. It's impressive. He's definitely a catcher first, and then hitter. But, he's a really good hitter, too. That says a lot about just the type of ballplayer he is. He doesn't get enough credit."

Yu Darvish, RHP
Darvish had a brilliant second half in '19, posting a 2.76 ERA with 118 strikeouts and only seven walks in 81 2/3 innings. He threw 10 different pitches last season and featured six of them in his Cactus League debut this spring. There is a chance that Darvish could start on Opening Day for the Cubs.

Quote: "Darvish," said Tyler Chatwood. "I know the second half he had, but in his live BPs, he's throwing 97 [mph]. It's impressive. He's tough. He's so good and he's still working on other stuff, adding more. For me, it's him. Obviously, Kyle [Hendricks], the way he comes in ready. Those two really stand out for me."

Jason Heyward, RF
Heyward is a Gold Glove-caliber defender in right field, and that's where he will have a home for the Cubs in '20. The 30-year-old veteran hit .251/.343/.429 with 21 homers and 62 RBIs last season, though his stint as the leadoff hitter dragged his overall numbers down. He is an unquestioned leader on the team, but that is something Kipnis has witnessed for the first time in person.

Quote: "I was talking about it with Nap [quality assurance coach Mike Napoli] actually. The one guy that I've come away with like, 'This guy is a professional as hell,' is Jason Heyward. I think he's awesome. I think he's a stud. You can tell he's easily one of the leaders in this clubhouse and he's easy to respect and easy to follow."

Manny Rodriguez, RHP
Over the offseason, the Cubs added 23-year-old Manny Rodriguez to their 40-man roster. Last year, the hard-throwing righty posted a 3.45 ERA with 65 strikeouts against 17 walks in 47 innings for Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach. He has appeared in three Cactus League games this spring, but is currently dealing with a strained right biceps, with no clear timetable for return.

Quote: "I've got to narrow it down to one? There's so many guys you could go with, but I think I'll go with Manuel Rodriguez here," said David Bote. " He's the first guy I faced in live BP and he went 3-1 curveball, 3-2 curveball with a 99 [mph] four-seamer in his back pocket. I was like, 'Really? This is what we're going with?'

"Kip and I were in it and we were like, 'Uhh.' We didn't have the radar on it, so we didn't know what was going on. We were like, 'Does anybody else think the ball's fuzzy today? If this is what 92 looks like, we're in trouble.' And then we find out he was sitting 99. We were like, 'OK, that makes us feel a little bit better. It can only go up from here.'"