CHICAGO -- The Cubs are bracing for a surreal scene on the North Side. Although fans will not be allowed to flock to Wrigley Field, the rooftops around the ballpark may have spectators, and the surrounding neighborhood will be alive with noise when Chicago takes the field.
The COVID-19 crisis has forced baseball into a strange place, but the game can serve as a much-needed distraction should things proceed safely. First-year manager David Ross knows that, and he knows that fans will still find a way to make their presence felt during the abbreviated 60-game season.
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"It's mind-boggling, but it's the time we're in," Ross said. "The environment here around Wrigley Field, when the fans are in the stands, is absolutely electric. They'll definitely be missed. But even being around the ballpark a little bit already, people are out walking around, you see the Cubs jerseys, you see the Cubs hat, it's just exciting to be back in Chicago.
"Fans have a way of still communicating without being in the stands. It is going to be unique, and that energy that is brought when you come out of that dugout and the place goes crazy, that will definitely be missed. But we'll make the most of it and find our new way."
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As camp arrives, with players reporting by Wednesday and holding their first workout at Wrigley (with Class A South Bend as an alternate training site), here is a refresher on some of the storylines that dominated the initial Spring Training and remain important for the two-month sprint ahead.
1. Ross ushers in a new era
The first impression of Ross in February and March was that of a leader who leaves room for fun but places an emphasis on focus. Spring Training was loose early in the morning, then businesslike once workouts began.
Behind the scenes, Ross preached the importance of working together, finding ways to make sure individual routines did not get in the way of those practices and having the veterans have an impact on the younger players. Now, as players adjust to the many protocols and guidelines required to hold a safe season, Ross said those talking points are even more relevant.
"Some of the things I talked about [were] respect and trust," he said. "For us to come to work every day, we have to trust that our teammates and the staff and the group that we're around is adhering to the protocols. It's important now more than ever.
"Peoples' families are at risk. So yeah, those things haven't gone away. They've actually been emphasized, and I'm going to reiterate a lot of those messages."
Ross has a revamped coaching staff, including a new bench coach (Andy Green), bullpen coach (Chris Young), first-base and catching coach (Craig Driver) and quality assurance coach (Mike Napoli). Over the past three months, Ross has leaned on his entire staff to handle the bulk of communication and workout mapping with the players.
"I didn't want them to hate the sound of my voice by the time we got to actually playing baseball," Ross quipped.
Ross also used the past three months to work with the analytics department, plus Green, pitching coach Tommy Hottovy and others, to simulate in-game managing. It was a way to work on his craft and learn, even without real games to manage.
"He really took the initiative to do a lot of different things during this period," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "He would excuse himself from conference calls with us to go play his simulated season with the R&D staff. I think it's important. I think he took a few months and tried to make the most of it."
2. Can the returning cast improve?
Following talk of "real change" at the start of the offseason, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein made few alterations to the Major League roster. The core group remained intact; additions consisted mainly of budget-friendly depth transactions.
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The real change came below the surface. The Cubs made some changes to the front office and overhauled the player development infrastructure, placing more emphasis on modernization both within the coaching ranks and in the development strategies. Those were moves made with more of a long-term focus in mind.
At the big league level, the Cubs are counting on the belief that their core of stars -- Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Báez, Willson Contreras and others -- can power a World Series-caliber club in the short-term.
Ross was asked if he felt a World Series triumph in 2020 would come with an asterisk under the circumstances.
"If they're passing out a trophy, I want it," Ross said. "If they're handing out rings and we're all starting from the same point, I don't care if it's a five-game season. This is competition, and it's what we enjoy doing. It's why we suit up."
3. How important will the Trade Deadline be?
Much of the talk during the offseason and throughout Spring Training centered on the importance of the July 31 Trade Deadline. If the Cubs got off to a poor start, it was possible that the front office would look to shake things up, especially with a few key players coming off the books after '21 and '22, barring contract extensions. But now? A fast start remains critical, especially in a shortened season, but it is hard to know how the Trade Deadline (Aug. 31 this year) will play out across MLB.
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"It's way too early to tell. I just don't think we know what this is going to be like," Hoyer said. "There's been a lot of speculation out there that there's not going to be much, but frankly, I think that's just speculation. The truth is, like I've said before, none of us have ever been through this, and we have no idea how people are going to feel on the 31st of August."
4. Kris Bryant, leading man
Ross announced during Spring Training that Bryant will be moved into the leadoff spot, with Rizzo behind him in the second slot, and nothing has changed as July camp arrives. Ross liked what he saw from that duo in March and plans to move forward with that strategy. He also said to expect a fairly stable lineup with such an abbreviated season. Although he will look into matchups before each game, he must consider who looks to be swinging the bat the best at any given moment. The entire season is a small sample size.
5. Rounding out the roster
The Cubs plan to have 39 players at Wrigley Field for camp. That group will need to be reduced to 30 for the Opening Day roster, and then down to 28 after two weeks and again to 26 a month into the season. Whereas the spring competitions for the bullpen, bench and second base will be easier to solve at the outset, they will continue to be storylines to watch as Chicago progresses into the season and can assess who is performing the best in the first few weeks.
Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.