MESA, Ariz. -- Creating a new culture around the Cubs is at the top of the priority list for new manager David Ross. But, beyond all the themes and messaging, there will also be spring competitions to monitor, decisions to be made and a roster to build for Opening Day.
With Spring Training underway for the North Siders, Ross is sifting through how to organize his rotation, bullpen and lineup. Those things will be ironed out over the next six weeks, but it is never too early to take a stab at some predictions about how some spring storylines will play out.
Here are five predictions for this Spring Training for the Cubs.
1) The stars stay put
Anthony Rizzo admitted to being "very surprised" that the Cubs did not make major roster changes, given all the offseason talk. So far, the core group -- Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber -- remains intact. Yes, Chicago is surely keeping its toes in the trade waters, especially with the ability to scout players this spring, but each passing day makes it more likely that the team stands pat for Opening Day.
At this point, the list of realistic suitors or impact additions has dwindled, following a hectic winter around the sport. A major trade could also create a hole that the Cubs have trouble filling in an effort to contend for the World Series in 2020. Famous last words, but the more prudent path might be evaluating the roster over the first four months and then making adjustments (for the present and future) closer to the July 31 Trade Deadline.
2) Nico Hoerner starts year in Iowa
Is Nico Hoerner ready for the big leagues? Maybe, and he will have all spring to show off any tweaks to his swing and approach to convince the Cubs that is the case. That said, Chicago didn't expect to promote Hoerner to the Majors last year. Injuries forced the team's hand, and Hoerner did some learning on the fly in The Show rather than heading to the Arizona Fall League.
Because Hoerner has only 375 career plate appearances in the Minors (none above Double-A), there is a chance Chicago wants him to get some more development time at Triple-A Iowa before joining the Cubs this summer. They have David Bote as an option for second, plus a veteran on the roster in Daniel Descalso and another coming to camp as a non-roster invitee in Jason Kipnis, a source told MLB.com. If the Cubs want a stopgap solution until Hoerner is deemed fully ready, they have that option. Or maybe the kid catches fire and just takes the job and runs with it. That will be a story to follow all spring.
3) Rizzo gets nod as leadoff man
At his charity event prior to Cubs Convention in January, Rizzo said he will "not be lobbying" to be the Cubs' leadoff hitter at the start of the season. He quickly added, however, that he will be "all in" on whatever Ross wants to do. This week, Ross reiterated that he is still weighing his options and consulting the team's number crunchers, but he also said that Rizzo is "definitely a viable option if I want to go with a professional at-bat to lead it off."
Rizzo posted a .410/.500/.667 slash line in the No. 1 slot last year and has slashed .335/.426/.602 (244 plate appearances) atop the order in his career. If the Cubs go that route, it will probably be related to a belief that Schwarber (.997 second-half OPS in 2019) is ready to produce as a middle-of-the-order bat. If Rizzo is at the top, Chicago needs to have faith that the hole created in the meat of the lineup will be filled with steady run production.
4) Lester will start on Opening Day
Jon Lester might no longer be the "ace" of the Cubs' rotation, but he is the unquestioned leader of the staff given his experience, leadership and poise. The 36-year-old lefty arrived to camp visibly leaner, which Ross said could help him implement some things this spring that the coaching staff has in mind. Lester has started the season opener for the Cubs in four of the past five years, including the last three in a row. Asked about his thought process about the Opening Day nod, Ross recently said, "I look back on who might've been the Game 1 starter last year in the playoffs, and that's kind of how I move forward." It is hard to argue against Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks now being the top two arms in the starting staff, but Lester remains a tone-setter for Chicago.
5) Tyler Chatwood takes the fifth spot
OK, this is not really a going-out-on-a-limb type prediction. Tyler Chatwood is the clear favorite to win the fifth spot in the rotation. Pitching coach Tommy Hottovy has already essentially said that the right-hander is positioned to get that job. Chatwood even said it was something that was discussed as far back as late last season.
Alec Mills (out of options) is a prime candidate, too, with Adbert Alzolay, Jharel Cotton and Colin Rea also in the mix. While Alzolay is a promising pitching prospect who got a taste of MLB last year, there is a strong chance he opens at Triple-A Iowa. Hottovy noted that 2019 was Alzolay's first healthy season in a few years, and the righty only logged 81 2/3 innings between the Minors and Majors.