The star members of the Cubs' core have been talking about savoring each day together for the past two years. There were key changes -- in the front office and manager's chair, and on the field -- in that time period.
That was no different this past offseason, when Theo Epstein stepped down as the front-office leader and new president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer began reshaping Chicago's roster. Jon Lester and Kyle Schwarber were among the free-agent departures, Yu Darvish was traded and moves with the future in mind were a priority.
Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo -- key parts of the 2016 World Series roster -- are each on target to hit free agency next winter. Maybe the Cubs can retain one or two of them via extension, but keeping the whole core intact seems unrealistic. Expect trade rumors to flow this summer.
That makes the 2021 season a critical one for the direction of the franchise.
"I know these guys know how to win," manager David Ross said. "That's all they've really done since they've been here. Maybe not to the level of their expectations and what we've created here -- the expectations -- but they're still winners. And they're winners in virtually every year.
"Last year, we won a division in a year where they didn't have their [best] years at all and didn't get their numbers. That, to me, speaks volumes."
With all that in mind, here are some FAQs as this important Spring Training starts for the Cubs:
Given the pandemic, how is Spring Training going to be different this year?
No fans will be allowed at the workouts, but a limited number may be able to attend games at Sloan Park. Like all MLB teams, the Cubs have to go through the league's daily COVID-19 protocols. The team is also being cautious about spacing players out during workouts and keeping the same players and coaches in groups to avoid mixing throughout the day.
"We're trying to keep everybody in their own field, so we're a little bit more spread out," Ross said. "I think the challenge is continuing to create the right atmosphere, continuing to create camaraderie between the guys, let them get to know each other."
Who were some of the Cubs' key offseason additions?
Following their decision to part ways with slugger Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs signed free-agent Joc Pederson to be their new left fielder. The rebuilt rotation will feature new faces (Zach Davies and Trevor Williams) and a familiar one (Jake Arrieta). Kohl Stewart was signed as a candidate for the rotation or bullpen, and Brandon Workman has been added (unofficially) to the late-inning mix. Chicago also signed backup catcher Austin Romine.
What are the key roster battles to watch this spring?
• The Cubs will use the spring to determine the best way to fill out the rotation behind Hendricks, Davies and Arrieta. Adbert Alzolay, Alec Mills, Stewart and Williams are the main candidates.
• There will be a spring-long battle for the bullpen jobs. Craig Kimbrel is locked in as the closer, but a few others will be trying to earn setup roles. Beyond that, just filling out the relief corps will be a challenge. The Cubs want pitchers capable of handling multi-inning duties, either as long relievers or swing men.
• The Cubs do not know who will be the starting second baseman. David Bote, Nico Hoerner and Ildermaro Vargas will be competing for innings. How Chicago handles that spot will also affect the makeup of the bench.
When is the first Spring Training game?
The revised Cactus League slate has the Cubs heading to Peoria Stadium to take on the Padres at 2:10 p.m. CT on March 1, notable because Chicago and San Diego partnered on a stunning blockbuster trade that shipped ace Darvish from the North Side to the Friars during the offseason. It could be the first look Cubs fans get at slugger Pederson, who is more than familiar with San Diego from his many years with the Dodgers.
How can I follow Spring Training games?
Marquee Sports Network plans on broadcasting all of the Cubs' Spring Training home games, and Gamecasts via Gameday will be available on MLB.com. The radio broadcast schedule has not yet been released. News will be posted daily on both Cubs.com and MLB.com. You can also follow me on Twitter.
Who is the likely Opening Day starter?
In his first season as manager in 2020, Ross tabbed Hendricks as the Opening Day starter over Darvish and Lester. With Darvish and Lester gone, Hendricks stands tall in Chicago’s rebuilt rotation. Hendricks has been a staple of the starting staff for several years, with a 54-39 record and a 3.00 ERA since 2016. The precision-based righty started the 2020 season with a three-hit shutout in the July 24 opener against the Brewers, striking out nine and walking none. In a dozen starts last year (81 1/3 innings), Hendricks had a 2.88 ERA with 64 strikeouts and eight walks (third most in the Majors).
What could the Opening Day lineup look like?
Here's an early guess:
- Ian Happ, CF
- Kris Bryant, 3B
- Anthony Rizzo, 1B
- Javier Báez, SS
- Joc Pederson, LF
- Willson Contreras, C
- Jason Heyward, RF
- Nico Hoerner, 2B
Who are some prospects to keep an eye on in camp?
The three high-profile prospects in camp are lefty Brailyn Marquez, catcher Miguel Amaya and Alzolay. While Marquez and Amaya have the potential to have an impact on the Cubs this summer, Alzolay will be positioned to compete for an Opening Day job. Alzolay impressed down the stretch last season and he will have a chance to crack the rotation. The Cubs will also be taking a look at versatile infielder Christopher Morel and pitchers Cory Abbott, Justin Steele, Tyson Miller and Keegan Thompson.
Are there any injuries to monitor this spring?
As camp opened, the Cubs placed reliever Kyle Ryan, who has been relied upon as a lefty ground-ball specialist over the past two seasons, on the COVID-19 injured list. Ross also noted that righty Rowan Wick -- a part-time closer and setup man over the 2019-20 seasons -- is dealing with an intercostal setback that is related to the left oblique injury he sustained in September. There is no timeline for Wick's return.
When is Opening Day, and who is the opponent?
The Cubs are scheduled to host the Pirates at 1:20 p.m. CT on April 1 to open the 2021 regular season. That game will be the first in a six-game, seven-day season-opening homestand as the North Siders bid for back-to-back National League Central crowns.