Opening Day FAQ: Pirates vs. Cubs

March 31st, 2021

CHICAGO -- Opening Day will be a study of contrasts on Thursday afternoon at the Friendly Confines.

The Cubs will head to the diamond at Wrigley Field with a star-packed core trying to sustain a run of success that began six years ago. They have won a World Series together, reached the playoffs five times in six seasons and are entering 2021 as reigning National League Central division champions.

"It's been an amazing ride," Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "I don't think it's over yet."

The Pirates will be entering another important season of growth, hoping to continue building toward the type of success their rivals in Chicago have enjoyed. There will be plenty of ups and downs, and many firsts, such as Chad Kuhl's first Opening Day start.

"There's only 30 guys in the league that get to do it," Kuhl said. "So to be one of those 30, it's just really, really cool."

The preseason work is done. The fielding drills and live BPs are in the books. The "B" games on the back fields and the Cactus League contests are over. For the Cubs and Pirates, their respective 2021 journeys are now beginning.

"I couldn't be happier from the manager's seat," Cubs manager David Ross said, "of just how this spring has gone, and where I feel like we're headed for 2021. It's an exciting time."

Here is a breakdown of what to expect from the Cubs and Pirates on Opening Day.

When is the game and how can I watch it?
First pitch is slated for 1:20 p.m. CT and will be available on MLB.TV. For Cubs fans, the game will be televised on Marquee Sports Network and on the radio on 670 AM The Score and WRTO 1200 AM (Spanish). For Pirates fans, the game will be on AT&T Sportsnet for TV and 93.7 The Fan and 100.1 FM/KDKA-AM 1020 on the radio.

The starting lineups
: Manager Derek Shelton confirmed that Adam Frazier would be the leadoff hitter to start the season, despite Kevin Newman’s scorching bat in Spring Training -- though Newman's impressive showing at camp earned him the starting shortstop gig. The only area left to be determined is the starting center fielder. The likelihood is that Anthony Alford will begin the season there.

Projected lineup

Cubs: Ross' mantra this spring is that the team is counting on the "back of the baseball card" for the offense. Some core players experienced subpar showings in 2020, but it's hard to know how much stock to put into such a small sample. It's a group packed with past accolades and Chicago believes it can return to expected levels over 162 games. Ian Happ returns atop the lineup and Ross has liked the concept of Willson Contreras in the No. 2 spot. From there, the Cubs have good lefty-right balance the rest of the way.

Projected lineup

Who are the starting pitchers?
: Kuhl will make his first career Opening Day start at the age of 28. The right-hander has been with the Pirates organization for eight years, making him one of the longest-tenured players on the club. Kuhl said the best part of starting on Opening Day will be pitching in front of his family for the first time since 2018, when he underwent Tommy John surgery. He’ll also have a new face watching him: His son, Hudson, who was born on March 19.

Cubs: This will mark the second consecutive Opening Day start for Kyle Hendricks, who has become known as "The Professor" for his clinics on command. In last season's opener, Hendricks followed the abbreviated Summer Camp with a complete-game shutout over the Brewers. The righty has won an ERA title (2016), taken the mound in Game 7 of a World Series, earned Cy Young votes and has grown steadily into the unquestioned leader of Chicago's rotation. Dating back to 2015, Hendricks ranks 12th in WAR (19.2 via FanGraphs) among all MLB pitchers.

How might the bullpens line up after the starter?
: The Pirates do not have a set closer, choosing instead to go with a few high-leverage options to mix and match late in games. That crew includes Richard Rodríguez, Kyle Crick and Chris Stratton. Sooner or later, it could also involve David Bednar, who threw 8 2/3 scoreless innings with 18 strikeouts in Spring Training. Pittsburgh is not well suited to play the matchup game, opting for one lefty on the roster in Sam Howard, but there will be 14 pitchers for Shelton to choose from, allowing further depth to emerge as it may.

Cubs: In last year's short season, with so much riding on each victory and Craig Kimbrel sorting through delivery issues, Ross hesitated to apply the closer label on any one arm. This time around, Kimbrel has been dubbed the closer from the jump. The setup situation will be more fluid at the beginning of the season, with Brandon Workman, Dan Winkler, Ryan Tepera, Jason Adam and Andrew Chafin all candidates for high-leverage work. With Adbert Alzolay in the rotation to start, righty Alec Mills will be in the bullpen as a multi-inning option. Righty Dillon Maples and lefty Rex Brothers round out the relief corps.

Any injuries of note?
: Steven Brault, a candidate for the Opening Day starter role early in camp, was shut down from throwing for the first three weeks of the regular season, and it will be 10 weeks “at best” before he returns to game action, per Pirates director of sports medicine Todd Tomczyk. Cody Ponce also will begin the season on the injured list after feeling some discomfort in his right forearm. He is throwing sides and flat-ground sessions, but he's held back from throwing off a mound. Other injuries include Blake Cederlind, who is out for the season (Tommy John surgery); Austin Davis, who is on the 60-day injured list; and José Soriano, who is on the 60-day injured list.

Cubs: Right-hander Rowan Wick dealt with an intercostal injury during Spring Training, but made positive strides late in camp. While Wick worked his way back on a mound, it will still take time for him to return to the bullpen. Righty Jonathan Holder was sidelined with a chest muscle issue late in camp, but remains with the team to continue his throwing program. Backup catcher Austin Romine sprained his right knee during Spring Training and his timetable for return is unclear.

Who's hot and who's not?
: Newman finally fell back under .700 for the spring on Monday, but he’s set the record for the best batting average in Spring Training since stats became official in 2006. Frazier, Hayes and Reynolds all were exceptional at the plate as well. On the pitching side, Wil Crowe made a case to be a fifth or sixth starter, allowing one run over 11 2/3 innings. And let’s mention Bednar one more time here, because the Pittsburgh native was absolutely lights-out.

Cubs: Pederson signed with the North Siders to be the new left fielder and made quite an impression in Spring Training. In 45 Cactus League at-bats, all Pederson did was hit .378/.431/1.000 with eight home runs, four doubles and 19 RBIs. The Cubs plan on giving him everyday at-bats early on this season, even though Pederson has been limited against lefties in the past. Contreras (1.196 OPS), Happ (1.002 OPS), Bote (.990 OPS) and Rizzo (.927 OPS) all had strong springs, while Báez (.578 OPS) and Bryant (.582 OPS) were both slow out of the gate.

Anything else fans might want to know?
• Expect there to be some movement in center field for the Pirates. Alford is the leading candidate to start, but Dustin Fowler is also a former Top 100 prospect as a center fielder. The Pirates have shifted Reynolds to center field, and even moved Erik González to the position in spring to see if he was a fit.

• Jake Marisnick was signed to be the Cubs' fourth outfielder, giving the lefty-heavy outfield a right-handed complement. Late in games, Marisnick could be utilized as a pinch-hitter, pinch-runner or for defense. If Marisnick takes over late in center, expect Happ to move to left.

• The Cubs have a pair of high-contact bats on the bench in Eric Sogard and Matt Duffy. Sogard offers a lefty option who can play up the middle in the infield. Duffy gives Ross a righty bat for the infield corners. Their ability to put the ball in play and get on base helps for late-game matchups.