Chicago Cubs: Three Things to Watch for at Spring Training

Happy “baseball is back” week!

Beginning on Wednesday, pitchers and catchers will be officially reporting, followed by the first official full-squad workout five days later. It’s the most beautiful time of the year.

This past weekend, a new buzz swept across Cubs Nation as the Chicago Cubs and ace Yu Darvish came to terms on a six-year, $126 million deal with the potential for the contract to reach $150 million. The hot stove is officially burning. Hopefully, more dominoes will fall over the next couple of weeks, and we see the more big-name free agents sign. For now, this is good news.

In a similar matter, as we roll back around to Spring Training there are always things to watch for related to the upcoming season. For the Chicago Cubs, here are three things fans should watch for over the next month and a half.

(Photo by Mike Banghart/Chicago Now)

The addition of Yu Darvish

Hey hey, what do you say, Yu Darvish is a Cub today.

Rejoice Cubs fans. You have a new ace in town. Darvish will join a loaded rotation that already includes Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, and Jose Quintana. Coupled with the addition of Darvish, the Cubs now boast a top-two rotation in all of baseball. The Houston Astros carry the slightest advantage.

With pitchers and catchers reporting Wednesday, it will be the first time we get the opportunity to see Yu Darvish in Cubbie blue. An exciting prospect.

Darvish will inevitably step into the “ace” role, followed by Hendricks, Quintana, Lester, and Tyler Chatwood to round out the starting rotation. It could, and will inevitably change, but for now, this feels like how it will shake out.

Darvish brings a career 3.42 ERA over 131 games. Darvish’ most exceptional season came in 2013, when he churned out a career-high 209.2 innings, finishing 13-9 with a 2.83 ERA and a 32.9 K%. In 2014, Darvish was on his way to another excellent season before he was shut down with elbow inflammation. Ultimately, Darvish succumbed to Tommy John surgery and missed the entire 2015 season.

While it is apparent that Darvish will not return to his pre-Tommy John self, moving forward, the Cubs can still expect success.

PECOTA, a sabermetric algorithm that stands for Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm, projects Darvish to finish 12-7 with a respectable 3.71 ERA and a 2.7 WARP.

The Chicago Cubs are a team fresh off three straight NLCS appearances, which includes a World Series championship in that span. The addition of Yu Darvish will help their chances for a fourth consecutive appearance, as well as hopefully propelling them back to the World Series in 2018.

(Photo by Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

Who will lead off for the Chicago Cubs?

It is a question which has stumped Cubs fans mightily over the past few months. Heading into the 2018 season, everyone wants to know who will bat lead-off for the team. Nevertheless, there are a few candidates. Some are pretty obvious, while some create an exciting prospect.

The first who comes to mind is Kyle Schwarber. Schwarber was a staple of the Cubs’ lineup last season, appearing in 37 games at the lead-off position. In that time frame, Schwarber amassed 147 at-bats and 173 total plate appearances. Schwarber struggled regardless of where in the lineup he hit. In the lead-off spot, Schwarber batted .190 with seven home runs and 18 RBI. The best guess is that Schwarber will get the first shot in that role, with the possibility of someone else swooping in.

Anthony Rizzo is the second guy who comes to mind. The first thing to remember from last season was how much fun it was watching Rizzo in the lead-off spot. Rizzo tore it up, batting .300 over 50 at-bats and 59 total plate appearances. He hit five home runs and drove in 12 runs. Correspondingly, the legend grew when Rizzo led off two straight games with a home run and came mere feet from hitting a third. Watching Anthony Rizzo bat lead-off would bring a whole new element to the Cubs offense.

The third guy is Albert Almora. Almora started 104 games in center field for the Cubs in 2017 and led off for the Cubs in eight games. To emphasize, this is minuscule sample size. Accordingly, Almora did hit .294 with four runs batted in when in the lead-off spot. On the whole, the prospect that Almora does bat first is probably not something that will happen. However, he could be a nice compliment to the middle of the order and help get things started.

(Photo by Sports Illustrated)

Jason Heyward’s swing

Of all the things Cubs fans are hoping for in 2018, it is the turnaround of Jason Heyward. When Heyward signed an eight-year, $184 million deal, the Chicago Cubs expected a big-time addition. Instead, they have gotten a player who has batted just .243 in 260 career games for them, 18 home runs, and has posted 2.4 wins above replacement. To enumerate, Heyward has not been good.

The Cubs and Cubs nation hope that changes in 2018. The Cubs hired former Red Sox hitting coach Chili Davis in the offseason. Reports surrounding Heyward suggest that he is working hard to re-work his swing efficiently. It is a great sign. Accordingly, one report says the two have been working together since before Thanksgiving.

All signs point in a positive direction for Jason Heyward in 2018. With the added help of Chili Davis and a clean bill of health, J-Hey could return to form and help the Cubs in a considerable way.