Cubs pitchers and catchers warm up in Mesa, AZ.
Every spring training defined storylines are set. However, as it progresses, some unexpected developments take place and change everything fans had assumed. Breakout stars emerge and other “sure things” disappoint.
This year will be no different, and the Cubs have as much uncertainty at the major league level as any team in baseball. That’s why this spring training could be so interesting for the North Siders. Some unexpected contributors could crack the Opening Day roster and some role players could end up with bigger roles than expected.
While there are plenty of moving pieces as the Cubs try to figure out their long-term plans, here are five players that could break out this spring training.
With Jake Arrieta already injured, Rusin could be the man to step into the rotation.
Especially with Jake Arrieta sidelined early in spring training with shoulder tightness according to Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune, the race for the final spots in the starting rotation could heat up. Among candidates such as James McDonald and Justin Grimm is lefty Chris Rusin.
Rusin has just as much right to a spot in the starting rotation as anyone at this point. In 13 starts a season ago, the southpaw recorded an ERA of 3.93 while going 2-6. He was impressive in several of those starts and merits a good hard look in spring training.
Adding a lefty could help split up a rotation that doesn't have a whole lot of balance at this point. As long as Jason Hammel takes the last rotation spot behind Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson, Wood would be the only lefty on the staff. Having two lefties could be valuable balance-wise.
In spring training, Rusin will get a chance to show what he's got and possibly crack the rotation. If Arrieta's injury turns out to be minor then it's going to be tough for Rusin to get into the rotation, but a relief role isn't out of the question. Of all the potential candidates behind Arrieta for another spot in the rotation, Rusin had the most impressive outings at the major league level a year ago.
Alcantara may not make the team out of spring training, but he could still make an impact in 2014.
While it's a long shot that Alcantara will crack the Opening Day roster in 2014, how he plays in spring training could give Cubs fans a glimpse of things to come. With Darwin Barney's well-documented struggles at the plate, Alcantara could be taking over the starting second base job within the next year.
Based on how he's performed in the minor leagues, Alcantara provides more power and speed than Barney does as he hit 15 home runs a season ago and stole 31 bases. Since the Cubs have so many infield prospects, his performance could also help determine where a lot of other prospects end up.
For example, if Alcantara plays well then prospect Javier Baez could move to third base instead of second. That would make things even more complicated once Kris Bryant makes his way to the major leagues. These are all hypotheticals, but the fact Alcantara is one of the closest to being major league-ready in the Cubs's system means he could dictate where everyone else ends up.
Olt had a disappointing 2013 campaign, but with his vision issues behind him he's ready to prove his worth in 2014.
The main reason Olt, who was acquired from the Rangers in the Matt Garza trade last year, has the chance to break out this season is that he had such a disappointing season a year ago. Due to some blurry vision and perhaps some other issues, Olt only managed to hit .201.
However, Olt has the power to make a difference at the next level. Should he make the team out of spring training, he could be hitting in the No. 4 or 5 holes in the lineup. With the Cubs needing answers in the infield, it is Olt's job to lose in spring training.
Just like Alcantara, how Olt performs could determine where the rest of the young Cubs play in the future.
He hasn't thrown a pitch in a Cubs uniform, but that could soon change for talented young pitcher Arodys Vizcaino.
Vizcaino hasn't thrown a pitch in professional baseball since 2011 so he has to prove he's back before he's in the major leagues. However, the former No. 2 overall prospect for the Braves averages 96 mph on his fastball and could potentially be an elite back end bullpen arm in the future.
Even though he used to be a starting pitcher, the extensive arm injuries early in his career are likely to relegate Vizcaino to the bullpen, at least for now. He would have to pitch out of his mind to make the team out of spring training, but as long as the team is convinced he's healthy and effective, he will be up as soon as possible.
Since he hasn't pitched in so long, people tend to forget about Vizcaino, but the talent is there. How much of that talent he flashes this spring and in the early regular season will help decide his fate in the Cubs' bullpen this season.
After arriving in Chicago, Strop showed enough progress to convince team executives that he could be featured in the back end of the bullpen for years to come.
In what could be one of the biggest trade steals for the Cubs in quite some time, the team landed Strop and starter Jake Arrieta for pitcher Scott Feldman. Both players acquired by the Cubs underachieved for the Orioles before the trade and improved drastically once arriving in Chicago.
Of the two players, Strop impressed the most. After being shipped to Chicago, Strop posted a 2.83 ERA in 35 innings. That performance has convinced the Cubs' front office that Strop could be perfect in the set-up role and possibly close. He will battle with newly acquired reliever Jose Veras for that closer spot.
Regardless of what role he's playing in the back end of the Cubs bullpen, he will look to build on a solid end to 2014. How he finished that season is an encouraging sign he could be in for some even bigger and brighter things in 2014 and beyond.