Cubs Spring Training 2017 Preview: Predictions, Players to Watch and More

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistJanuary 17, 2017

Cubs Spring Training 2017 Preview: Predictions, Players to Watch and More

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    The Chicago Cubs will enter the 2017 season as marked men, looking to undertake the uphill battle that is repeating as World Series champions.

    Just three times in the last 30 years has a team managed to win consecutive titles, as the New York Yankees won three in a row from 1998 to 2000 and the Toronto Blue Jays won it all in 1992 and 1993.

    The Cubs have the talent to join that exclusive club.

    Even with the departures of Dexter Fowler, Aroldis Chapman, Jason Hammel, Jorge Soler, Travis Wood and a handful of others, it's hard to find a hole in the roster without nitpicking.

    Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo will once again anchor a dynamic young offense, while the trio of Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks atop the rotation stacks up to any staff in baseball.

    The bullpen lost one of the game's best closers in Chapman and replaced him with another in Wade Davis, and the relief corps as a whole looks deeper than it did a year ago.

    To put it simply, all signs point to another exciting season of baseball on the North Side.

    Spring training is now roughly a month away, with pitchers and catcher set to report on Feb. 14 and the first full-squad workout scheduled for Feb. 18.

    As we come down the homestretch of another long, cold offseason, ahead is a full preview of what to watch for out of Cubs camp this spring.

Offseason Recap

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    Wade Davis will replace Aroldis Chapman in the closer's role.
    Wade Davis will replace Aroldis Chapman in the closer's role.Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

    Key Additions

    Player2016 Stats (*=Double-A stats)
    RHP Wade Davis45 G, 27/30 SV, 1.87 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 16 BB, 47 K, 43.1 IP
    CF Jon Jay374 PA, .291/.339/.389, 26 2B, 2 HR, 26 RBI, 49 R, 2 SB
    RHP Koji Uehara 50 G, 18 HLD, 3.45 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 11 BB, 63 K, 47.0 IP
    LHP Brian Duensing 14 G, 1-0, 4.05 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 3 BB, 10 K, 13.1 IP
    LHP Caleb Smith*27 G, 3-5, 3 SV, 3.96 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 20 BB, 70 K, 63.2 IP

                                  

    Replacing closer Aroldis Chapman looked to be the top priority when the offseason began, and the Cubs did just that when they shipped Jorge Soler to the Kansas City Royals for Wade Davis.

    Davis will earn $10 million in the final year of his contract before reaching free agency next offseason, so he's a short-term solution. Provided he's healthy after dealing with forearm issues last season, there's no reason he can't again be one of the game's best late-inning weapons.

    Veterans Koji Uehara (one-year, $6 million) and Brian Duensing (one-year, $2 million) were also signed to further bolster the relief corps, while left-hander Caleb Smith was selected in the Rule 5 draft.

    On the position-player side of things, Jon Jay was brought in to give the team a platoon option to pair with Albert Almora Jr., as those two will replace Dexter Fowler in center field.

    Jay should have no problem making good on a one-year, $8 million deal as long as he stays healthy. He's always been a solid defender with good gap power and solid on-base skills, and he'll take some pressure off Almora in his first extended MLB action.

                                                              

    Key Losses

    Player2016 Stats
    CF Dexter Fowler551 PA, .276/.393/.447, 25 2B, 13 HR, 48 RBI, 84 R, 13 SB
    LHP Aroldis Chapman59 G, 36/39 SV, 1.55 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 18 BB, 90 K, 58.0 IP
    RHP Jason Hammel 30 GS, 15-10, 3.83 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 53 BB, 144 K, 166.2 IP
    C David Ross205 PA, .229/.338/.446, 6 2B, 10 HR, 32 RBI, 24 R
    OF Jorge Soler 264 PA, .238/.333/.436, 9 2B, 12 HR, 31 RBI, 37 R
    LHP Travis Wood77 G, 12 HLD, 2.95 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 24 BB, 47 K, 61.0 IP
    RHP Trevor Cahill 50 G, 4 HLD, 2.74 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 35 BB, 66 K, 65.2 IP
    RHP Joe Smith54 G, 7 HLD, 3.46 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 18 BB, 40 K, 52.0 IP
    OF Chris Coghlan 128 PA, .252/.391/.388, 7 2B, 1 HR, 16 RBI, 21 R, 1 SB

                                       

    That may seem like a daunting list of departing talent, but for the most part, the Cubs have done a nice job plugging the holes that free agency left on the roster.

    Fowler, Chapman and Jason Hammel all appear to have clear replacements with the free-agent additions of Jay and Davis and Mike Montgomery set to move into the starting rotation.

    Soler was expendable as the fifth outfielder, and while David Ross will certainly be missed in the clubhouse and on the field, the team can return to a more traditional two-catcher roster with Kyle Schwarber also seeing the occasional start in the crouch.

    Trevor Cahill, Joe Smith and Chris Coghlan were all essentially spare parts, leaving Travis Wood as perhaps the most impactful loss.

    Duensing is average at best as the top lefty option out of the bullpen, and Wood also had the added value of being able to start if needed.

    With that in mind, finding some capable starting pitching depth and upgrading the lefty reliever situation appears to be all that remains on the offseason to-do list.

2017 Opening Day Roster Locks

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Position Players (11 of 12 spots locked)

    • C Willson Contreras
    • C Miguel Montero (L)
    • 1B Anthony Rizzo (L)
    • 2B Ben Zobrist (S)
    • 3B Kris Bryant
    • SS Addison Russell
    • IF Javier Baez
    • OF Albert Almora Jr.
    • OF Jason Heyward (L)
    • OF Jon Jay (L)
    • OF Kyle Schwarber (L)

    Pitchers (11 of 13 spots locked)

    • SP Jake Arrieta
    • SP Kyle Hendricks
    • SP John Lackey
    • SP Jon Lester (L)
    • SP Mike Montgomery (L)
    • RP Wade Davis
    • RP Carl Edwards Jr.
    • RP Justin Grimm
    • RP Hector Rondon
    • RP Pedro Strop
    • RP Koji Uehara

Position Battle: Final Bench Spot

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    Matt Szczur is one of the leading candidates for the final bench spot.
    Matt Szczur is one of the leading candidates for the final bench spot.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Candidates (5): Jeimer Candelario, Munenori Kawasaki (NRI), Tommy La Stella, Matt Szczur, Jemile Weeks (NRI)

                        

    Overview

    Barring a surprising turn of events, it appears the final bench spot will come down to infielder Tommy La Stella or outfielder Matt Szczur.

    Thanks to the versatility of guys like Javier Baez, Ben Zobrist and Kris Bryant, the Cubs aren't locked into filling out their bench with a specific "fourth outfielder" or "utility infielder" type, meaning this could legitimately come down to who performs best this spring.

    La Stella provides value as a left-handed bat capable of playing second and third base, and he showed well in limited action last season, posting a .270/.357/.405 line with 12 doubles in 169 plate appearances for a 0.6 WAR.

    As for Szczur, he led the team and finished fifth in the majors with 12 pinch-hits last season.

    He also grades out as a plus defender at all three outfield spots while offering a bit more speed as a potential pinch runner than La Stella.

    Szczur is also out of minor league options, and it's unlikely the team will be able to sneak him through waivers. In fact, the Texas Rangers were identified as a team targeting him on the trade market during the winter meetings, per Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News.

    La Stella has two options remaining, but he did not take kindly to being optioned to the minors for a brief time in the second half last season.

    Both players have their merits, and on almost any other team, they'd both be locks for a roster spot.

                                                                    

    Prediction: Szczur wins the job. La Stella is less than thrilled with his minor league assignment and requests a trade.

Position Battle: Final Bullpen Spots

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    The Cubs will need to decide if they want to keep Rob Zastryzny stretched out as a starter or use him out of the MLB bullpen.
    The Cubs will need to decide if they want to keep Rob Zastryzny stretched out as a starter or use him out of the MLB bullpen.Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

    Candidates (11): Corey Black (NRI), Maikel Cleto (NRI), Brian Duensing, Pierce Johnson, Conor Mullee (NRI), Felix Pena, Fernando Rodriguez (NRI), David Rollins, Jose Rosario, Caleb Smith (Rule 5), Rob Zastryzny

                                                                   

    Overview

    After carrying three catchers for most of the 2016 season, it appears the Cubs will go against conventional thinking once again this coming season when it comes to building their Opening Day roster.

    "Epstein said the Cubs expect to carry an eight-man bullpen this year to accommodate the kind of depth he wants to create as the Cubs embark on what they expect to be a third consecutive seven-month season," wrote Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times.

    NL teams generally opt for a seven-man bullpen and a five-man bench, but the versatility of their position players will allow for an extra arm.

    The biggest decision will be what the team wants to do with left-hander Rob Zastryzny.

    As it currently stands, the 24-year-old is probably the next man up if a starter were to go down with an injury, but that could change before the start of spring training with the addition of some cheap veteran depth.

    If they do add another arm, Zastryzny might be a more appealing primary left-hander out of the bullpen than league-average veteran Brian Duensing or Rule 5 pick Caleb Smith.

    Zastryzny made eight appearances out of the MLB bullpen last year, posting a 1.12 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 17 strikeouts in 16 innings while recording his first MLB win. That was enough to earn him a spot on the NLCS roster against the lefty-heavy Los Angeles Dodgers.

    If he's sent back to the minors to stay stretched out as a starter, Duensing and Smith could both wind up breaking camp with the team.

    However, don't count out the possibility that the team starts the year with no left-hander in the pen either.

    Felix Pena pitched well enough down the stretch for a long look this spring, while non-roster invitee Fernando Rodriguez pitched well over 90 total appearances with the Oakland A's the past two seasons and could be a dark horse for a roster spot.

                                                          

    Prediction: The Cubs sign a veteran starter to serve as Triple-A depth and open the year with Zastryzny pitching out of the MLB bullpen. Smith beats out Duensing for the final bullpen spot after a strong spring, leaving Duensing as expensive depth after he goes unclaimed on waivers and accepts a Triple-A assignment.

Top Prospects to Watch

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    A full-time move to the bullpen could put Pierce Johnson in the mix for a bullpen spot.
    A full-time move to the bullpen could put Pierce Johnson in the mix for a bullpen spot.Rob Tringali/Getty Images

    RHP Corey Black

    A 25-year-old reliever with a power arm and limited command, Corey Black may have finally turned a corner during winter ball in Puerto Rico.

    With a fastball that touches 99 mph and a wipeout slider, he posted 10.5 K/9 between Double-A and Triple-A last season, but he backed that with a 6.1 BB/9 rate and 1.59 WHIP.

    However, while serving as a closer in the Puerto Rican Winter League, Black converted 12 of 13 save chances with a 0.43 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and a 17-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 21 innings.

    If he shows improved control this spring, he has the stuff to make an impact in the late innings.

                   

    IF Jeimer Candelario

    Jeimer Candelario got his first taste of MLB action last season, going 1-for-11 with two walks in a five-game stint with the big club.

    At this point, he has nothing left to prove in the minors.

    The 23-year-old hit .333/.417/.542 over 309 plate appearances in Triple-A last season, and while he has no clear path to an everyday job at the next level, he could settle into a utility role with the ability to play second and third base.

                         

    RHP Pierce Johnson

    There was a time when Pierce Johnson was the best starting pitching prospect in the Cubs' organization.

    Now he looks more like a reliever long-term, but his career could take off now that he's finally made the move to the bullpen.

    After pitching to a 7.75 ERA and 1.89 WHIP over 40.2 innings in 11 starts last season, he moved to the pen and posted a 3.22 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 22.1 innings, while his strikeout rate spiked from 8.9 K/9 to 14.1 K/9.

    Provided he can stay healthy, he could be ready to help in the MLB bullpen at some point in 2017.

                            

    RHP Felix Pena

    Felix Pena pitched well down the stretch after receiving an August call-up last season, posting a 4.00 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and 13 strikeouts in nine innings of work over 11 appearances.

    He has late-inning stuff with a mid-90s fastball and a quality slider, and he's another example of a former starter who has benefited from a move to the bullpen.

    The 26-year-old will get a long look this spring and will likely be among the first reinforcements called upon when the relief corps needs help.

                                                    

    OF Mark Zagunis

    A third-round pick in 2014, Mark Zagunis has moved quickly since joining the Cubs organization, reaching Triple-A midway through last season.

    The former catcher has made the full-time move to the outfield, leaving him well blocked at the MLB level.

    However, after hitting .288/.384/.469 with 40 extra-base hits in 422 plate appearances in the upper levels of the minors, he's ready to step into a supporting role if the opportunity presents itself.

2017 Breakout Candidates

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    Albert Almora Jr. is set to step into a significant role following the departure of Dexter Fowler.
    Albert Almora Jr. is set to step into a significant role following the departure of Dexter Fowler.Joe Sargent/Getty Images

    OF Albert Almora Jr.

    Taken No. 6 overall in the 2012 draft, Albert Almora Jr. became something of a forgotten man while guys like Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Javier Baez raced up the organizational ladder and onto the MLB roster.

    While he may never be a true impact player at the plate, he's a Gold Glove-caliber defender, and he should provide enough average and on-base skills to eventually slide into an everyday role.

    The 22-year-old hit .277/.308/.455 over 117 plate appearances in his first MLB action last season, earning a spot on the postseason roster as a defensive replacement.

    Over his 237 innings in the outfield, he tallied 3 DRS and a 23.7 UZR/150, a clear indication that he's capable of being a top-tier defender.

    He'll begin the year platooning with Jon Jay in center field, but a hot streak at the plate might be all it takes for him to seize the bulk of the playing time.

                                       

    IF Javier Baez

    The 2016 postseason made Javier Baez a household name, but he's still searching for a true breakout season.

    The dynamic 24-year-old spent most of 2016 in a super utility role before taking over as the primary second baseman during the playoffs, and there's a good chance he'll return to the utility spot to begin the 2017 season.

    That won't preclude him from a breakout season, though.

    Baez saw 450 plate appearances as a man without a set defensive position to call home, and he figures to essentially be an everyday player once again.

    He racked up 16 DRS between second, shortstop and third base last season, and if there were a Gold Glove for utility players, he would have won it easily.

    Now he needs to take the next step offensively.

    Trimming his strikeout rate from 30.0 percent to 23.0 percent was a step in the right direction, but there's still work to be done. The elite bat speed and plus raw power are there; he just needs to make more consistent contact and bring a better overall approach to the plate.

                                            

    SP Mike Montgomery

    Last time we saw Mike Montgomery, he was on the mound to record his first career save in Game 7 of the World Series.

    He might not be picking up career save No. 2 anytime soon.

    With Jason Hammel departing in free agency, Montgomery is ticketed for a spot at the back of the starting rotation this coming season.

    While the 27-year-old spent the majority of last season pitching out of the bullpenmaking 42 relief appearances and seven startshe broke into the league exclusively as a starter.

    As a rookie for the Seattle Mariners in 2015, he went 4-6 with a 4.60 ERA, 1.43 WHIP and 64 strikeouts in 90 innings. Not overly impressive on the surface, but included among his 16 starts were a pair of complete game shutouts, as he's capable of dominating when his curveball is on.

    The left-hander was 1-1 with a 3.28 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 34 strikeouts in 35.2 innings over his seven starts last season, and he's certainly a candidate to play a significantly larger role in his first full season on the North Side.

                             

    All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted. Contract information via Spotrac unless otherwise noted.