Emma: Cubs Spring Training Primer

By Chris Emma–

(CBS) After the thrills of their World Series championship, the Cubs are back to work with the hopes of doing it all over again.

When Theo Epstein took charge of the Cubs’ baseball operation in October 2011, he didn’t promise the pursuit of just one title. Sustaining success was the goal. Once again, the Cubs are positioned for a World Series run, again boasting one of the best rosters in baseball.

The Cubs are set to win for a while or so it would seem with this core of young players. With his greatest labors in the past, Epstein’s role moving forward is to find fits to place around the stars like Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Jon Lester and more, maximizing their chances for each season.

Epstein did fine work in replacing Dexter Fowler and Aroldis Chapman, their two greatest losses from the World Series run. This team didn’t take a step back; in fact, one could argue it’ll be even stronger.

Spring training is underway in Arizona, with pitchers and catchers reporting to officially begin camp. Soon enough, manager Joe Maddon will have a new motto and new T-shirts, Jason Heyward’s swing will be closely evaluated and we will be off and running with this season.

But as Chicago learned in 2016, it’s a long baseball season. The road to the World Series comes with many twists and turns. Even for a Cubs team that often seemed destined to win it all, there was great adversity.

Here we go again, with a new season set to take off.

2016 review

Finally, it was The Year. The Cubs followed their run to the National League Championship Series in 2015 as a better, deeper team in 2016. They endured the brutal knee injury to Schwarber in the first week of the regular season, a blow that was supposed to have ended his season (little did we know). Then came a dominant start to the season, which hardly slowed down.

The Cubs won 103 games and clinched the NL Central with relative ease. They got a fight from the Giants, winning the National League Divisional Series with a ninth-inning comeback in Game 4. They overcame issues at the plate and beat the Dodgers’ stifling rotation, winning the NL pennant in six games to bring their first World Series appearance since 1945.

After falling behind 3-1 to the Indians in the Fall Classic, the Cubs won three straight games, winning the World Series with a thrilling 8-7 victory in 10 innings of Game 7. The celebration began in Chicago, bringing a short offseason for the Cubs.

Key players

Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant

While there are young stars, burgeoning talent and big names all across the roster — Russell just turned 23, Albert Almora is finally getting his shot and Heyward could be in line for a turnaround season — this team is ultimately about its two MVP candidates, Rizzo and Bryant.

Bryant earned the nod last year as MVP, while Rizzo was a leading candidate during the early part of the season. They could be contending against each other for MVP honors once again this season.

Like the Blackhawks have Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the Cubs have Rizzo and Bryant. As long as these two are playing, the Cubs have the foundation to win the World Series every year.

Key to 2017

There’s never enough pitching depth for an Epstein-run organization, something we’ve been reminded of by his moves this offseason. Epstein has been creative in finding ways to add to the Cubs’ pitching depth, signing left-hander Brett Anderson and trading for right-handers Eddie Butler and Alec Mills. The Cubs will enter this season with either Anderson or Mike Montgomery as the fifth starter, joining Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey in the rotation.

The Cubs’ rotation has stayed remarkably healthy for the past two years. While they would prefer not to test their pitching depth this season, they’ve prepared for some attrition with their offseason work. The Cubs are also preparing themselves for the likely departures of Arrieta and Lackey after this season, which is another way the additions of Anderson, Butler and Mills are valuable. Montgomery will get his chance in the rotation, whether that’s this season or next.

The Cubs are trying to position their rotation for the future by developing some refurbished arms. How those pitchers perform and develop is one of their uncertainties.

Key quote

“We’re hungrier than ever. We would love to be that team goes back-to-back. I think we all have the right mindset.” — Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant

2017 Cubs 40-man roster

Pitchers

Brett Anderson
Jake Arrieta
Aaron Brooks
Jake Buchanan
Eddie Butler
Wade Davis
Brian Duensing
Carl Edwards Jr.
Justin Grimm
Kyle Hendricks
Pierce Johnson
John Lackey
Jack Leathersich
Jon Lester
Alec Mills
Mike Montgomery
Felix Pena
Hector Rondon
Jose Rosario
Caleb Smith
Pedro Strop
Koji Uehara
Duane Underwood Jr.
Rob Zastryzny

Catchers

Victor Caratini
Willson Contreras
Miguel Montero

Infield

Javier Baez
Kris Bryant
Jeimer Candelario
Tommy La Stella
Anthony Rizzo
Addison Russell
Ben Zobrist

Outfielders

Albert Almora Jr.
Jacon Hannemann
Jason Heyward
Jon Jay
Kyle Schwarber
Matt Szczur

Notable non-roster invitees to spring training

Gerardo Concepcion, LHP
Manny Parra, LHP
Jemile Weeks, IF
Munenori Kawasaki, IF
Ian Happ, IF
Eloy Jimenez, OF

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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