Sharma: 8 Cubs takeaways after 3 weeks at spring training

The middle of March means many around the baseball world are overreacting to spring training stats. It shouldn’t happen. All of us have been warned so many times and given concrete examples of why none of these stats matter. Still, after weeks of watching “meaningless” games, people want to draw conclusions.

I’ve tried to avoid doing that but often find myself at least slightly intrigued by someone’s spring performance. But most of how I feel after a stint in Arizona is based on the many conversations I have with people who are tasked with making decisions throughout the Chicago Cubs organization and scouts with other teams who are watching the Cubs’ players.

Three weeks at Cubs camp means there were plenty of conversations. Here are some stray thoughts on the Cubs with less than two weeks to Opening Day.

There’s been a lot of talk in this space over the past two years about the need for an elite bat in the Cubs’ lineup. Cody Bellinger filled that role to an extent last year and it’s certainly possible he could do so again this summer. But if he does, he’ll inevitably hit free agency and who knows where he’d end up.

So who is going to fill that role for this team over the next few years? There are prospects like Matt Shaw, Owen Caissie and Kevin Alcántara who could emerge as that type of bat. But the bet here is that Seiya Suzuki is about to embark on an MVP-caliber season.

Yes, I already made that prediction at the end of last year, but consider this me doubling down. Suzuki has all the traits one looks for in an elite bat — lack of chase and swing-and-miss along with plenty of hard contact — and now he’s both comfortable and confident facing MLB pitching. It feels like a real breakout season is coming.

The Cubs will be creative with their pitching staff. They’ve made that pretty clear. But many people are assuming that this is because of Shota Imanaga, who was accustomed to working every sixth day in Japan. Imanaga has remained on that schedule in the spring.

But after doing some research, this may not be an Imanaga thing as much as a Craig Counsell idea. Last season Counsell had two starters make at least 30 starts: Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta. Burnes made 23 starts on five days’ rest and only six on four. Peralta started 19 games with five days of rest and made six starts with four rest days in between.

Shota Imanaga pitched 4 1/3 scoreless innings with nine strikeouts on March 14 against the A’s. (Chris Coduto / Getty Images)

Outside of the 60-game 2020 season where it wasn’t a concern to keep pitchers fresh over a long season, this appears to be pretty typical with Counsell. Compare this to the Cubs, where Justin Steele made 15 starts after four days of rest and nine starts on five days’ rest, while Jameson Taillon made 16 starts on four days’ rest and six starts after five rest days.

Getting that fifth rest day for starters appears to be a philosophy other teams ascribe to, including the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves. It’s important to keep in mind and remember that Counsell isn’t looking to accommodate just one pitcher. He’s doing what he thinks is best to keep his pitchers fresh for what they hope will be an October run.

In general, look for Counsell to be creative with how he uses his rotation. Drew Smyly may be in the bullpen to start the season, but seeing him used in a hybrid role wouldn’t be odd. That could entail four innings out of the bullpen on a day a starter goes short, outings where he follows an opener, spot starts or just being a one-inning lefty against a pocket of hitters that presents a good matchup. These types of usage patterns aren’t out of the norm for Counsell.

The Cubs have depth with their starters and some versatile pitchers. Hayden Wesneski, Javier Assad and Ben Brown could each be used in various ways. David Ross tried some different things last season, but those felt more out of necessity. This is a better roster and a deeper system with more players on the verge of helping the big-league club. It’ll be interesting to follow how creative Counsell gets with how he uses his pitching staff.

Has prospect fatigue arrived for Pete Crow-Armstrong? After going hitless in 19 plate appearances last September and then accumulating just four hits and no walks so far this spring, it feels like too many are ready to write him off.

Counsell has made it clear that he likes the organization’s prospect depth and has admitted that some will succeed and others won’t. So it’s not as if Crow-Armstrong is guaranteed success. But his center-field defense alone gives him a quality floor in the big leagues. Some may expect too much from him offensively, but if he’s just average to slightly above, he’s a really valuable player.

Either way, it’s far too early to make judgments on what he is. He’s an imperfect prospect, like nearly all of them, but he has real talent and plenty of time to improve upon the issues he and the player development staff have identified.

Before Bellinger re-signed, a lot of people suggested that the Cubs had done nothing to improve their offense. It wasn’t an unfair assessment considering they had yet to add any bats with a history of success at the highest level.

But it’s the addition of Michael Busch that has me starting to wonder if this offense can repeat or perhaps even improve upon the offensive performance last season. First base was a mess for the Cubs last season as veterans Eric Hosmer and Trey Mancini scuffled and Matt Mervis was overwhelmed in his big-league debut. So Busch doesn’t have a high bar to clear to be an upgrade.

The Cubs seem committed to giving Busch some runway to start the season. Counsell has praised how calm he looks in the box and scouts have been a fan of his approach. Busch makes hard contact and has hit at every level where he’s gotten extended play. Suzuki and Bellinger are probably the two most impactful bats in this lineup, but Busch could be right behind that duo when all is said and done.

The Cade Horton buzz is only going to get louder. Player development coaches love the guy and have been impressed with how quickly he implements coaching. The development of his changeup and curveball last summer was really impressive.

Beyond that, some established players have spent time with Horton and have come away impressed. Apparently, they see a hard worker who “gets it.” Big leaguers love seeing guys who don’t buy into their own hype — and there is plenty of that around Horton — but just go about their business, put in the work and understand that getting to the majors isn’t enough.

It takes a lot of both to stick around and then thrive at the highest level. Horton seems to understand that. On top of those intangible elements, he’s got all the talent in the world to succeed.

I usually come away from spring training feeling good about one reliever I hadn’t heard much about before the trip. This time, I’m not as confident in picking a “guy.” Luke Little clearly has pretty nasty stuff from the left side but I’m not comfortable going all-in on him yet. That’s a big frame (6-foot-8, 220 pounds) and it’s just really hard for pitchers that size to consistently repeat their delivery. The chance that his walk rate spikes causes a little bit of concern.

I want to see more from Daniel Palencia as well and I’m generally high on Brown’s chances of turning into an impact reliever at some point. But unlike previous springs, there isn’t a little-known veteran or someone coming off a poor season who looks like a good bet to not only make the team but impact the group. At least from my vantage point. Perhaps that’s a good thing considering the number of young pitchers who could help the bullpen this year.

I will say this, I don’t care at all about how experienced veteran pitchers look in camp, especially relievers. The majority of the time they’re just trying to get their work in and their goal is to stay healthy. So many of them thrive off the intensity of competition and can only get the juices flowing in a real game. If Héctor Neris doesn’t retire a single batter the rest of the spring, it still won’t be a concern to me.

The old Boston Red Sox conglomerate tells stories of Keith Foulke looking so rough in the spring of 2004. There was legitimate panic among the front office. He apparently looked terrible. The story goes that in the last spring game, they wanted to get him just one batter and have him end on a high note. He gave up a rocket homer instead.

In the second game of the season, Foulke came in to protect a 4-1 lead in the ninth. Some execs were nervous. He retired the side on nine pitches as he embarked on a season in which he’d post a 2.17 ERA and save 32 games. The moral of the story is don’t stress about veteran relievers in the spring. Just hope they stay healthy and are ready for Opening Day.

(Top photo of Seiya Suzuki: Chris Coduto / Getty Images)

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