The final game of Spring Training has passed and it is time for the boys to travel north for Opening Day! Here are the things to keep an eye on during the Cubs’ 2021 season.
What Happens with Nico Hoerner?
We all know that Nico will be optioned to start the season and will not be on the Opening Day roster. David Bote is the Cubs second basemen at this moment. With that being said, Nico Hoerner is clearly the future for the Cubs at second base. The reported issue surrounding the Hoerner situation is service time, he needs to be in the minor leagues for 36 days to avoid accumulating two years of MLB service time in 2021. After those 36 days are the Cubs going to bring Nico back up and let him play? That will likely depend on how both David Bote and Eric Sogard are playing.
Nico can certainly benefit from more focus on his development, but if he is also ready now, why wait any longer? Is the service time manipulation going to cause ill will towards the Cubs and prevent them from being able to keep him? We won’t know until that time comes. Nico will be with the Cubs at some point this year, but when that will be is still up in the air.
Which Outfielders Will Stick in the Lineup?
To start the season, it looks like the outfield will be Joc Pederson in left field, Ian Happ in center field, Jason Heyward in right field, with Jake Marisnick as the fourth outfielder. Kris Bryant and Cameron Maybin, who will be at the alternate site, are the other options that may see time in the outfield this season. The good thing about all of these outfielders is that they can all play center field with the exception of Bryant.
Joc Pederson was told before he signed in Chicago that he would get the chance to play everyday in left. The only question mark for Joc is whether or not he can hit lefty pitching well enough to stay in the lineup. He has struggled with LHP, only hitting .191 in his career with nine home runs. He has shown the ability to maintain his power against LHP in the spring, but we will see if that continues once the regular season begins.
It is a similar situation with Jason Heyward. He will play a majority of games no matter what because of his Gold Glove defense, but anything he can add offensively is a bonus.
The last compelling thing to keep an eye on in the outfield is who ends up getting more time between Jake Marisnick and Cameron Maybin? Marisnick made the Opening Day roster and Maybin will begin the season at the alternate site.
How Do the Back End of the Bullpen and Rotation Look at Season’s End?
Both the rotation and bullpen are pretty set at the top. Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta, and Zach Davies step the top of the rotation, while Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Chafin, Ryan Tepera, Brandon Workman, and Dan Winkler set the top of the pen. It is the back ends of both the rotation and pen that are filled with questions.
To start the season, the rotation will feature Trevor Williams and Adbert Alzolay in the fourth and fifth spots. Alzolay has limited experience as a starter in the MLB with only six games started and ten total appearance. Williams on the other hand has started 96 games to the tune of a 4.43 ERA. He is your typical 4th/5th starter that has the ability to really impact the club.
Alec Mills, who will begin the season in the bullpen, is also a candidate to join the rotation if anybody is either struggling or injured. Think of Alec Mills’ role the same way Mike Montgomery and Travis Wood were used in their time as Cubs. He can deliver spot starts or extended appearances out of the bullpen given what the team needs from him that day.
The bullpen will be a revolving door, even with their high-paid closing rollercoaster that is Craig Kimbrel. Rowan Wick coming back can add security to the 8th and 9th inning if he can get back to 100% sooner rather than later.
Other pitchers to keep an eye on in the bullpen are Dillon Maples and Rex Brothers, who both made the Opening Day roster.
Cubs fans are all too familiar with Dillon Maples. He has an incredibly high ceiling, accompanied by a BB/9 rate of 9.84. The Cubs are seemingly very confident in the adjustments that they made with Maples because they designated Duane Underwood Jr., who had a very nice 2020 for the Cubs. He has the potential to be the pitcher that we had hoped Kimbrel would be from day one, but he could just as easily be released after a month if he continues to walk batters at the rate he historically has.
Rex Brothers might be more important to the Cubs than Maples because he is the second of two lefty pitchers that the Cubs will have to start the season. He had a resurgent spring with the Cubs, but has only pitched 3.1 innings in the MLB since 2017. There is plenty of reason to doubt that he will be able to continue his strong spring into the regular season.
If I could see into the future and tell you what the Cubs will look at by the trade deadline, I would. Depending on how the team is performing, we could hear even more of the Kris Bryant trade rumors we’ve heard in the past, and that will only worsen the inability to extend either Anthony Rizzo or Javier Baez. Hopefully the Cubs are in the middle of a division race and looking to buy at the deadline like they have in recent years. However, this could be the season for Cubs fans to ready ourselves to possibly be sellers come August.