There’s a large question mark on the depth chart at 3rd base for the Cubs
Cubs pitchers and catchers report in 4 days
New manager, same third baseman — for now. The Cubs open spring training for pitchers and catchers Wednesday with David Ross looking to place his stamp on the roster. It’s unclear whether Ross will be able to pencil in Kris Bryant as his opening-day third baseman or if the Cubs will trade the 2016 National League MVP.
Here are five spring questions for the Cubs.
1. Can the Cubs focus with Kris Bryant trade rumors swirling?
After missing the playoffs for the first time since 2014, the Cubs made sweeping changes on the coaching staff and in their hitting and pitching departments.
While the Kris Bryant questions will persist, David Ross and Co. must focus on a turnaround as players seek to rebound from inconsistent seasons and newcomers look to make a favorable impression.
If Bryant is dealt, his replacement at third base likely would come from outside the organization. David Bote, Ian Happ and Daniel Descalso could work there this spring, but none should be viewed as the long-term solution.
2. How different will spring training look under David Ross?
Bench coach Andy Green, bullpen coach Chris Young, first base/catching coach Craig Driver and quality assurance coach Mike Napoli are among the coaching newcomers, and Kyle Evans will be more visible as senior director of major-league data and development.
David Ross gave the keys to Green to organize spring training, and the structure will be different after five seasons under Joe Maddon.
President Theo Epstein emphasized the need for more teaching at the major-league level in his end-of-the-season news conference Sept. 30, and players should expect more face-to-face instruction than in recent years.
This cannot be overlooked, especially two years after Cubs players quickly tuned out hitting coach Chili Davis. Davis went on to help Peter Alonso and Jeff McNeil prosper last season with the Mets.
3. Who will play second base?
Here are a few reasons the Cubs have several candidates to play second base this spring: Their second basemen were last in the National League in 2019 with a .220 batting average, and they ranked 14th with a .301 on-base percentage.
An ideal scenario for the Cubs would feature rookie Nico Hoerner sharing playing time with a veteran left-handed hitter. But Hoerner, 22, must play at least half the time to continue his development after batting .282 in a 20-game stint with the Cubs despite not having played a game at Triple-A Iowa.
Bote played well at second and raised his batting average from 2018 by 19 points to .257 and his on-base percentage by 43 points to .362.
After an impressive start, switch hitter Robel Garcia struck out 43 times in his final 87 at-bats.
Daniel Descalso had the worst season of his career — hitting .173 in 82 games — but refused to blame it on an ankle injury. The Cubs are pursuing other veteran left-handed hitters, including Scooter Gennett and Jason Kipnis, according to reports, and they added Hernan Perez.
4. What’s the answer for the leadoff spot?
Executive Matt Dorey drew attention at the Cubs Convention when he said he can envision Nico Hoerner as a potential leadoff hitter in the future.
Trying Hoerner sooner than later doesn’t seem so outrageous considering Cubs leadoff batters were last in the majors last year with a .294 on-base percentage and .212 batting average.
The biggest challenge may be to use multiple candidates without exposing them to failure over an extended period. Kyle Schwarber posted a .304 on-base percentage in 56 games in the leadoff spot last year, and Jason Heyward produced a .252 mark in 32 games.
A retooled swing could help Albert Almora Jr. get more at-bats against left-handers. Almora batted .342 against lefties in 2017 but dipped to .213 last season and started only 22 games in the second half.
5. How will the bullpen shake out?
Quality bullpen depth is essential in 2020 because of a couple of rules changes. The minimum injured list stint for pitchers is now 15 days. And relievers must face a minimum of three batters unless they complete an inning, so versatility is key.
The Cubs expect newcomer Jeremy Jeffress, a 2018 All-Star, to rebound from his disastrous 2019 season with the Brewers and claim the duties once held by Pedro Strop and Steve Cishek.
Rowan Wick could settle into setup duty if he continues his impressive rise. Newcomers Dan Winkler, Ryan Tepera and Jharel Cotton each has minor-league options and provides flexibility.
The Cubs need a fifth starter; Tyler Chatwood is the leading candidate for now.
The bullpen’s early failures in 2019 put plenty of stress on a team now looking to retool and win — a great challenge in an incredibly competitive NL Central.
Nico Hoerner could plug holes at second base and at leadoff for the Cubs.
There are plenty of questions about Kris Bryant’s future with the Cubs.