Here are five takeaways from the Cubs’ summer training Saturday:
Offensive spotlight on Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr.
The Cubs’ offense should be formidable at the top of the order with Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras.
But in order to achieve optimum output, they’ll need more production from former No. 1 picks Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ.
“That’s the X factor for us this year,” said manager David Ross, who added that Schwarber showed signs moving toward All-Star status at the end of 2019.
Almora made an adjustment with his hands after a disappointing 2019 season and hit a home run off left-hander Jon Lester in Friday’s intrasquad game.
Hitting coach Anthony Iapoce praised Almora for sustaining that change from spring training into the 3 1/4 u00bd-month shutdown and into the last two weeks.
“We know Albert rides high on confidence so when he sees success, he becomes more efficient at the plate,” Iapoce said.
Jon Lester not a lock for third spot.
Ross declined to name the rest of the rotation after Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish, one day after Lester was hit hard in an intrasquad game.
“It’s starting to take shape,” said Ross, adding that he spoke with Lester before Saturday’s workout.
Lester’s schedule isn’t at the same pace as the other four starters, and Ross added that Lester was ironing out some mechanical issues.
That could mean that Tyler Chatwood or Alec Mills could get the start July 26 against the Brewers at Wrigley Field and be in line to pitch against the Pirates at Wrigley on July 31.
Victor Caratini ready if Anthony Rizzo can’t play first base.
The Cubs said Rizzo fielded some grounders and took batting practice before Saturday’s brief workout but was still listed as day-to-day.
Until Rizzo plays an exhibition game, it increases the likelihood that switch-hitting backup catcher Victor Caratini will play first.
“The moment is never too big for Caratini,” Iapoce said. Caratini already was anointed by Ross as his starting catcher when Yu Darvish starts on the mound.
Before Rizzo suffered lower back stiffness, Caratini already was in line to earn more playing time as the designated hitter. Caratini, who was drafted by the Braves as a third baseman before switching to catcher, continues to work at first base before workouts and feels more comfortable.
“Anthony Rizzo is our first baseman,” Caratini said. “I hope he has a speedy recovery.”
If Rizzo can’t start the opener, it would cause a shuffling of the lineup. Unlike predecessor Joe Maddon, who liked alternating with right-and-left-handed hitters throughout the lineup, Ross said he would lean on the most favorable matchups. Happ and Caratini, both switch-hitters, should get some consideration.
The implementation of the DH in the National League for the 2020 season gives Ross plenty of options that he wouldn’t disclose.
“The one good thing about this roster is a lot of flexibility,” Ross said. “I like to have some set areas, but when guys are swinging the bat well, you want to get them in there.”
Ross treating exhibition games, protocols seriously.
The Cubs open exhibition play Sunday night against the crosstown rival White Sox, and Ross will amp up the intensity.
“We’re trying to treat it like a real game,” said Ross, who will need to be accustomed to the three-batter minimum for pitchers but welcomes the DH.
The outer edges of the dugouts were expanded past the photo wells in accordance with health and safety protocols in the wake of coronavirus.
And six spots have been placed on each dugout bench — six feet apart — to enhance social distancing. Ross said there were be specific spots for the coaches to disperse information to the players.
“It’s just nice to have at least a couple of exhibition games that help you get ready for the season,” Ross said.
Daniel Bard’s comeback pleases Ross.
Ross was delighted to see Daniel Bard receive plenty of praise Friday night on Twitter after Rockies manager Bud Black informed Bard he made the team after not pitching in the majors since 2013 with the Red Sox and Ross as their catcher.
“You play this game long enough to understand the mental grind that is when you’re healthy,” Ross said.
In the case of Bard, 35, his control problems knocked him out of the majors despite multiple spring bids that included a stint with the Cubs in 2015.
Bard spent last season as a player mentor and a mental skills coach last season with the Diamondbacks but threw on the sidelines with the same control and close to the same velocity he displayed in 2009, when he struck out 63 in 49 1/3 innings.
“I’m super happy for him,” Ross said. “It’s a credit to his character.”
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