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2023 Spring Training Storylines to watch: New faces and WBC absences

1 year agoAndy Martinez

Just a few days separates us from Cubs pitchers and catchers reporting to Sloan Park and the adjacent Nike Performance Center in sunny Mesa, Ariz. 

This spring figures to be one of the more interesting camps in recent memory — the Cubs brought in plenty of new faces, including prized shortstop Dansby Swanson, to augment a team that went 39-31 after the All-Star break (the 9th-best record in baseball). 

As Spring Training kicks off, we’ll take a two-part look at some of the more intriguing storylines heading into camp. You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 is below: 

New faces adjusting

It was a busy winter for Jed Hoyer and his front office.

The team added 10 players to the 40-man roster this offseason — eight via free agency (including bringing back Drew Smyly) and two more via waivers/trade. That’s a lot of new faces settling into a new environment in Mesa, Ariz.

None, though, are as high-profile as Swanson, who signed a 7-year deal this winter and will man shortstop for the Cubs. His presence is immediately felt; teammates — and Hoyer — have spoken of the winning attitude he brings. That leadership was on display instantly, as he was quick to reach out to his new teammates after the ink dried on his contract.

 
 
 
 
 
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Of the eight players acquired via free agency, five have won World Series titles and all eight have played in the postseason. That’s plenty of winning experience that’s been added to the clubhouse.

“It’s important you bring in guys that have — most of these guys have experience in a big market — they’ve been able to play with real intention,” Hoyer said last month at Cubs Convention. “Whether it’s in the playoffs, whether it’s in a big market, I think that’s important. I think a lot of times when you bring in guys that have no experience that way, it can be challenging. Certainly, that’s been an appealing thing.”

The veteran leadership and winning experience have been thin since the 2021 trade deadline, when most of the 2016 championship core was traded away. Bringing in that pedigree of players buoys a team that went 39-31 in the second half with many young players and more prospects on the way.

It will be beneficial to a young starter like Justin Steele to continue to learn from Marcus Stroman or Smyly and receive guidance from someone like Jameson Taillon. On the offensive side, someone like Nico Hoerner will continue to grow playing alongside Swanson and other young players will be held to a winning standard in the clubhouse from Swanson, Trey Mancini or Eric Hosmer.

“When you’re older, you gain experience, you wanna give the knowledge that you’ve gained from those before you and from playing to the younger players,” Mancini said at his introductory press conference last month. “So, I just try to be approachable and treat everybody the same.”

Seeing how the new veteran faces gel with the existing core of players will be one of the storylines to track this spring

WBC effect

In many ways, this Spring Training is finally a return to a normal February and March in the baseball calendar. Still, this spring provides its own uniqueness.

After the pandemic affected 2020 and 2021 and the lockout in 2022, the 2023 preparation can return to what players and fans are accustomed to. This spring features a full spring slate of workouts and games, but with one caveat — the return of the World Baseball Classic.

It’s the first time in six years the international tournament is being hosted and for the Cubs that means 16 players from their organization taking part, plus a 17th player (Branden Noriega) who is on Great Britain’s designated pitcher pool. That can provide important experience and a prime opportunity for many of the players who are prospects that have yet to appear in a major league game.

Players like Matt Mervis (Israel), Owen Caissie (Canada), Fabian Pertuz (Colombia), BJ Murray (Great Britain) and Liam Spence (Australia) could all face major-league pitching in a high-pressure environment. For players like Mervis and Caissie, who are some of the top prospects in the organization, that gives them invaluable experience as they get closer to the big-league level.

The biggest names for the Cubs, though, are Stroman (Puerto Rico) and Seiya Suzuki (Japan). Stroman is no stranger to the WBC, starting for Team USA in the 2017 championship and being named the MVP of the tournament after they beat his current team, Puerto Rico. Stroman’s mother is Puerto Rican, so he’s representing the island this spring and is part of a strong squad that includes his Cubs teammate Nelson Velázquez along with Javier Báez, Francisco Lindor and others. Stroman will likely pair with Toronto’s José Berríos as the co-aces for a team looking to make a deep run.

If Puerto Rico has a successful tournament — they’ve been runners up in the last two editions of the tournament — that means Stroman and Velázquez could be away from the Cubs until nearly the end of March. For Velázquez, a strong showing could get him in rhythm for the final week or so of spring where he’ll likely be competing for one of the final roster spots on the Cubs’ 26-man roster.

Suzuki had a wild start to his career Stateside. Signed after the 2022 lockout was lifted, the Japanese outfielder had an abbreviated spring and had to learn the intricacies of being a major leaguer and adjusting to life in a whole new country on the fly. This year, he’ll have another unique spring, starting the Spring Training slate in Mesa with the Cubs before heading to Japan to join his countrymates in pool play. Japan is a traditionally strong team, having won the event in 2006 and 2009 and reaching the semifinals in 2013 and 2017. A repeat run to the latter stages of the tournament could see Suzuki away from the Cubs until late March.

“Whether you have a clean Spring Training or things aren’t perfect to start or whatever,” David Ross said at Winter Meetings, “or maybe he starts on fire because of already facing great pitching. None of us know that.

“I don’t think that will be something we would blame or make an excuse. It doesn’t matter. You gotta go out and play and perform and win games. He’s our starting right fielder. He’ll be prepared. He works his tail off.”

A few young pitchers will have more valuable seasoning by competing in the WBC.

Javier Assad (Mexico) debuted in the big leagues in 2022 and posted a 3.11 ERA and 133 ERA+ in 37.2 innings. He’ll be part of a Mexican rotation that includes Taijuan Walker, Patrick Sandoval, Julio Urías and José Urquidy. In Pool C, Assad and Mexico will face Team USA, Colombia, Canada and Great Britain, meaning Assad has a chance to face lineups littered with MLB stars. He likely will serve as depth at Triple-A to start the 2023 regular season but can gain valuable experience pitching in the WBC environment.

Danis Correa is one of the more intriguing minor leaguers in the Cubs system, so much so that he will be a non-roster invitee to big league camp this spring and could potentially make his big-league debut in 2023. That could be accelerated by pitching well for Colombia where, like Assad, he will face some potent hitters. Pitching in an intense atmosphere like the WBC while representing his country against MLB pitchers will help the 23-year-old, who posted a 3.65 ERA at Triple-A last year.

There’s plenty of fringe-roster players who could help their case to make the big-league team by competing in the WBC, too. Miles Mastrobuoni is on the 40-man roster and will be competing for one of the final spots on the big-league roster. Facing live pitching in a pressure-packed situation could benefit him as looks to break camp with the big-league team.

Roenis Elías is a Cuban lefty who signed a minor-league deal in the winter with a non-roster invite to camp. Given the Cubs’ lack of left-handed relief options, Elías could pitch himself into the bullpen plans with a good WBC and Spring Training. This is the first WBC where Cuba has allowed players signed with MLB teams play, so for Elías, representing Cuba in this tournament will be extra special.

Outfielder Ben DeLuzio (Italy), RHP Vinny Nitolli (Italy) and IF/OF Jared Young (Canada) were non-roster invitees that will be competing in the WBC and could help their causes with strong performances.

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