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5 storylines to watch as Cubs summer camp kicks off

2 years agoTony Andracki

Baseball is back and for the first time since mid-March, the Cubs are gathering for official workouts this weekend at Wrigley Field.

As David Ross and Co. reconvene as a group, the only player currently unable to get on the field is José Quintana after he suffered a laceration on his thumb last week.

The regular season is set to start the weekend of July 24, leaving exactly three weeks for the Cubs to get up to speed. Over that time, there will be team workouts, live batting practice and potentially as many as three exhibition games.

Here are the Top 5 storylines to pay attention to as summer camp begins:

1. Adbert Alzolay and Alec Mills take center stage as Cubs pitching staff feels the ripple effects of Quintana’s injury

Quintana will be reevaluated in two weeks and the Cubs will know then how much time he might miss overall with the thumb injury. At the very least, it appears the Cubs will have to begin the 2020 regular season without Quintana in the rotation.

Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester are currently penciled into the rotation and Tyler Chatwood also looked to be in line for a starting spot in the first iteration of camp this spring.

To fill Quintana’s spot, the Cubs have the likes of Alec Mills, Colin Rea, Adbert Alzolay and Jharel Cotton as options.

“It’s gonna be important for certain players to step up and make the most of this opportunity,” Theo Epstein said Thursday. “Clearly somebody like Alec Mills is well positioned to capitalize on this opportunity and establish himself as a starting pitcher in this league.

“Colin Rea…moves up the depth chart as well. Adbert Alzolay — who when he’s at his best is certainly ready to compete as a starter in this league — will have an opportunity to show that he’s at the top of his game and fight for a role as well.

“Just being honest, we had some concerns about our starting pitching depth and now, a freak injury further challenges us in that area and we have to respond.”

Before the Quintana injury, Mills was likely slotted for a multi-inning role in the Cubs bullpen. So if he winds up taking a rotation spot, that leaves a “swingman” role open for another pitcher who could provide length out of the bullpen.

Mills, 28, has performed well when given the opportunity in Chicago over the last couple of seasons (1-1, 3.17 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 10.8 K/9 in 54 innings between the rotation and bullpen).

Alzolay has been one of the top pitching prospects in the organization for the last few years and was initially included on the South Bend portion of the summer camp roster. But Epstein said the rosters between South Bend and Wrigley Field will be fluid throughout the three-week camp and Alzolay now becomes more prominent as a potential starter or multi-inning reliever in Quintana’s absence.

The 25-year-old right-hander made his MLB debut last season, pitching to a 7.30 ERA in 12.1 innings between a pair of starts and 2 relief appearances.

Rea, 30, has 134.1 career MLB innings under his belt and went 14-4 with a 3.95 ERA with Triple-A Iowa last season.

2. David Ross’ stewardship

This will already be Ross’ second training camp with the team, though he has yet to manage a regular season game.

He joked there were no pandemic questions in the interview process with Epstein and Jed Hoyer last fall, but in all seriousness, the Cubs feel fortunate for Ross’ leadership, passion and communication skills as they forge ahead with a return to the baseball diamond.

[MORE: Why Cubs might have a unique advantage with David Ross as manager for the 2020 season]

“Obviously he’s somebody that we really believe in,” Epstein said. “He’s got great character and he’s a terrific communicator, leader, motivator. He’s somebody players really respond to. On top of everything else a first-year manager faces, he has an additional burden now to lead the way as far as compliance with the health and safety protocols and create a culture in which the players are looking out not only for themselves, but for each other and all of us and all of our families as well.

“That’s something that I think he’s qualified to do based on his track record and leadership and how the players feel about him. He’s raring to go. I think he understand the breadth of the job and that it’s maybe even a little bit broader of a job and a more impactful job now than it was before the pandemic hit and he’s certainly up for the challenge.”

Epstein also made sure to reiterate that Ross isn’t the only person responsible for guiding the team through all the new challenges that this season presents.

The Cubs president of baseball operations put the responsibility on every member of the roster and staff to exercise discipline, follow the safety protocols and hold others accountable.

Which leads us to…

3. Baseball in the new world

Beyond the obvious location difference, this training camp is going to be far different than the undertaking in Arizona in February and March.

Cubs players will have to keep their social distance as much as possible and there’s no high-fiving, spitting or chewing gum, among other things. There will also be frequent coronavirus tests and temperature checks.

It’s going to look different, but the Cubs are confident they’ll get into a rhythm soon enough.

“A lot of the adjustments are going to be difficult at first and players — like all of us — are creatures of habit,” Epstein said. “But the hope is that as we get into the season, the new normal is established and it becomes second nature for players to operate in a way that’s consistent with these protocols.

“A lot of this relates to attitude and being open to learning a new way. I think we all have to try to approach this as a challenge and an opportunity to create something new, something meaningful and to try to find a way to get beyond comparisons and relating what we’re going to experience this year to anything that we’ve come to understand in the past because it will be new and different.

“There will obviously be obstacles and limitations and it won’t be perfect and players will I’m sure fall back into old on-field habits and will have to correct themselves, but it’s just part of baseball in 2020. Everyone in this organization is eager to embrace the challenge and make something really positive out of it.”

4. Position battles

Beyond the ripple effects on the pitching staff caused by Quintana’s absence, the Cubs head into summer camp with a few spots up for grabs.

For starters, it will be curious to see how the Cubs’ plans for the DH spot evolve over the three weeks leading into the season. Ross said he plans on using a rotation in the role and assured Kyle Schwarber he would not be manning the position on a daily basis.

That leads into the outfield, where Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ and Steven Souza Jr. are all expected to make the Opening Day roster. With an expanded, 30-man roster to start out and the new rules with a runner starting on second base in extra innings, Ian Miller’s speed has become even more important for this club as he works to carve out a role for himself.

At second base, rookie Nico Hoerner is one of the guys battling for the starting job alongside David Bote and veterans Jason Kipnis and Daniel Descalso.

Then there’s the bullpen, where a host of arms are competing for a handful of spots to bridge the gap from the starters to closer Craig Kimbrel.

5. How quickly with the players — particularly the pitchers — be able to ramp up?

Major League Baseball is in uncharted waters as the league returns following a three-and-a-half month shutdown period due to the coronavirus. It’s the first time any of these players have had April, May and June off and while there were virtual team activities and meetings, the onus was on each individual guy to stay in shape.

As players descended upon Chicago this week, the Cubs were encouraged with where each player was at physically and believe it won’t take long for the pitchers to build up strength and stamina.

Ross stressed the need for urgency and intensity in his first camp with the Cubs this spring and will carry the same message into summer camp at Wrigley Field.

We’ll find out exactly what form that will take this weekend as the Cubs gear up for the 2020 regular season.

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