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Cubs spring notebook: Fun in the sun, Arrieta’s outing and the universal DH

3 years agoTony Andracki

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Regardless of where the Cubs stand on the universal DH debate, Wednesday night almost made the decision for them.

Kyle Hendricks — the team’s likely Opening Day starter — was the first pitcher to step into the box for the Cubs and lined a ball to right field. As he ran to first base, the throw came toward the bag and he had a minor collision with San Diego’s Jake Cronenworth.

Hendricks was completely fine and laughed it off, saying his competitive fire took over and he didn’t want to pull up.

But the sight also almost made manager David Ross get sick to his stomach.

“I think I threw up in my mask there for a second,” Ross said. “I was immediately, like, all panicked a little bit, just ‘please get up’ kind of thoughts going on in my head.

“And then I checked on him and I talked to him for a second: ‘You realize you could just pull up. It’s OK if you get out.’ He goes, ‘No way I’m going back to the dugout with my teammates getting thrown out from right field. I saw [Trevor] Cahill do that [years ago] and he never lived it down.’ We had a good laugh about that after I knew he was alright.”

The universal DH very well may be coming to the National League on a regular basis next season. It was a big part of last season’s truncated schedule in an effort to keep pitchers healthy and Hendricks’ misadventure only strengthens that standpoint.

As a player who spent much of his career in the NL, Ross always preferred the old fashioned rules with pitchers hitting and double switches and all the strategy that comes with it. But after seeing how it played out last season, he agrees it’s probably a better experience for fans.

Jake Arrieta does not necessarily agree with that as one of the few pitchers who relishes the opportunity to step into the batter’s box.

The veteran got the start in Thursday’s game at Goodyear Ballpark and was excited to see his name in the lineup hitting ninth. He wound up striking out in his only plate appearance, but he made Cleveland starter Zach Plesac throw 7 pitches.

Arrieta won a Silver Slugger with the Cubs in 2016 when he hit .262 with a .720 OPS and 2 homers. He has 6 career longballs and 27 RBI and has pushed for young pitchers like Adbert Alzolay to work on their hitting.

“As a pitching staff, we intend to help ourselves out and not just go up there and be a free out,” Arrieta said.

The Cubs starting pitchers are planning to make some fun wagers throughout the season on bunts, hits, homers, walks and a few other categories.

“We’re definitely going to have some friendly betting on the line,” Arrieta said.

Building up

On the mound, Arrieta thought it was a nice bridge outing as he works toward Opening Day. He struck out 5 and allowed a run over 4 innings, tossing 60 pitches.

After coming out of the game, he went to the bullpen and threw 12 more pitches to build up to 72 total.

“I felt much stronger in the 4th than I did last week, which is a great sign,” Arrieta said. “This was a great step towards my next outing. … I feel like I’m in a really good spot right now.”

Arrieta aims to get through 5 innings and about 70-75 pitches next time out.

Arrieta throws two variations of his breaking ball — one with a vertical drop that is more of a curveball and another that is more of a slider/cutter. Both styles will be vital to his success in 2021 and he was pleased with the shape and feel of the pitches Thursday against the Indians.

“I’m getting much more comfortable throwing both variations of that pitch, which both are going to be equally important,” Arrieta said. “It just depends on the situation which one I’ll use, but having the confidence and the ability to throw both of those was there today. I look forward to carrying that over to my next time out.”

Arrieta likely has two Cactus League starts left before the regular season. That will keep him on schedule to throw in the Cubs’ first series of the year against the Pirates in his return to Wrigley Field — if that’s how Ross’ rotation shakes out.

Lineup construction

Speaking of Ross, he has maintained all spring that the Cactus League lineups won’t necessarily reflect how the Cubs batting order will flow in the season. Part of the equation is the handedness of the opposing pitcher and what players need more at-bats, plus spring is the time to tinker with lineup construction.

So when Willson Contreras continues to show up in the No. 2 spot in the order alongside a bunch of likely Opening Day starters, Ross cautions not to read too much into that. Contreras will likely hit fifth in a game coming up later this week and will continue to move around the batting order.

That said, Ross obviously likes the look of the Cubs order with Contreras hitting second.

“He’s one of those guys that does a lot of things well — he sees pitches, he’ll take his walks,” Ross said. “It’s a really pain-in-the-butt at-bat from the other team’s perspective. He’s a nuisance up there for the other team.

“I love that at the top of the lineup when you got the big boys coming from behind him. It just looks really good.”

If it continues to look really good for Ross on paper, Wednesday’s lineup could be a good harbinger of Opening Day’s group with Contreras hitting after Ian Happ and ahead of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Joc Pederson and Javy Báez.

Contreras certainly helped his cause by driving in 5 runs in Wednesday’s game against the Padres.

Workload hyper focus

While the entire league is focused on managing pitchers’ workloads, the catchers might be in a similar boat.

After spending most of their careers grinding through a six-month season (seven with playoffs), backstops saw their overall workload take a dive during 2020’s two-month schedule. That could mean a bit of an adjustment back to a 162-game season, but the Cubs were always cognizant of managing Contreras’ innings behind the plate.

“Willson is an extremely hard worker,” Ross said. “He’s in some of the best shape of anybody on our team. He’s strong, he’s durable. We gotta protect his legs.

“Saying that, he’s gonna catch a ton of games. That’s just a fact. … We all work together to try to make sure guys are as healthy and fresh as they can be, but we’re better with him in the lineup.”

The Cubs’ April schedule works in their favor as they have four off-days in the first 19 days of the season. So they could hit the ground running with Contreras in the lineup on a near-daily basis for most of the month.

Fun in the sun

Before Thursday’s game in Goodyear, the Cubs starters had some fun during a light morning workout at Sloan Park.

Rizzo practiced tarp catches and all the players from Wednesday night’s game took infield. Rizzo and Jason Heyward saw some time at second base while Pederson was at shortstop, turning double plays and fielding groundballs.

Overall, it was an enjoyable experience to watch and there were plenty of laughs and smiles. As they wrapped up, one player even shouted his enthusiasm: “That was fun!”

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