Cubs spring notebook: March Madness, an encouraging sign for Kris Bryant and newcomers fitting in
MESA, Ariz. — While Chicagoland’s rooting interest was split watching the Loyola-Illinois March Madness game Sunday morning, David Ross was intently paying attention as well.
And not just because he was pulling for the hometown team.
The Cubs are doing a March Madness pick’em where they randomly selected teams out of a hat. Ross chose Loyola and has been enjoying the start of the tournament.
“I think for a lot of guys, it’s like your favorite time — you know the season’s about to start, March Madness (which everybody loves), watching games,” Ross said. “We end up in the coaches room some days around lunch time being able to watch the end of some basketball games. A couple have been really intense and then you hear the roar of a big shot made from the locker room. It’s just cool around the clubhouse.”
After his outing Saturday, Trevor Williams said he’s pulling for Gonzaga and then dropped a light-hearted, quirky line:
“I’m from the future and I don’t want you guys to forget that,” Williams said. “I know the answer. That’s the first rule of time travel — I can’t tell you guys.”
It’s been a big weekend for some of the Cubs’ new players.
Williams had an impressive outing Saturday where he was so efficient with his pitches (55 pitches through 5 innings) that he needed to go to the bullpen to throw another 15 more to build up.
All spring long, Ross has seen opposing hitters take bad swings against Williams.
“He’s looked really good,” Ross said. “I think he’s happy where he’s at. Just the way he’s carried himself, the work he’s put in, the feedback I hear from our coaches talking about him — it’s all been very consistently positive.
“That’s a nice place to be when you’re somebody coming into a new team and proving your worth and feeling like you fit in. It seems like he’s fit in seamlessly.”
The other offseason additions have fit in nicely, too.
Jake Marisnick homered in both games at Sloan Park (and has a dinger in three straight starts) and showed off his “easy” speed, as Ross calls it. Marisnick ran down a couple fly balls in the outfield gaps between the two games and also beat out an infield hit Sunday.
Eric Sogard got the start at shortstop and in the leadoff spot Sunday afternoon and had a huge 1st inning.
He ended the top half of the frame with a nice play on a one-hop and turned a swift double play. In the bottom half of the 1st, Sogard deposited a ball into the Reds bullpen in right field.
Sogard is now hitting .300 with an .891 OPS in 20 spring at-bats as he tries to carve out a role on the Cubs Opening Day roster.
“Sogy’s great,” Ross said. “It’s a quality at-bat, a professional at-bat. Low maintenance player, very good defensively, good attitude. One of those guys that is just there and he’s professional, gets his work in and then he disappears. It’s a very low maintenance player, which is a compliment when I say that.
“I think he’s had really great at-bats and played good defense. I think his resume speaks for itself as far as how he can get on base and affect the club — it’s real when he’s right. It looks like he’s a pretty good version of himself so far.”
Sogard will turn 35 in May and has played 737 big-league games over the last decade. He had a career year in 2019 with a .290 batting average and .353 on-base percentage in 110 games for the Blue Jays and Rays.
David Bote isn’t a newcomer but he has been red-hot at the plate over the last week. He hit a pair of long home runs Sunday and now sports a 1.212 OPS this spring.
Over the last week, Bote is 6-for-10 with 2 doubles, 3 homers, 7 RBI and 5 runs scored.
Bote and Marisnick will have spots on the Opening Day roster, but the Cubs won’t have room for all of the players competing for the bench roles. Assuming Nico Hoerner is in the big leagues for the April 1 opener, who else fills out the bench?
P.J. Higgins will likely be the backup catcher which means Sogard, Cameron Maybin, Ildemaro Vargas, Matt Duffy and Rafael Ortega are competing for the final one or two bench spots.
Bryant’s encouraging sign
Kris Bryant is undoubtedly one of the Cubs’ most important players and even though spring training stats don’t count, his homer Saturday was a positive sign.
It was Bryant’s first longball of the spring and Ross was impressed with the star’s entire day at the plate Saturday. It started with an RBI groundout to bring the runner in from third base with less than 2 outs, led to a long at-bat his second time up and then culminated in a blast to left field.
“One of those things that can really carry into [the season],” Ross said. “Ending a spring training day on a positive note when you’ve been searching a little bit and trying some things can go a long way. So hopefully this gets the ball rolling for him and I think it’s nice.
“When he hits them, man, that ball just doesn’t come down. I thought it was going to land in the upper deck out there. It just kept going.”
Despite the lack of power this spring, Bryant has shown his typical patience and on-base skills with 6 walks and a .375 OBP.
Cubs hitting coach Anthony Iapoce believes it’s all about timing and was encouraged by Bryant’s home run because it meant the timing was down.
“The main thing that happens with a moment like that with Kris when he hits a homer, it’s like, ‘OK that was my first,'” Iapoce said. “And it’s crazy because now they can just go out and do what they need to do.
“It just releases some stuff that maybe you’ve been feeling even in spring training just trying to press. Not that Kris is pressing at all. He has no need to; he doesn’t worry about that stuff. But it is a good feeling on a personal level for the player that when they do connect in timing, they could maybe take that feel into the next day.”
On the bump
Monday is Kyle Hendricks’ turn in the rotation, but the Cubs will instead send Keegan Thompson to the mound against the Angels.
Hendricks will throw a bullpen to stay on his regular routine as he approaches what should be his second straight Opening Day start.
“I know what I’m getting when Kyle Hendricks takes the bump,” Ross said. “There’s other guys I want to get my eyes on. That’s important here on the back end. The guys I want to take a look at, they need to face the heart of big-time lineups and see what the big boys look like and real swings rather than later in the game.”