Despite the backfilling of the losses from the 2015 squad, there are still a few questions remaining going into 2016. It’s likely most of them will be answered in Spring Training, but they are worth mentioning.
This should be David Ross‘ swan-song season. He’s a great defensive catcher and his influence on the younger players, particularly pitchers, is hard to quantify. Miguel Montero is another veteran presence with limited shelf-life. He’s nearing the end of his own career and is likely to play more of the sort of role Ross covers now in the future. As good as he is, Ross is unlikely to step in if Montero is injured as the ever-day catcher for any extended period.
Kyle Schwarber has proven too valuable at the plate with his bat to get the seasoning behind the plate he needs going forward as a major league catcher. Willson Contreras is one of the next rookie stars ready to make the leap from the minors, and the Cubs also invited former Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Tim Federowicz, and minor league prospect Taylor Davis, who has flashed some serious talent, to Spring Training.
Montero and Ross will reprise their 2015 roles, with Ross catching primarily for Jon Lester, and filling in on double-headers and late game relief, but the long-term depth behind the plate has yet to be fully addressed. At least, without becoming a fly on Joe Maddon’s wall, or privy to Theo Epstein’s plans. It’s more accurate to say that it has not been publicly addressed.
Odd as it is to call this a problem, there is the question of what to do with Tommy La Stella and Javier Baez. La Stella was a starter going into the 2015 season, but a stint on the DL, and the rise of Addison Russell, with Starlin Castro sliding over to second base, dropped him back to more of a utility position upon his return. Javier Baez, a very smooth, plus defender, appears to be finding his stride with the bat, and is also without a starting role going into the season. Former Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan, who played solidly last season, is slotted in now as – at best – the fourth outfielder and an occasional relief in the infield.
These are good players with starting chops that don’t have a well-defined role at this point. On many teams, all three would be starting and excelling, and while providing great depth and versatility to a team where the manager is famous for making use of just those qualities, it may not be practical to keep that level of talent in the dugout for too long. You can probably add Jorge Soler to that list and speculate on moves that might happen near the trade deadline should injury, or other unforeseen circumstances, warrant a bold move.
The final obvious question concerns the batting order. Fowler was the natural choice in 2015 as the leadoff man. His departure has brought a ton of speculation among sportswriters and fans over filling that slot. Jason Heyward may be the man, but he has stated more than once that he’s not really as comfortable at leadoff as he is slightly farther down the lineup. Ben Zobrist could do the job, but he really has the power to do more good in a two or three slot. Addison Russel could step up at some point – he showed signs that he might be a natural at the front of the lineup last year, and he has plus speed. One thing is certain, there is almost no way Joe Maddon could arrange these guys and not have them be productive. Key to the kind of success necessary to repeat in the post-season and finish the job of bringing home a World Series, though, is finding the best way. Expect runs, RBIs and home runs to rise for the Chicago Cubs in 2016.
Remaining Questions Grade: Tentative A — dependent on spring training