Fight club: Cubs to come out swinging Saturday with three heavyweight bouts on spring card

Fight club: Cubs to come out swinging Saturday with three heavyweight bouts on spring card

Jason Kipnis (foreground) looks like the early favorite over Daniel Descalso, David Bote and other contenders in the spring fight for second base. | John Antonoff photo

Two major positions battles are being waged as the Cactus League schedule begins, along with one must-see — or not — fight.

MESA, Arizona – The thunderstorms forecast for Saturday in Phoenix already had backed up the Cubs’ spring opener five hours by Friday afternoon.

But it’s done nothing to dampen David Ross’ enthusiasm for starting his first schedule of games as a manager – or to cool the heat on the hottest, biggest fights for jobs in camp.

Heading into Saturday’s 7:10 p.m. (central time) Cactus League opener against the Athletics, these are three of the biggest fights playing out in camp – along with how they started and how they might finish:

Fifth Starter

Favorite: Right-hander Tyler Chatwood.

Other contenders: Right-hander Alec Mills, right-hander Adbert Alzolay, right-hander Colin Rea.

How the fight started: The farm system’s failure to develop even one back-of-the-rotation starting pitcher in eight years has meant no pipeline to backfill for aged-out veterans or free agents. And the high cost of buying pitching has helped create a payroll budget crunch entering its third season that prevented buying more when Cole Hamels left as a free agent.

Who finishes it: Chatwood, a $38-million free agent acquisition who was demoted to the bullpen halfway through the first year of a three-year deal, rebounded as a key bullpen performer last year. And he says he’s in the best shape of his life as he enters camp with the job considered his to lose. He takes his first turn of the spring Sunday against the Dodgers.

Intriguing storyline: Mills, who has looked good when healthy since coming to the Cubs from Kansas City in a minor-league trade three years ago, is out of options this spring. So he makes the club or he’s exposed to waivers.

In three stints in the majors last year, Mills made four starts and five relief appearances ranging from one inning to six – producing a 2.75 ERA. He allowed six earned runs in 20 innings as a starter (2.70).

A command guy whose fastball sits around 90 mph and relies on changing speeds and deception, Mills said last year’s success – including a scoreless start against the Cardinals before the Cubs slid out of contention – boosts his confidence into this spring.

He also knows he can succeed in any role. “I’ve done it,” he said. “I’ve pitched one inning, multiple innings out of the pen. And I know I can start. Whatever they ask me to do I’ll be ready.”

As for his contract status: “When you start running out of options, it’s time to have a little bit of pressure on you, where you’ve got to perform,” Ross said. “And I look forward to seeing that, how they handle that. It’s a little bit of adversity to overcome and [a chance to] rise to those occasions. And guys that do that usually turn out to have a nice long career.”

Second base

Sun-Times favorite: Jason Kipnis.

Other contenders: Nico Hoerner, Daniel Descalso, Hernan Perez, David Bote.

How the fight started: When Ben Zobrist left as a free agent and Addison Russell was non-tendered in December, it left a vacancy the Cubs had few resources to fill with an impact acquisition because of a payroll budget crunch entering its third season.

Who finishes it: Kipnis, a two-time All-Star who signed a minor-league deal after struggling in recent years, looks promising very early in camp and has the postseason chops and clubhouse presence the Cubs seek to toughen the team culture. He also has a left-handed bat with extra-base pop when healthy – at least until the last three years (.236 with a .708 OPS and 119-game average).

Intriguing storyline: Hoerner, the right-handed hitting rookie who got a shocking debut in September because of injuries, handled himself with enough poise and success to be a realistic candidate to earn a big-league job out of camp.

In Hoerner’s favor: He’s one of only two players in camp (also Perez) who Ross considers a viable backup for Javy Baez at shortstop – where Hoerner spent the final month of last season. Working against him: The Cubs’ first-round draft pick in 2018 skipped Class AAA on his way off his couch to the big-leagues last fall, and if he can’t win enough big-league at-bats to be more than a bench player, he’ll have to go to AAA to play regularly.

“I don’t know if that’s the toughest decision [in camp], but it will be a big decision,” said Ross, who promised a serious look at Hoerner after last year’s impressive debut.

Marquee Sports Network vs. Comcast/Xfinity

Favorite: Pick ‘em.

How the fight started: The Cubs cut broadcast-rights ties with regional cable networks to launch their own Marquee network, which debuts Saturday. But despite reaching agreement with more than 30 carriers in their regional territory, the Cubs haven’t been able to reach agreement with the biggest one, which for now means roughly half the cable subscribers in the Chicago area don’t have TV access to Cubs games.

Who finishes it: Cubs business president Crane Kenney suggested again this spring that Comcast customers lobby the carrier to make the deal (which all but assures higher cable bills). For now it doesn’t look promising that what chairman Tom Ricketts called “fairly complicated” negotiations get resolved in time for access via Comcast during the 29-game slate of spring broadcasts.

“I think that in the end everyone will do what’s right for the actual customers,” Ricketts said. “And that’s where I’m confident we’ll get this all behind us by Opening Day, or pretty soon, anyway.”

Stay tuned. If possible.

Source : Gordon Wittenmyer Link

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