The New-Look Cubs Have Less Kick but Will be Edgier, Hands Down

There are still three days remaining until the Cubs’ first pair of Spring Training contests but the waiting game has been in full swing for months. For the first time in years, fans are excited about the advent of baseball season in Chicago. And, also for the first time in years, that excitement should last beyond Opening Day.

For now, though, we’ll have to suffice with stories about Joe Maddon binge-watching The Office or waxing poetic about Arismendy Alcantara’s potential to become Ben Zobrist 2.0. And as much as I love the Jon Lester signing, I’m looking forward to not having to read about him throwing live BP in a Cubs uniform for the first time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as hyped up for this season as anyone, perhaps because I won’t have to come up with as many asinine stories relating Cubs players to misheard song lyrics. But the void of live baseball has to be filled with something and it can’t just be talk of beards and guys being in the best shape of their lives.

Still, there’s some fun and useful stuff among the general tedium. While it’s still your typical Spring Training fluff, I saw a few storylines that caught my attention here in the last few days. Let’s have a look at them, shall we?

Javier Baez lowers his hands

The intrepid John Arguello at Cubs Den — who sports quite a majestic set of whiskers himself — wrote about Baez’s new approach on Friday. John’s post has some additional pics and analysis, but here’s a brief snippet:

Bringing his hand lower should simplify and shorten that swing.  We saw him late on some average fastballs last year that a hitter with his bat speed had no business being late on. Starting him lower should eliminate much of that early movement and perhaps that extra time will also allow him to pick up the baseball earlier, which should help him with pitch recognition.

It is a subtle change and, like Baez said, the Cubs aren’t going to change who he is or have him think too much about things like approach.  Rather, the plan is for that to develop organically as he recognizes pitches earlier.  It may take some time for some of the benefits to manifest themselves and we certainly did not see them yet when he was at Puerto Rico, but at some point the Cubs expect it is going to click with him.  And when it does, the result should be more contact with no sacrifice to his bat speed or the power it creates.

What struck me is that this adjustment contrasts a bit with Anthony Rizzo raising his hands last year, which I wrote about a few days ago (obviously, different stances to begin with and whatnot). That post was inspired by another bearded baseball writer, Sahadev Sharma. Maybe I should start my No-Shave November campaign a little earlier this year.

I’m very interested to see how Baez handles the changes and whether he’s truly able to improve in his pitch recognition, which was clearly lacking last season. He’s certainly got the talent to become something special, but confidence is key in baseball and a prolonged slump could damage even Baez’s noted swagger.

Mike Olt lowers his leg kick

Another frequent strikeout victim — 100 K’s in 225 at-bats with the Cubs last year — Olt is looking to make some changes in order to lock down the hot corner spot left vacant when Luis Valbuena was traded away. Cutting the whiffs might be the difference between Olt keeping Kris Bryant’s seat warm and securing the job long-term, pushing the phenom to left field.

The Tribune’s Mark Gonzales reported that Olt is making adjustments to shorten his swing but also keep it in the zone longer. “My leg kick isn’t as high,” Olt said. “The leg kick was getting me screwed up last year. A lot of things had to go into getting it back on track.” The goal is to create a more direct path to the baseball.

He’s also looking to become more versatile in the field, getting some work in the outfield. I can’t pretend to know what the front office really wants, but I have to think that Olt locking up third, at least heading into the season, is on their wish list.

On one hand, having Olt’s glove there while getting consistent contact to go with the prodigious power (12 HR’s in 2014) could solidify the infield situation and justifiably push Bryant to LF. On the other hand, those roles could be flipped and Olt could turn into a passable outfielder.

And on yet another hand, an offensively-resurgent Mike Olt could turn into a valuable trade chip for a team that might be looking to add an arm at the deadline or in the offseason, particularly if neither he nor Bryant cottons to LF. While the endgame isn’t clear yet, it’s obvious than an improved Olt would be a huge win for the Cubs.

Miguel Montero raises the edge factor

One thing I’ve lamented about the Cubs these past few seasons — other than the dearth of success — has been the team’s lack of identity. Whether it’s from the players or the manager, the Cubs have been as milquetoast as they have miserable.

But between Rizzo stepping up both verbally and statistically, Lester buying in to the strategy, and renovations to Wrigley underway, 2015 will give us a whole new look and feel. Out with melancholy, in with Maddon. From mind-numbing morosity to monumental mirth.

In the face of all that, it could be the Plan B backstop who ends up keying some real change. When the Cubs whiffed on Russell Martin, they turned to the trade market, flipping two low-level pitchers to the Diamondbacks for Miguel Montero.

He’s pricey and many believe his best years are behind him, but CSN Chicago’s Patrick Mooney reports that Montero brings an edge to the Cubs. Montero also has a love for words ending in “ly,” as his manager claims:

“He’s really an interesting cat,” Maddon said. “This is a really bright guy. He uses adverbs when he speaks. I was really impressed with that. Not many people use adverbs all the time. He’s really into the sports-psychology component of the game. He really gets all of that stuff. He’s got strong opinions on the pitcher-catcher relationship, how to call a game. He’s well-thought-out.”

Montero is the kind of guy who is willing to take young players, particularly those from Latin America. But he’s also the type of leader who isn’t afraid to get in your face and tell you how he feels. In a clubhouse with professed lead-by-example guys like Jon Lester and not-real-leaders like Starlin Castro, that’s a good thing.

And there are many more stories yet to develop, from which lefty picks up Wesley Wright’s innings to who wins the 5th rotation spot to how long it’ll take Brian Schlitter’s beard to reach his belt. I’m thinking Wada, Turner, and September, for what it’s worth. But the best part is that all these storylines are contributing to the greater narrative.

That might sound really generic and elementary, but that hasn’t necessarily been the case these past few years. Recent Spring Training rosters have resembled the scene from Major League, but this time around the Cubs have the makings of a real major league team.

The bad news is that you still have to wait until Thursday to see everything begin to play out. The good news is that you’re now about 5 minutes closer to that first set of split-squad games.

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