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Reflections on the cusp of Cubs Spring Training games

We are just four days away from baseball at Sloan Park.

Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

You’ve probably noticed I haven’t written much on the Cubs’ assembly at the Sloan Park complex in Mesa, or about various players and their “best shape of his life” stories, or various position battles (of which there honestly aren’t many).

This is all being covered sufficiently elsewhere and you can weigh in on these things in Cub Tracks or BCB After Dark, where Duane and Josh are posting links and examining various other Cubs-related topics. BTW, did you know that Seiya Suzuki is in the best shape of his life?

My focus in attending spring games this year will be on watching how the various rule changes will affect the way baseball is played. Between the pitch timer, shift restrictions and larger bases — with some other smaller tweaks — the 2023 season could be one of the biggest turning points in MLB history. It’s why I’ve written so many articles here on those rule changes.

MLB officials have said the rules will be enforced on Day 1 of Spring Training — no grace period. Thus when the Cubs take on the Giants Saturday at Sloan Park, whoever starts — and we haven’t been told who yet — will have to carefully watch the pitch timer. So will hitters stepping in and/or out of the box. I would expect there will be violations in the early part of camp, with automatic balls and strikes being called. In the minor leagues, it took this long for players to adjust to one new rule:

Major League Baseball

About 90 percent of players adjusted to the pitch timer within a month, which is about the length of a Spring Training season. MLB’s hope is that giving them a month to adjust in games that don’t mean anything will lead to players being ready to go with fewer violations on Opening Day.

That’s certainly going to be worth watching. I would expect that Spring Training games will be noticeably shorter and faster-paced, and as I noted, I’m going to pay careful attention to rule violations or other things that the rule changes will affect.

One thing you’ll want to watch as these rule changes take effect is how teams adjust to the shift restrictions. While umpires are going to strictly enforce the “two infielders on either side of second base and all on the infield dirt” rule, there are no restrictions on where outfielders can be placed. So, I would imagine teams will experiment in certain situations where lefthanded pull hitters are at bat (I’m looking at you, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber)with putting the left fielder in short right field, which would put a similar defensive alignment on the field as has been used in recent years. It won’t happen all the time, but in spring games where the results don’t matter? Count on seeing it tried, along with any other things teams feel they can use to “get around” the restrictions.

Baseball has been ever thus — teams trying to get an edge on other teams. It’ll be fascinating to watch.

Beyond that, I did want to take note of this comment made by Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts in a presser on Monday, from Maddie Lee at the Sun-Times:

Ricketts said the Cubs are ‘‘still looking at’’ a direct-to-consumer option for streaming games on Marquee Sports Network in 2023.

‘‘The most important thing with our direct-to-consumer is, we just want to do it right the first time,’’ he said. ‘‘We want to make sure that when we do have it out there, it’s of good value to fans. And we realize that the way people consume the game is changing. We want to make sure we accommodate that. But it’s kind of like a ‘measure twice, cut once’ thing for us.’’

Oddly enough, the Cubs are in a pretty strong position here, since they are not one of the dozen-plus teams affected by the Diamond Sports bankruptcy. Cubs games will continue to be produced and aired by Marquee Sports Network and I do believe they will have an in-market streaming option available at some point this season. Ricketts’ comment about being a “good value to fans” likely means they haven’t quite figured out the price point that will a) make in-market fans want to subscribe and b) make money for the team. I know that for many of you who are cord-cutters, you’ve been waiting for this in-market streaming option for quite some time. I do believe it’s coming.

I was going to head to Mesa for practice today but the weather in the area is kind of iffy and rain might wash out some or all of practice, and it’s not supposed to be much nicer tomorrow or Thursday. As of now, though, the forecast for Saturday’s opener is decent enough, partly cloudy with temps around 70 degrees.

You ready for baseball? I sure am.