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Column: What we’ve learned at Cubs and White Sox camps with 18 days until opening day

With 18 days remaining until opening day, the Chicago Cubs and White Sox are about to enter the dog days of spring training, during which dead arms tend to occur and players start getting antsy for the regular season.

Here’s what we know, and what we suspect we know, about our teams heading toward the start of 2024.

180 is the new 200

In a long lost era, starters went into spring training talking about throwing 300 innings. With the emergence of analytics and strict pitch counts, the number gradually was reduced to 200 innings years ago.

Only three pitchers reached 200 innings in 2023: the San Francisco GiantsLogan Webb (216 innings), Arizona DiamondbacksZac Gallen (210) and St. Louis CardinalsMiles Mikolas (201 1/3). That’s down from eight pitchers in 2022.

In his second season as a starter in 2023, Sox right-hander Michael Kopech threw 129 1/3 innings, moving to the bullpen for a while in September.

After his first spring start last week, Kopech said his goal is to win games “every time I take the ball” but also “to make 30-plus starts and be over that 180-inning threshold that was kind of a goal of mine last year that I felt quite a bit short on.”

You don’t need to be a math major to figure 180 innings over 30 starts would be an average of six innings per.

Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks said 200 innings is still his goal. He led the Cubs staff with 199 innings in 2018 under manager Joe Maddon, the closest he has come to reaching the coveted round number.

“The game is changing for sure, but it’s definitely a goal of mine, absolutely,” Hendricks said. “It can be so valuable. Wearing down a bullpen throughout the course of the year, it’s tough. You want to be your strongest there at the end of the season. The more load we can take on as starters, it’s always going to pay dividends at the end of the year for our bullpen.”

No Cubs starter threw 200 innings in the four years under manager David Ross, which included the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. The last Cubs starter with 200 or more innings was Jon Lester, who finished with 202 2/3 in 32 starts in 2016.

It doesn’t sound as if Counsell will change that trend.

“Look, for starters, it’s always been like 30 starts, 200 innings,” Counsell said. “My goal for Kyle is plus-30 starts. That’s going to be a good thing for the Cubs if he takes the ball 30-plus times, and that means we’re going to get really close to that number (of innings), and if we do, we’re in good shape.”

Commissioner Rob Manfred said in October that the league was considering lowering the maximum pitchers on rosters from 13 to 12 in an attempt to get more starters to throw longer into games and theoretically bring the kind of marquee matchups we looked forward to back in the day.

“Historically, starting pitchers have been some of the biggest stars in the game, and the way that pitching is being used right now has caused a diminution of the star quality for some of our starters,” Manfred told reporters.

Good luck with that.

Dylan Cease’s trade value has risen

If Sox general manager Chris Getz had a high asking price for Cease before spring training, the inevitable spate of arm injuries, including former Sox starter Lucas Giolito — now with the Boston Red Sox — should only make the price zoom even higher.

Cease, scheduled to be the Sox’s opening-day starter on March 28 against the Detroit Tigers, has handled his situation well and continues his preparation as if it is a normal spring. The uncertainty has not affected Cease, and he didn’t even mind talking about it for the umpteenth time.

“It doesn’t bother me, part of the business, part of the excitement for fans,” Cease said of the trade rumors. “I would like (questions) to be a little more team-oriented, but I understand where it is right now. I’m sure as the season gets going it will be switching more towards that. Either way I’m cool with it.”

Manager Pedro Grifol complimented Cease on his ability to tune out the noise.

“He’s a man’s man,” Grifol said. “I’ve said this before and if you continue to ask this question, I’ll say it over and over again. He’s the perfect guy to be in this situation because he just understands the whole process.”

Craig Counsell doesn’t cater to Cactus League fans

The Cubs are the undisputed kings of Cactus League attendance, so traveling fans might want — or even expect — to see the team’s stars playing when they come out to watch a game.

Manager Craig Counsell instead handed out a lot of playing time to kids he likely knew would be sent down before St. Patrick’s Day — notably Matt Shaw, Owen Caissie and Pete Crow-Armstrong. A hamstring injury to Ian Happ and the late signing of Cody Bellinger were obviously factors, but Counsell needed to see the prospects more than he needed to see Dansby Swanson, Nico Hoerner and Seiya Suzuki. Christopher Morel’s audition at third, which hasn’t gone smoothly, also has been a focus.

According to MLB.com, the Cubs have the second-ranked farm system behind the Baltimore Orioles. They were ranked No. 18 before 2022, the first season with prospects acquired in the summer sell-off of 2021.

And if we’ve learned anything from the shortened spring of 2022 caused by the winter lockout, it’s that hitters don’t really need 4 1/2 weeks of spring training games to get ready. The games are basically for getting pitchers stretched out, and many teams hold back their expected starters until the second week these days.

But there’s still sunshine and cold refreshments at Sloan Park, and unless those essentials disappear, the Cubs should continue to reign over the Cactus League.

Sox catchers catch as catch can

Martín Maldonado and Max Stassi weren’t signed for their offense. Stassi hit .180 with the Angels in 2022, his last season, while Maldonado hit .191 last year with the Astros. Their defensive abilities, and affordability, made the Sox interested.

Grifol said early in camp that the two veterans “know what their job is — and their job is to make sure those starters are standing there in the seventh inning, and they’re prepared to call a game and stay in their strengths and do whatever it takes to win a game, and they know their role.”

Still, a hit now and then would be a nice bonus. The two were a combined 1-for-27 entering Saturday’s game. Maldonado was 0-for-14 while Stassi was 1-for-13.

Eloy Jiménez can put his glove back in the closet

Eloy Jiménez was a reluctant convert to the DH role, but he made only 14 starts in the outfield 2023 and could get even fewer this season to keep him healthy and in the lineup.

Grifol wouldn’t commit to playing Jiménez at all in the outfield when camp opened. “He told me and a lot of us he’s ready to go in and compete and he’ll go through his process and his work and we’ll see where everything falls,” Grifol said of Jiménez.

So far he has used Jiménez strictly as DH, and Jiménez has scorched the ball all spring. Maybe he finally got the hang of it.

The ongoing saga of “the Royal We”

Brad Keller, a pitcher mostly remembered in Chicago for a 2019 incident in which former Sox shortstop Tim Anderson was ejected by umpire Joe West and suspended for one game for reportedly calling him the n-word, became the latest former Royal to join the Sox organization. Keller signed a minor-league deal Friday.

Still out there waiting for a chance to pitch is 40-year-old Zack Greinke, a former Royals teammate of Getz and senior adviser to pitching Brian Bannister as well as nonroster invitee Mike Moustakas. Signing Greinke is not likely, but who knows with the Royalization of the Sox?