With the start of Spring Training only days away, the fans of the Chicago Cubs can finally look forward to the 2010 season. After everything that went wrong with the previous years ball club, Cub fans were left with a bitter aftertaste in their mouths, and need a reason to believe that this year will be different. That is what Spring Training is all about, a fresh start and a new beginning. After last season, Cub fans everywhere are looking for just that. While most of the positions are already set, and locked in, there will still be some good competition that all fans should want to keep an eye on.
Lets start with the only competition that will be taking place for a starting job. That competition is for the starting second baseman’s job. There are two men who have their eye’s on the prize for this job, Mike Fontenot and Jeff Baker. Many fans would see Baker as the odds on favorite to win the job after he performed so well after the Cubs acquired him in a trade from the Colorado Rockies. He finished the year with a .288 batting average, but hit over .300 for the Cubs with a .362 on base percentage. Those are some pretty good statistics for a second baseman and, I for one, would not be too upset if he was the one to leave camp as the starter. The only problem I have with this, is I am unsure how much trust to put in Baker to continue to play the way he played last year. We fans, and management, have been fooled more times than we would like to admit when looking at a player who put up half of a good season. Need an example? Just look at Baker’s competition in Fontenot.
One reason why Fontenot might get the nod as the every day starter at second base, is because he is a left handed bat. If he isn’t starting the game, the Cubs have only one left handed hitter in the lineup. However, if we learned anything last year, we learned that Fontenot might not be starter material. In 2008, Fontenot put up some amazing stats considering he was only being used in part time play. What he was able to do in limited time, made Cub fans crave to see him getting more starts. That desire to see him get more time, also helped the Cubs decide to trade fan favorite Mark DeRosa. Last year though, Fontenot got his chance at starting, and we watched him fail to provide what we needed him to give us. In 16 more games, and getting 134 more at bats, Fontenot saw his batting average fall from .305 to .236. Management had also thought we would see him deliver more power with more time, that too failed to meet expectations. He only hit nine homeruns, the same amount he hit the previous year, while driving in only three more runs. Fontenot is a prime example of why you should not want to see a half year stud, taking over an every day job.
One of the other competitions that will be taking place, is for the fifth outfielder’s job. The starting outfield is already set with Alfonso Soriano in left field, Kosuke Fukudome in right field and Marlon Byrd patrolling center field. Newly signed Xavier Nady will be the fourth outfielder and will be backing up both Fukudome and Soriano. That leaves three outfielders competing for the fifth outfielder. Those players are Micah Hoffpauir, Sam Fuld and Tyler Colvin. While I like the versatility of both Colvin and Fuld, who can play all three outfield positions, I would give the nod to Hoffpauir myself, as he would be a welcomed left handed power bat off the bench. While Hoffpauir’s statistics are nothing to get excited about, he would provide more of a threat off the bench than either Colvin or Fuld.
In all honesty, I would say that this job would come down to Hoffpauir and Fuld, with Colvin being sent back down to the minors. While he is still in development, I would rather see Colvin get at bats everyday, something he wont be able to do in the major leagues. You don’t want a young player wasting away on the bench in the major leagues, let him continue to grow and play ball in the minors. While I said I would give the nod to Hoffpauir, don’t count out Fuld making the team. One of the competitions that will be taking place for the infield spots may actually work in Fuld’s favor, and give him a better chance of breaking camp with the team.
The battle for the infield bench jobs will also have the most competition. There are only two jobs open on the bench for backup infielders, with four players vying for them. The four men are Kevin Millar, Chad Tracy, Andres Blanco and whoever does not win the starting second base job between Baker and Fontenot. This competition will likely be watched the closest, as there are many things to factor in when filling the voids. Blanco is the only man in the group that can backup the Short Stop position. Yes, there is Sterlin Castro, but I am not considering him. I will get to him at a later date. Because of him being the only viable backup to Ryan Theriot at short, I feel he would have to be a lock to make the team. He is aso able to play second base.
If Blanco is a lock to make the team, as I think he should, that leaves Fontenot or Baker competing with Tracy and Millar for the final spot. With these three men in competition you need to factor in the Ramirez effect. The Cubs current third baseman rarely plays the whole season, and usually missed a chunk of games every year. The team needs someone who can back up Ramirez. While all four men can play third base, Tracy would be the best at the position. He can also back up Derrek Lee at first base, which would make Hoffpauir less of a necessity, meaning he could be sent down to the minors and Fuld could make the squad.
Management has come out and said that Millar and Tracy will be competing with one another for a bench job , which could mean that there could be a trade towards the end of Spring Training involving the odd man out in this competition. If Blanco makes the team, which I believe he should, who ever doesn’t win the second base job could likely be traded.
The problem with Tracy, is he doesn’t exactly have a great bat. His offensive production has fallen off dramatically since his first couple of years in the majors. So with Tracy you need to figure out what you need more. Do you need a good bat of the bench, or do you need a dependable replacement for Ramirez if he is forced to miss some time?
Millar is another issue, because like Tracy his offense is nowhere near what you would want in a bench player. However, he can play both corner infield spots, and if you are a believe in clubhouse chemistry there wouldn’t be a better man to add to the mix. I am not sure if I would pick him to beat out the other three candidates, but maybe he surprises everyone and pulls an ace out of his pocket.
With Ted Lilly possibly missing the first month of the season, there will be an extra spot in the pitching rotation. Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells will lead the rotation, with the Cubs needing at least one more pitcher to fill out the rotation. With the month of April spreading out games and usually having a good number of off days, you wont really need a fifth starter until April 18 against the Houston Astros. Lilly said that he was targeting the middle of April for his return, so there may not be a need for a fifth start, which would be the best thing for the Cubs.
However, there will still be a need for a fourth starter until then, and that pitcher will become the fifth starter once Lilly returns. The likely candidates are Sean Marshall, Tom Gorzelanny, Jeff Samardzija and Carlos Silva. If I were to put my money on one of them, I would nominate Gorzelanny to fill out the rotation. For one, he is a lefty, something the rotation will lose with Lilly being out. But why him over Marshall? That is an easy one. While Marshall has never gotten an extended look in the starters role, he hasn’t been able to show that he belongs as a starter, over the role we are used to seeing him in, and that is as an excellent arm coming out of the bullpen.
Silva was brought in, but his recent track record does nothing to inspire you that he would be anything better than what he has been the past four years. While he is likely to make the team, he might be demoted to the bullpen and mop up duty if he is unable to show any signs of improvement.
The one pitcher who might surprise people is Samardzija, though I am not ready to put my faith in him. Various reports from the Cubs player development staff have stated that he has shown a lot of good progress. If he has grown into the starters role, than he could give Gorzelanny some good competition, though I think I would rather see him sent to the minors to continue to work on his mechanics and developing a new pitch or two.
The bullpen is the final spot where we will see a lot of competition. Though, much like with the starting pitcher competition, there are the likely favorites. We already know that Carlos Marmol will be the closer, and Angel Guzman and Jeff Grabow will be the likely setup men. Others who are likely to make the squad are Jeff Gray, and if he doesn’t make the rotation Marshall. That leaves two spots in the bullpen for four other candidates. The most likely candidates are, Justin Berg, Esmailin Caridad, John Gaub, and Jeff Stevens. However, both Samardzija and Silva might also be in competition for the bullpen spots. This will be the most important competition in camp. The better your bullpen is, the better your team will be. For the final two spots, I have no idea who I see making the team. Whoever wins those last two spots will have earned them with this crowd that is in competing.
Well, hope springs eternal Cub fans, and this Spring Training is bound to give you all a lot of hope. Everything begins on February 17 when pitchers and catchers report.