Spring Training NRI’s….The Infield and The Outfield

The biggest news from day one at Fitch Park was the announcement Carlos Zambrano will take the ball on Opening Day for the fourth straight year. Big Z stated during the Cubs Convention that Ted Lilly could have the honor against the Brewers on March 31st but ‘Big Z’ apparently changed his stance over the last month. Several reports indicated Zambrano has shown up to camp in better shape than last year ready to start the season on a positive note.

In other news, Felix Pie reported to camp early and Bruce Miles confirmed a report on WGN Radio that Kosuke Fukudome will join his new team on the field later today. According to a report on Cubs.com, Lou Piniella said on Thursday that he would not be surprised if Jeff Samardzija was ready to pitch for the Cubs “sometime this summer.” Also, Angel Guzman threw for the first time this week after Tommy John surgery last fall.

The competition for the Cubs closer’s job between Bobby Howry, Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol was another big topic on Thursday. According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, Kerry Wood “enters the spring as the odds-on favorite.

Yahoo Sports released photos of the first images of the spring with the Cactus League opener in just 13 days. Here is a look at the rest of the position players that received non-roster invitations to Spring Training last month….

The Infield

Andres Blanco

The 23-year old switch-hitting infielder (turns 24 in April) signed a minor league deal with the Cubs in November of 2007. The Kansas City Royals originally signed Blanco as an undrafted free agent in 2000. He spent the first 7 years of his pro career with the Royals, played 78 games at the Major League level between 2004-2006 and compiled a .252 average with a .290 OBP. Blanco missed time last season with hamstring problems in both legs and played just 28 games at the Triple-A level.

Blanco is known as a solid fielder but the big question with Blanco has been his offense. He has struggled offensively throughout his career; case in point is a .299 OBP at the Triple-A level. A scouting report on Blanco from 2005 stated the following: “On the roster for his glove, and he can make spectacular plays. But he’ll also occasionally nonchalant the ball on grounders. Hangs in well on the double-play pivot. Lacks bat speed and can be overpowered at the plate.

2008 OutlookAndres Blanco defensively can hold his on at shortstop at the Major League level, but offensively he belongs at Double-A. Blanco will probably start the season in Iowa, if he remains in the Cubs system.

Luis Figueroa

Lou Piniella wanted to see a lot of versatility in camp this year and Figueroa, if nothing else, fills out Piniella’s most current want list. Figueroa was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Pirates in 1997 and has played 22 games at the big league level….in 2001 with the Pirates and Mets, 2006 with the Blue Jays and last year with the Giants.

The switch-hitting utility man hit .302 with a .349 OBP, 22 doubles and 53 RBI’s in 117 games for Fresno last year. Figueroa has been described as having excellent range with a decent arm. A scouting report from 2000 indicated he had a chance to be a decent utility infielder.

2008 Outlook – At the age of 33 Luis Figueroa he does not figure to have a shot at making the Cubs big league roster out of camp. Figueroa could provide depth at the Triple-A level but this spring will likely be viewed as just a ‘Cup of Coffee with the Cubs‘. On paper, Lou Piniella has better options to choose from.

Micah Hoffpauir

The Cubs drafted Micah Hoffpauir in the 13th round in 2002 and if not for a knee injury last year, chances are he would have made his Major League debut. Hoffpauir can hit and is a very good first baseman that is learning to play the outfield. He set a career high in home runs last year, 16, in just 82 games (.319 average and a .365 OBP with 73 RBI’s). Hoffpauir tore his articular cartilage in his left knee and after surgery spent the next 16 weeks rehabbing in Mesa preparing for Spring Training.

This will be the second consecutive year in big league camp for Hoffpauir. Last spring he hit .292 with a .370 OBP and 2 home runs in 18 games….after receiving his invitation to camp just a day before the position players reported. Hoffpauir reportedly hits left-handed pitching very well, a rarity in today’s game….a lefty that can hit southpaws.

Hoffpauir played 13 games in the outfield last year (60 total in his minor league career) in order to become a more versatile player….with Derrek Lee. There was a feeling within the organization that if Hoffpauir was not on the DL at the time both Lee and Daryle Ward were injured last year, Hoffpauir would have gotten the call.

2008 OutlookLou Piniella is looking for depth on his bench and Micah Hoffpauir might be the man for the job. Hoffpauir fits the type of player Piniella likes and he could provide power off the bench, a legitimate back up for Derrek Lee as well as a backup for both corner outfield spots. Hoffpauir will likely start the season in Iowa, but he should make his Major League debut in 2008.

Casey McGehee

Casey McGehee has been described as the “consummate team guy” and the Cubs think highly of his baseball IQ and leadership skills. The Cubs drafted McGehee in the 10th round in 2003. He spent most of 2007 in Double-A (.273/.338 with 9 home runs and 54 RBI’s in 105 games) and was in big league camp last year (.294 average with a .333 OBP). McGehee spent time at 3rd base and behind the plate.

2008 Outlook – Despite being tagged as the best situational hitter in the organization, Casey McGehee will start the 2008 season at Triple-A after struggling there last season (.173 average with a .288 OBP in 18 games).

Bobby Scales

Bobby Scales is a very interesting player and one that the Faithful should keep an eye on throughout the spring. Scales is one of the few NRI’s that has a legitimate chance of being with the Cubs at Wrigley on March 31st….especially if the Cubs trade Ronny Cedeno in a deal for Brian Roberts and let Alex Cintron sign with the Orioles.

The 30-year old switch hitter signed with Cubs as a minor league free agent in December and was drafted in the 14th round by the Pirates in 1999. He had a career year in Pawtucket (Boston’s Triple-A team) last year…. .294/.373/.472 with 28 doubles, 11 home runs and 57 RBI’s in 122 games. Scales has posted a career line of .280/.370/.420 in 871 games in the minors.

Scales has never played at the Major League level and this will be his third consecutive year in a big league camp.

Here are two scouting reports on Bobby Scales:

“Plays many positions well, none exceptionally. Can play all outfield and infield positions, but mostly plays 2B, 3B and LF. Great clubhouse guy. Switch Hitter with gap power and decent speed.”

A report on MiLB.com from November of 2005 on Six-Year Free Agents:

“No love, no press, great guy, great baseball player. He’s a winner. Good numbers over the years in limited roles. He has a career in baseball. His only knock is the inability to play one position exceptionally. A great utility guy.”

2008 OutlookBobby Scales’ future with the Cubs is dependent on one player, Ronny Cedeno. Cedeno is out of options and if he is not dealt will be on the Cubs big league roster March 31st. If Cedeno is traded it opens up a spot for Scales who fits the profile of the type of player Lou Piniella loves to have on his roster. If Scales has a good spring, he will likely end up with Iowa and a solid start in Triple-A could result in a Major League debut in 2008.

The Outfielders

Tyler Colvin

The Cubs highly touted prospect will be in big league camp for the second consecutive year after a very successful first full season in pro ball. Counting a short season in 2006 and last year, Tyler Colvin has hit .288/.320/.462/.775 with 27 home runs and 134 RBI’s in 189 games despite missing time last August with a minor shoulder injury. Colvin was a Florida State League All-Star last year and won a Gold Medal as a member of Team USA in the 2007 Baseball World Cup. Colvin has been compared to Steve Finley and Shawn Green by Baseball America.

Colvin admitted during the recent Cubs Convention his plate discipline needs improvement. Colvin said he likes being aggressive at the plate but added he must work on taking pitches and working the count. Last year Colvin walked just 15 times in 125 games.

Tyler Colvin has all of the tools to be a successful major leaguer. He has a strong, accurate arm….one aspect of his game this writer noticed very quickly while in Mesa last spring. Colvin can play all three outfield spots and has the arm to play right field. Baseball America stated Colvin is the best athlete in the system and was recently voted the best clutch hitter of all the Cubs’ prospects. Oneri Fleita spoke highly of Colvin’s knack to come up with the big hit at the Cubs Convention. Fleita said he likes to hit with the game on the line.

Colvin is ranked in the top 10 of all Cubs’ prospect lists…. #7 by Baseball Prospectus, #3 by Baseball America, #5 by John Sickels and #3 by Deric McKamey.

2008 Outlook – Most predict Tyler Colvin will make his Cub debut in 2009 and will likely start the season in Triple-A. But that could change if Felix Pie and Sam Fuld do not produce and if Colvin hits at the Triple-A level….but 2009 appears to be the most realistic target for Colvin at Wrigley Field.

Josh Kroeger

Another versatile player and another legitimate shot at a roster spot. Josh Kroeger is coming off a very good season after once being a top prospect in the Diamondbacks system. Kroeger was drafted in the 4th round by Arizona in 2000 and made his Major League debut in 2004 at the age of 22. Kroeger stumbled, fell down the depth chart and signed with the Cubs as a 6-year minor league free agent in December of 2006.

Kroeger hit a career high 21 home runs last season with a combined .330 average between Double-A and Triple-A with 81 RBI’s (Iowa: .263/.338/.474/.812 with 7 doubles, 10 home runs and 31 RBI’s in 51 games – Tennessee: .382/.449/.609/1.058 with 14 doubles, 3 triples, 11 home runs and 50 RBI’s in 66 games). Kroeger opened the season in Double-A because there was no room for him in the crowded outfield at Iowa. Von Joshua worked with Kroeger and found a flaw in his swing.

Kroeger had surgery in September to remove a nagging bone spur in his left hand.

One of the biggest knocks on Kroeger throughout his career has been his plate discipline. Last season he set a career high in walks with 48 and set a new career low in strikeouts with 73 (least amount of strikeouts in a single season in which Kroeger played at least 100 games, played 117 games last year). Kroeger has a smooth swing with raw power. He has average speed but can play all three outfield spots with a strong enough arm for right field….Kroeger also played 10 games at 1st base last year.

2008 OutlookJosh Kroeger will likely start the season in Iowa but should figure into the Cubs plans for the upcoming season. Like Bobby Scales, Josh Kroeger’s future could be dependent on another player….Matt Murton. If Murton is dealt, the Cubs would have a spot for Kroeger to earn.

Andres Torres

The 29-year old switch-hitting outfielder was the 4th round pick of the Tigers in 1998. Andres Torres was a pitcher and posted a 1-2 record in 1999 and 2000 with a 6.52 ERA in rookie and Class-A ball. He signed a minor league deal with the Cubs in November of 2007 after spending the year in the Tigers system. Last season he hit .292/.348/.506 with 6 double, 9 triples and 4 home runs and 17 RBI’s in 42 games in Triple-A after starting the year in Double-A.

Torres has played all three outfield spots at the Major League level. Between 2002 and 2005, Torres logged 89 games for the Tigers and Rangers.

2008 Outlook – Torres will start the 2008 season in Iowa.

2008 Spring Training Articles from the CCO

In the Hole: Storylines of the Spring….The Rest of the Roster

Quote of the Day

"People who write about Spring Training not being necessary have never tried to throw a baseball." – Sandy Koufax