Slave to the Spring Grind

The extremely long Spring Training is slowly reaching a conclusion. The Cubs completed their 26th Cactus League game on Sunday (27th total contest) and Lou Piniella’s crew will begin playing games that count in two short weeksCarlos Zambrano versus Roy Oswalt on April 6 in Houston.

The Cubs’ Spring Training roster currently stands at 43 players. Several reports over the weekend mentioned Lou Piniella could cut as many as 10 players by Mondayor Tuesday at the latest. While wins and losses are meaningless in the spring, players’ performances are not.

Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez and Milton Bradley have begun hitting the ball with a lot more authority…Derrek Lee is still behind but looked much better on Sunday. Micah Hoffpauir and Mike Fontenot have cooled off a little but still continue to impress on a daily basis.

On the mound, there is talk Rich Harden could be skipped the first time through the rotation but other than Ted Lilly being behind in his preparation, the starting rotation has pitched rather well this spring.

Here’s a look at the updated spring numbers and the storylines to follow as the stretch of ‘meaningless‘ games come to an end….

Storylines for the Final Two Weeks

According to a report from the Tribune, Lou Piniella is expected to name the club’s closer in the coming week. The Cubs want to see Kevin Gregg and Carlos Marmol pitch on back-to-back days before they announce their decision.

The final two spots in the bullpen… Will it be Jeff Samardzija, David Patton and/or Jason Waddell? Piniella stated last week that the Cubs would open the season with a 12-man pitching staff. If that’s the case, here are the locks on Opening Day:

  • Carlos Zambrano
  • Ryan Dempster
  • Ted Lilly
  • Rich Harden
  • Sean Marshall
  • Aaron Heilman
  • Neal Cotts
  • Kevin Gregg
  • Carlos Marmol

Luis Vizcaino, due to his contract, should be the tenth. That would leave two spots but if Chad Gaudin is tagged to be the long-man out of the pen, it leaves just one spot.

Jeff Samardzija looked like a different pitcher on Saturday coming out of the pen, but he has options left. Jason Waddell signed a minor league deal and could start the season in Iowa. David Patton, on the other hand, has impressed Piniella and if he cannot cut it, worse case is they offer him back to Colorado, if he clears waivers.

On Saturday, Larry Rothschild said Chad Gaudin would start Tuesday’s game against the Rockies and then the Cubs would decide how he best fits the team’s needs.

Angel Guzman pitched a lot better on Friday and Sunday but it could be a case of too little too late for the one-time top pitching prospect. The Cubs could come up with a mystery injury for him in order to delay the decision, but that is unlikely.

Angel Guzman and Chad Gaudin could be trade bait, depending on what Jim Hendry has up his sleeve.

Backing up Soto

It appears to be a two-man race at this point on who will backup Geovany Soto. Mark Johnson was in the picture for about a minute, but he has not hit. Paul Bako has performed better of late but the favorite has to be Koyie Hill.

Hill has hit and been very consistent behind the plate. With Soto coming back from the WBC behind in his conditioning and preparation it seems unlikely that either Hill or Bako will get much of an opportunity to improve their stock.

At this point it seems to be Koyie Hill’s job…but with Lou Piniella, who knows which way he is leaning.

The Bench

The Cubs do not have a true backup for Aramis Ramirez, which is a big concern. Ramirez will need time off and it appears the Cubs are willing to start the season with Mike Fontenot as his backup.

Andres Blanco has not received much time at third this spring but Bobby Scales has. Scales has done what the Cubs have wanted. He has played multiple positions and put up solid numbers with the bat. Scales will start the year at Iowa but could figure into the equation if Ramirez is sidelined for an extended period.

Lou Piniella’s bench on Opening Day should consist of:

  • Micah Hoffpauir
  • Reed Johnson/Kosuke Fukudome
  • Aaron Miles
  • Joey Gathright
  • Back-up catcher

While Joey Gathright has more than cooled off offensively, he would bring speed to a team that does not have much without him and a solid late-inning defensive replacement that can play all three outfield spots.

Spring Stats

(click on images to enlarge)

The Cubs have only a few goals left this spring…but the biggest is to start the regular season in Houston healthy and ready to defend their back-to-back NL Central Division crowns.

Quote of the Day

"From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life." – Arthur Ashe