The Cubs are 8-4 after twelve Spring Training contests and have twenty-one exhibition games remaining on the schedule. So where do the Cubs stand after the first two weeks of Cactus League games?
The Cubs reduced their 60-man Spring Training roster to 51 players on Sunday. Mitch Atkins (Triple-A Iowa) and David Patton (Double-A Tennessee) were optioned to minor league camp. Seven other non-roster invitees were assigned to minor league camp … Brett Jackson, Josh Vitters, Vince Perkins, Matt Camp, Steve Clevenger, Blake Lalli and Jeff Kennard.
The Cubs have a lot of work to do before the games count again. With Opening Day in Atlanta three weeks from Monday, here is a look at where the Cubs stand at almost the halfway point of Spring Training …
The biggest theme of Spring Training so far has been pitching, or lack of pitching. Injuries to Angel Guzman and Jeff Gray made an already questionable bullpen arguably the biggest concern for the Cubs as the season approaches.
After Carlos Marmol and John Grabow, the Cubs do not have a proven reliever in the pen. Esmailin Caridad threw the ball well at the end of last season and has pitched well this spring, but right now he is the Cubs’ right-handed setup man.
The Cubs have depth from the right side with Justin Berg, Thomas Diamond, Blake Parker, Mike Parisi, Jeff Stevens and Rafael Dolis but none of them have taken advantage, yet, of the opportunity … and separated themselves from the crowd.
John Gaub and James Russell have thrown the ball better than their right-handed competition. But unless Sean Marshall is in the rotation when the season begins, it is highly unlikely that Piniella will start the season with three southpaws in the pen.
While the performances of the bullpen over the first twelve games have done little to quiet the concern, the candidates for the backend of the rotation have not fared much better.
Carlos Silva has pitched as expected. The Cubs say they are seeing progress but he has been hit very hard in his two outings this spring. After a solid outing against the A’s, Jeff Samardzija was the same old Samardzija against the Brewers. Samardzija reportedly made progress with his secondary pitches in winter ball but did not mix them in on Friday afternoon … and Larry Rothschild did not sound too happy with his performance during an interview on ESPN 1000 Saturday morning.
Lou Piniella has stated he would like at least one southpaw in his rotation until Ted Lilly returns. After 12 exhibition games, the leaders to take the final two spots in the rotation appear to be lefties … Tom Gorzelanny and Sean Marshall.
The Cubs are expected to announce around March 22 which two pitchers will join Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells in the starting rotation.
Spring Training stats are meaningless, and performances often are as well, but the Cubs are concerned about their pitching staff.
The Injury Bug
The Cubs have dealt with their share of injuries since beginning of camp. Most notably, Angel Guzman and Jeff Gray but losing Andres Blanco has impacted the team as well. Blanco might not hit the ball but he can catch anything hit in his vicinity. The speculation is that the Grade 2 sprain to his right knee could have hurt his chances to make the team.
Blanco’s injury has opened a window for Darwin Barney … and possibly Starlin Castro.
Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee are both dealing with nagging injuries … the Cubs and the players have downplayed both. Aramis Ramirez left in the third inning of Saturday’s game against the Reds with soreness in his right triceps. Ramirez is expected back in the lineup on Tuesday.
Derrek Lee fouled a ball of his foot against the Giants last Wednesday. X-rays showed there was not any damage. Lee was expected back in the lineup on Saturday but was scratched. The Cubs say he will return on Tuesday.
Ted Lilly is the other obvious injury in Cubs’ camp. Reportedly, Lilly is progressing well and could face live hitters next week. Lilly also left camp for the birth of his first child.
Xavier Nady is making progress after his second Tommy John surgery. He has been in games and reportedly the Cubs are looking for him to play in the outfield and at first base during the last ten Spring Training games. If Nady can stay healthy, he will produce. X is already hitting the ball with authority.
While most have focused on Starlin Castro this spring, Tyler Colvin has done nothing but show up and perform. Colvin wants to break camp with the big league team as the fifth outfielder.
The Cubs need a fifth outfielder to start the season that can play all three outfield spots to be used as a defensive replacement … especially for Xavier Nady. Colvin could fill the role. He is a solid defender with a good arm and this spring he has shown he can hit the baseball.
Of all of the players this spring, Tyler Colvin has arguably been the most impressive. The only question is … can Colvin hit once the games count?
In order for the Cubs to exceed expectations this season (most have the Cubs finishing second in the Central behind the Cardinals), they will need several veterans to rebound, or bounce back, from poor performances a year ago.
Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez have gotten their work in, despite recent injuries. Lee and Ramirez have not hit too much, but both know how to prepare for the season.
Kosuke Fukudome has put together a good start to the exhibition season … and the same can be said about Geovany Soto.
One of the biggest keys to the Cubs’ season is Alfonso Soriano. He has struggled so far. The Cubs have to get him on track and Rudy Jaramillo has a lot of work to do with the Cubs’ left fielder.
The Cubs have two spots open on their bench. Koyie Hill, Xavier Nady and Jeff Baker/Mike Fontenot occupy three of the available five spots … Fontenot is the leader right now in the competition for the starting second baseman’s job.
A report in the Tribune on Sunday night indicated the Cubs would like to break camp with Chad Tracy and Kevin Millar on the roster. There is not enough room unless the Cubs’ carry an 11-man pitching staff, which is not going to happen. Also, with Nady’s injury they need a fifth outfielder to start the season.
Millar has hit but he gives the Cubs little to no flexibility. Tracy would give Piniella some much-needed pop from the left side off the bench.
Other than Tyler Colvin, no one has taken the proverbial lead in the clubhouse.
The candidates for the two spots on the Cubs’ bench remain … Micah Hoffpauir, Chad Tracy, Sam Fuld, Kevin Millar, Brad Snyder, James Adduci, Bryan LaHair and Tyler Colvin.
Starlin Castro has impressed all that have seen him play this spring … from Lou Piniella to Bruce Levine to Dave Kaplan, the list goes on and on. Castro can play and has shown as much over the first 12 games of the spring.
It is “only Spring Training” and Castro appears destined to begin the year with Ryne Sandberg in Iowa. Reports have surfaced that Lou Piniella likes what he has seen that it is the Cubs’ front office that wants Castro to begin the year in the minors.
If Castro continues to perform he will force the Cubs to make a difficult decision … but that is a big if. Another sign the Cubs could be thinking of breaking camp with a 20-year old starting shortstop (Castro turns 20 on March 24) would be Ryan Theriot taking grounders, or spending any time, at second base. When (or if) Castro is sent to minor league camp, look for him to be among the last of the roster cuts.
Jim Hendry and Lou Piniella have a few big decisions ahead of them … but it is only March 15 and there are still 21 exhibition games left to be played.
Countdown to Opening Day for the Chicago Cubs – 21 days