The third and final installment of the CCO’s look at the Cubs storylines of the spring focuses on the infield.
The Cubs were able to identify two more core pieces, along with Starlin Castro, in Anthony Rizzo and Darwin Barney last season. While Castro’s offensive numbers were down a little from his 283 big league games, Castro showed improvement as the season progressed both in the field and at the plate. Darwin Barney turned in a Gold Glove performance at second base and Anthony Rizzo took over at first base after tearing up the PCL with a new and improved swing.
The Cubs once again have a big hole to fill at third base at the big league level. Ian Stewart and Luis Valbuena will compete for the Opening Day job this spring but the players that could be vying for the third base job in the future figure to garner much of the attention during Spring Training.
For as bad as last season was at the big league level, three of the handful of positives resides in the Cubs’ infield. Starlin Castro, Darwin Barney and Anthony Rizzo are coming off good years but still have a lot of work and improvement to do. The Cubs’ front office identified all three players as core pieces moving forward and their continued development will be key for the Cubs when the games actually count. As for Spring Training, each player is obviously at no risk of not making the team but there will be plenty to monitor with Castro, Barney and Rizzo.
For the first time in his young career, Starlin Castro will be in Spring Training with the same manager as the spring before and will be surrounded by a majority of the same coaching staff. This should be a big factor for Castro this spring and throughout the season. He has accomplished so much on a baseball field in a short amount of time and it will be interesting to see if he is able to take his game to the next level without basically have to start from scratch again.
Anthony Rizzo was better than advertised for a majority of his short time in a Cubs’ uniform last year. The biggest key for Rizzo this spring is to get his work in and return healthy from playing games with Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic. Rizzo has quite a bit to improve on but the foundation is there. Rizzo made the big adjustment to his swing a year ago and if he can make the right adjustments in order to hit lefties, he will become the complete player that the Cubs’ front office has projected.
Darwin Barney won a Gold Glove and both he and Castro showed steady improvement throughout the season in the field. Barney recently said that he concentrated on his offense this off-season and coming into camp with a better idea of what he would like to accomplish at the plate. Barney could struggle early while working with the changes he made over the winter but the key for Barney is to not take his bat out to the field with him.
After Castro, Barney and Rizzo, the Cubs infield has a lot of questions … and one big hole at third base.
When the Cubs re-signed Ian Stewart in the off-season, the thought was he would go into Spring Training as the Cubs’ third baseman … basically, it was his job to lose. Stewart signed a non-guaranteed contract and as it turns out, the third base job is his to win. Dale Sveum addressed the problems he had with Stewart leaving the team last year to rehab on his own and the fact that as far as the Cubs’ manager is concerned Stewart has to prove himself during camp.
Stewart did not report to camp until the day before he had to which raised the questions about his commitment to baseball … the same questions that have followed him throughout his career. The Cubs’ front office believes in him and has given up a lot for him (D.J. LeMahieu, Tyler Colvin and Jeff Beliveau). Stewart knows he has a lot to prove, but the questions remain. Stewart is expected to receive time at first base as well to see if he can serve as Anthony Rizzo’s backup during the season.
Luis Valbuena figures to make the roster out of camp and could be at third base on Opening Day in Pittsburgh. Valbuena made an impression on Sveum last year and defensively, Sveum knows he can depend on him. Valbuena hit just .219/.310/.340 in 90 games last year with a .650 OPS. In 303 plate appearances, mostly as the Cubs’ third baseman, Valbuena hit 20 doubles and four home runs. Valbuena can play short and second as well and is expected to see playing time at all three infield positions this spring.
Brent Lillibridge has the best shot of making the roster of all the non-roster invitees in camp this spring. The Cubs will have to open a spot on the 40-man roster but that is likely the only deterrent. Lillibridge is coming off a bad year, one in which he was trade twice, but the former Southsider gives Sveum a reliable, right-handed hitting backup at all three spots in the outfield and all four spots in the infield, including first base.
Logan Watkins will participate in his first big league camp and while he should be ticketed for Iowa to begin the year, how he performs will be interesting to follow. Watkins is a smart player and really opened the eyes of the Cubs’ brass last year. Watkins does not appear ready for the big leagues but an impressive camp could lead to a call-up in September.
A lot of attention will be paid to Junior Lake, Josh Vitters, Christian Villanueva and Javier Baez this spring but all four of the top prospects in the system will begin the season down on the farm.
All eyes will be on Baez when he steps on the field and he will create headlines if he is not at shortstop when he does. The Cubs plan on playing him in different positions in the infield this spring but have said he will see a majority of his time at shortstop in Daytona. Baez will hopefully learn about what it takes to be a Major Leaguer this spring and be able to take what he learns back to the minors with him.
There will be days in which Junior Lake is the best player on the field this spring … then there will days in which he looks totally lost. Lake should see time at third base and all three spots in the outfield this spring but appears to be ticketed for Iowa. If Lake figures it out, look out, because the tools are there.
Josh Vitters is ticketed for Triple-A but one of the big storylines this spring will be seeing if he made any adjustments over the winter. Vitters lit up Triple-A last year then looked lost for a majority of his time in the big leagues. Vitters struggled at the plate and in the field and this should be viewed as a big camp for him. Vitters should see time at first base, among other positions, because it appears he will not be playing much third base for the I-Cubs this season.
The other three infielders in camp on non-roster invites are Alberto Gonzalez, Edwin Maysonet and Brad Nelson … and all three players should be on the I-Cubs Opening Day roster.
Alberto Gonzalez has 402 big league games under his belt and Jed Hoyer is familiar with him from their days together in San Diego (2011) but the light-hitting second baseman appears to be depth in the event of an injury … and the same can be said about Edwin Maysonet.
Edwin Maysonet played in 30 games for the Brewers last year and hit his only home run off Cubs’ pitching. Maysonet put together a .250/.297/.350 line with a .647 OPS and is solid in the field but he would not give the Cubs much more than Logan Watkins. Brad Nelson is the second coming of Micah Hoffpauir and Bryan LaHair, without the Triple-A numbers. Nelson can hit and play in the outfield but he figures to be the starting first baseman in Iowa until the Cubs’ brass figures out what the next step is in Josh Vitters’ development.
Story within the Storylines
The Cubs infield is just about set with Starlin Castro, Darwin Barney and Anthony Rizzo … and as long as they stay healthy they will be on the field on Opening Day. Third base and the backups are the questions that remain. From early indications, Luis Valbuena and Brent Lillibridge have made the team and that leaves one spot for Ian Stewart. If he falters, it will be interesting to see who takes his spot on the roster.
And on a side note, while Javier Baez and Junior Lake do not have a shot of making the roster, it will be fun watching them play while possibly giving a glimpse of what the future holds.