Will Cubs’ bench brigade be more than a punch line?
Last year, the most fun you could have with the Cubs bench was watching "Super Joe" Mather pitch.
That happened late, late one night during a 15-4 loss to the Brewers at Wrigley Field. The Cubs needed some kind of relief — whether it be bullpen relief or comic relief — during a 101-loss season.
Aside from Mather, old Jim Hendry favorites Reed Johnson and even Koyie Hill made appearances for Theo Epstein's and Jed Hoyer's Cubs last season.
All those guys are gone now, and what the Cubs hope they have with this year's bench is versatility.
The Cubs did lose some pinch-running speed with this spring's trade of Tony Campana to the Diamondbacks, but even the most ardent Campana lovers should get over that soon enough.
One of the more interesting names at Cubs spring-training camp in Mesa, Ariz., is former White Sox infielder-outfielder Brent Lillibridge, who is a nonroster man.
In 102 games among the White Sox, Red Sox and Indians last year, Lillibridge put up a hitting line of only .195/.250/.274 and an OPS-plus of 46 (he had an OPS-plus of 123 for the White Sox in 2011), but Cubs manager Dale Sveum likes the versatility Lillibridge brings if he makes the team.
"That gives you a huge edge in the National League, especially when our center fielder (David DeJesus) and right fielder (Nate Schierholtz) are left-handed (hitters)," Sveum told reporters early in spring training "He can play first, runs very well and has some sock in the bat for someone who looks like he's 150 pounds soaking wet."
Lillibridge sounded like he's open to anything.
"I told Dale when I talked to him I wasn't afraid to compete, and I knew that my skills and what I could do on a baseball field would be valuable to the Cubs, and I was excited to showcase it for the whole season," he told the media.
The Cubs will platoon in right field — using Schierholtz and Scott Hairston — so one or the other will be available off the bench every day.
The other interesting situation is at catcher, where Dioner Navarro was signed as a free agent to back up Welington Castillo. That could leave catcher Steve Clevenger out in the cold, but the Cubs drafted Clevenger as an infielder, so he might be able to hold on to a major-league job as a utility player.
"You're going to see him playing a lot more first," Sveum said recently. "With (Anthony) Rizzo gone (playing in the World Baseball Classic), we'll get him at first and put him at second in a split squad, because we might lack that left-handed bat. And if you can have that third catcher to where you can pinch run and not worry about the other catcher getting hurt, that comes into the mix.
"It all depends on what happens at third base, a lot of these decisions. But it's a long spring. Certain guys are capable of doing that. Clevenger, at the beginning (of last year), had some success pinch hitting."
At third base, Ian Stewart has been slowed by a quad injury, but the Cubs brought back Luis Valbuena, who started at third much of the second half. If Stewart rebounds and makes the team, Valbuena would be the top utility infielder.
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