Mix-and-match and Cubs still hoping to compete
Give the Cubs credit for one thing: They've got their story and they're sticking to it.
In Year 2 of the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer regime, the mantra is still the same: Try to win now while building for the future.
Of course, they said that last year, and the season turned into a 61-101 disaster, with the Cubs trotting out a starting rotation at the end of the season that included the likes of Chris Volstad, Jason Berken, Justin Germano and rookie Chris Rusin.
The brass is scheduled to meet the media in Mesa, Ariz., on Sunday, and pitchers and catchers will work out for the first time on Tuesday, kicking off a long spring training that will feature the World Baseball Classic.
With the memory of last season's September rotation still fresh, it's pretty easy to see what will top the things to watch this February and March.
With young pitching in the minor-league system still years away from the majors, Epstein and Hoyer went after free-agent pitching, giving the Cubs plenty of quantity. We'll see about the quality as the season unfolds.
Right-handers Scott Baker and Scott Feldman came first. Then the Cubs surprisingly opened their wallets and shelled out $52 million to Edwin Jackson. The Jackson signing, in my mind anyway, showed two things: that the Cubs have the money and that they do want to be competitive this season.
The three new pitchers join a rotation that includes Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija at the top, with lefty Travis Wood fighting for a spot.
As always, health will be the X factor. Garza has not pitched since July because of a "stress reaction" in his right elbow, and Baker had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow last April.
Garza has begun his throwing program and proclaimed himself good to go. The Cubs say Baker will be ready to start the season even if they have to take it easy with him during the Cactus League season.
If anyone can't go, Wood is the first option. He saw action in two stints last year after beginning the season at Class AAA Iowa. He went 6-13 with a 4.27 ERA in 26 starts with the big club.
Another recent signee, right-hander Carlos Villanueva, figures to be a spot starter and a long reliever.
The core group:
Another Epstein/Hoyer buzzword is "core," as in the Cubs' core of players.
Two of their younger core players will be making big steps this season: shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
Even though Castro came up in May 2010, he turns 23 on March 24. The Cubs have committed to him long term, and they hope he begins blossoming into a true star this season.
Castro has 1,783 major-league at-bats under his belt, but most intriguing were his first-half and second-half "splits" from last year.
Before the all-star break, Castro batted .291. His batting average dropped to .275 in the second half, but never mind. His on-base percentage went from .314 before the break to .332 after the break. He also walked 24 times in the unofficial second half of the season compared with 12 in the first half.
As for Rizzo, he knows the job is his now. He went to spring training with the big club last year only to be sent to Iowa. The Cubs wanted to get him more Triple-A at-bats, and the idea proved to be a good one. Rizzo combined to hit 38 home runs between Iowa and Chicago, with 15 coming with the big club after his late-June call-up.
If Castro and Rizzo take positive steps again this year, the future could look promising indeed.
The Cubs brought shortstop Javier Baez to Chicago in January for a "rookie camp" at Northwestern University.
The 20-year-old Baez was the Cubs' first-round draft choice in 2011, and the Cubs have talked of him being more advanced in the field at this age than was Castro at the same point.
That got fans atwitter about whether Baez could make the team with a good spring training.
The short answer is no.
As much as the Cubs like Baez, he has not played above Class A ball at Daytona, and the Cubs want him to get as many at-bats as possible. It's true that Castro made the jump to the big club at age 20, but the circumstances were quite different, and there's no reason to rush Baez.
There will be some interesting young players in camp. Junior Lake gives the Cubs three young shortstops, with Castro and Baez. At some point, somebody will have to switch positions.
Infielder Logan Watkins had a line of .281/.422/.383 at Class AA Tennessee last year, and his on-base ability has to be attractive to this management group.
There's no doubt the Cubs would like to trade closer Carlos Marmol, who enters the final year of his contract.
This past fall, a proposed deal with the Angels for starting pitcher Dan Haren fell through over concerns about Haren's health.
Marmol became even more expendable when the Cubs signed Japanese reliever Kyuji Fujikawa, who has closing experience.
"Marmol's the closer," said manager Dale Sveum. "Fujikawa will have the eighth inning, and probably mix and match in the seventh. The one thing we have in the bullpen is a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things."
If a contender's closer suffers an injury during spring training, Marmol could be gone before Opening Day. If not, the Cubs will almost certainly move him by the July 31 trading deadline if they are out of the race.
The rest of it:
There are precious few roster battles to be won during spring training, what with a veteran club.
That doesn't mean there won't be interesting little things to watch. Third baseman Josh Vitters and center fielder Brett Jackson seem like forgotten men after struggling at the plate following their August call-ups.
Both appear to be ticketed for Iowa. But Jackson has said he plans on making the club. Ian Stewart has been brought back at third base, but if he struggles, things could get interesting there, with Luis Valbuena holding the fort until Vitters is deemed ready.
Veteran Dioner Navarro has the inside track as the backup catcher to Welington Castillo. That seems to leave Steve Clevenger out in the cold, but the left-handed hitting Clevenger might be able to win a spot as a pinch hitter and backup infielder.
Young pitchers Rafael Dolis and Alberto Cabrera showed flashes last year while suffering the inconsistencies of youth. There could be one or two bullpen spots for Dolis and Cabrera to grab.