Cubs in better spot? Sveum thinks so
MESA, Ariz. -- These players were in the opening-day lineup for the Cubs last year: Ian Stewart, Jeff Baker, Marlon Byrd and Geovany Soto.
Stewart will begin the 2013 season on the disabled list, and Baker, Byrd and Soto are gone.
Back is veteran David DeJesus, who is a solid presence, and Alfonso Soriano, who looks healthy and shows no sign of losing power. Also back -- and the Cubs hope a year older and a year better -- are Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney.
The Cubs trotted out what could be their opening-day lineup for Tuesday's 5-4 victory over the Texas Rangers at HoHoKam Park. Joining the 2012 holdovers were first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who came up last June, catcher Welington Castillo, third baseman Luis Valbuena and right fielder Nate Schierholtz, who will platoon with Scott Hairston.
The Cubs also have a backup catcher in Dioner Navarro, who can mentor Castillo and fellow young catcher Steve Clevenger, if Clevenger makes the team.
All of that has manager Dale Sveum feeling better about his starting eight position players than he did a year ago.
"One thing, we're able to put four left-handed hitters in the lineup against right-handed pitching," he said, noting DeJesus, Rizzo, Schierholtz and Valbuena. "We're able to spread that lineup out. Everybody on the field will be a two-way player. Everybody on the field is very capable defensively, a little bit more speed.
"We have a guy behind the plate who shuts the running game down. Both guys, actually. We just have a lot more working pieces this year than we did last year going in. Obviously, having Rizzo every day, another two-way player, good defensive player … It's a lot more workable lineup."
Soriano hit 32 homers last year and drove in a career best 108. Rizzo combined for 38 homers between the Cubs and Class AAA Iowa. DeJesus, the leadoff man, had a .350 on-base percentage, best among qualifying Cubs regulars last year.
What will be interesting to watch will be the progression made by Castro and Barney. Castro made some adjustments at the plate in the second half last year, drawing 24 of his 36 walks after the all-star break.
Barney, the Gold Glove winner for his work in the field at second base, saw his OBP dip to .299.
Sveum, however, kept preaching last year that young players need to pile up professional and major-league at-bats before they start putting up solid OBP and OPS numbers consistently year to year.
The progression is more likely to be incremental than happening in large jumps.
"I think you're asking too much for major jumps," Sveum said. "That's something that gradually comes about. I think they're both getting to that at-bat count where it starts happening.
"I think you definitely see it in Castro this spring. He's not really chasing a lot out of the zone. He's not premeditated swinging, in spring training anyway. You never know when the bell rings. He looks like a lot more mature hitter this spring than I've seen in the past."