With Spring Training in full gear, the Cubs upcoming lineup is becoming a bit clearer, with only a few question marks here and there. Lou Pinella has stated that he will be giving his regulars more rest to make sure they are fresh for the stretch run, so that will give opportunities to some of the other guys to show the boss that they belong. In this blog, I will take a look at each position, the starters and the backups, and see if I can make some sense out of what the Cubs have and still need to do before opening day.
Starter: Derrick Lee - While D-Lee will probably never match his 2005 numbers, he is still a lock to hit 20-25 home runs, drive in 90 runs, and produce a .360 OBP. I’ll take that from the first base position every year, especially with the supporting offense this team touts. Lee also still provides gold glove caliber defense and is a team leader in the clubhouse. Backup: Micah Hoffpauir – A younger version of Daryle Ward, Hoffpauir can earn playing time by producing as a backup to Lee and a solid left handed bat off the bench. He can also play the corner outfield spots, but don’t expect him to ever be Soriano’s defensive replacement.
Starter: Aaron Miles/Mike Fontenot – This is the one spot where the starter’s role is still up in the air. While Lou Pinella has given a tentative lineup that includes Miles, expect Fontenot to battle for that spot all throughout the spring. As of right now, both Miles and Fontenot are the projected backups for shortstop and third base respectively, so both should see quite a bit of playing time, unless Jim Hendry goes out and gets another utility infielder to help. Backup: the one who doesn’t start (also, Soriano can sub in an emergency).
Starter: Ryan Theriot – This guy’s not going anywhere. After posting a .307 average with a .387 OBP in 2008, I think the Cubs have their answer at this position for a number of years to come. He will never hit for power, but how many shortstops actually do? Hanley Ramirez is not available, so there’s no question that Theriot is the right man for the job. As long as he doesn’t run out of gas come September, he should be okay. Backup: Miles.
Starter: Aramis Ramirez – A mainstay since 2003, Ramirez is signed through 2012. His 2008 numbers were still impressive, and I expect another 25-30 homer season with 100+ RBIs and a .285 average. A-Ram may be moved down to the fifth spot in the order which may provide for even more RBI opportunities, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him top 120 if he stays healthy. He will get some time off, though, but his numbers shouldn’t suffer. Backup: Fontenot (yikes!) - I’m not sure I like this option, but as of now, there is no other choice.
Starter: Alfonso Soriano – Oh, please let this guy have a full, healthy season! Soriano missed 53 games last season but still led the team in home runs (29). What would happen if he made it through all of 2009 injury free? I’m foaming at the mouth just thinking of the possibility. He will never be a 40-40 guy again, but when he is on, he carries an offense on his shoulders. He has shown that in both of his Cub seasons. Defense is not his specialty, but he has a cannon for an arm, and can throw out base runners wherever they are headed. Backup: Hoffpauir, Reed Johnson and Joey Gathright – The outfield depth is very apparent, and when Pinella needs a late inning defensive replacement, he’s got Johnson and Gathright to turn to. How well the backups perform will ultimately determine how much playing time they get. I do, however, expect Johnson to get the most playing time, as he is considered the fourth outfielder who can sub at any of the three positions.
Starter: Kosuke Fukudome – As I have stated before, I am willing to see how this season plays out for Fukudome before labeling him a bust. He will play in the World Baseball Classic, and hopefully that will get his confidence back to where it needs to be. Defensively, he’s one of the best in all of the National League, but he needs to get it together at the plate if he wants to stay in the lineup. I think he can adjust and will have an improved offensive season, even if he hovers around the .275 mark. He is not going to be a power bat, and anyone who thinks he should obviously knew nothing about him when the Cubs signed him last season. Backup: Johnson, Gathright – Johnson is projected in an almost platoon role with Fukudome, again, depending on how the Japanese star fares in his second season.
Starter: Milton Bradley – Why Bradley, who has played more games in center field, is projected to take over in what is probably the most difficult right field in Wrigley Field is beyond me. Why not have Fukudome in right and Bradley in center? Perhaps Pinella is going to look at this and determine who belongs where before opening day. With Lou, anything’s possible. My main concern is the health of Bradley. We know that when healthy, his bat is lethal, and his defensive skills are not the worst out there (Adam Dunn and Bobby Abreu would have been brutal). Backup: Hoffpauir, Johnson and Gathright.
Starter: Geovany Soto – Last year’s National League Rookie of the Year will be tested in his second full season with the Cubs. Pinella has warned Soto that the league will adjust to him, and it is now up to Soto to adjust to the league if he wants to keep up. Last year he handled the pitching staff like a veteran, which helps him greatly going into this season. Losing his mentor, Henry Blanco, will hopefully not be a factor. Backup: Paul Bako or Koyie Hill – This one is a bit of a conundrum. Why not bring back Blanco? His leadership and guidance was something that is not easily replaced. Who cares if Bako is left handed? It doesn’t sound like he is even guaranteed to be the backup. If Hill outperforms him, he’s the one who’s in. I’m guessing that Bako signed a minor league deal, thus giving the Cubs the option of sending him to Iowa if Hill beats him out for the spot.
Starters: Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly, Rich Harden and Sean Marshall – Even without the addition of a certain San Diego import, this is one of the best rotations (on paper) in the National League. While Marshall hasn’t officially earned the fifth spot yet, I can’t imagine him not getting it unless he just doesn’t perform well in the spring (or gets injured). There are question marks about Zambrano’s shoulder, given how last year ended. Harden is penciled in for 25 starts (although he hopes to get 30). Can Dempster come close to repeating his 2008 regular season performance? You can pretty much count on Ted Lilly giving you innings and wins, even if his ERA hovers around 4.00. Overall, I think they’re looking good. Backups: Jeff Samardzija, Aaron Heilman, Chad Gaudin - The question now would be who spells Harden if he needs extended rest? Who is first to take over if an injury pops up? The Cubs do have depth and will be stretching several others out. Samardzija could start in Iowa just because of the bullpen depth, but also to keep him extended for when a spot start is needed. Gaudin started 34 games for the A’s in 2007, so it would not be a stretch for him to go back to that role. Heilman wants to be a starter, but he may be better served in the bullpen. Mitch Atkins and Randy Wells are starts in waiting, but I don’t expect to see them much, if at all, in 2009.
Obviously there are not starters and backups when it comes to relievers. As it stands, the Cubs will have a 1-2 punch at the end of their bullpen in Kevin Gregg and Carlos Marmol, with the closer to be determined during Spring Training. I fell Marmol is the closer of the future while Gregg will be a one year pickup. The Cubs do need to determine another late inning reliever. Newcomers Heilman and Luis Vizcaino could fill that role if one has an effective spring. Samardzija is a possibility, but I truly do not believe this will be his role this season (but I could be wrong). Neal Cotts is the primary left handed reliever and could be the only one if Marshall gets into the rotation. Mike Stanton, who is not on the 40-man roster, is at camp, and being left handed could give him a slight edge. I believe Gaudin will be the swingman/long reliever. Angel Guzman, Jose Ascanio and Kevin Hart are long shots, as are David Patton, the Rule 5 draft pick, and Jeff Stevens, one of the three pitchers acquired in the Mark DeRosa trade.
The biggest question mark for me right now is infield depth. By trading DeRosa and Ronny Cedeno, the Cubs are taking a huge risk should Ramirez get injured. Can Fontenot really handle third base? Could the Cubs perhaps benefit more from trying to get someone like Nomar Garciaparra who could backup all infield spots? Sure, Soriano could be used at second base if needed, but losing DeRosa created a big hole on this ballclub. Josh Vitters is a third baseman and the team’s highest ranking prospect, but it doesn’t look as if he is ready to make the jump right now.
The backup catcher spot is not decided, and the bullpen roles need to be solidified, but that’s what Spring Training is for. Let’s see who brings what to the table, and those spots will work themselves out. All in all, I like what this club brings to the table, especially given what the rest of the NL Central is bringing to their camps. The Cardinals are good but have several question marks, the Brewers lost their top two starters, the Astros did little to improve, the Reds have good starting pitching but not much else, and the Pirates are the Pirates.
Let the games begin!