From the Pages of Vine Line: Our Spring Training roster preview

RizzoDefense

(Photo by Stephen Green)

Major League Baseball’s offseason got off to a fast start roughly a week before the Winter Meetings began in December. There was an early rush that included address changes for multiple All-Stars; then marquee players like Robinson Cano and Clayton Kershaw nabbed record-setting contracts. And the frenzy stretched into late January this year as organizations, including the Cubs, awaited the decision of Japanese free agent Masahiro Tanaka, who eventually signed with the again-free-spending Yankees.

As for the Cubs’ roster? On paper, the squad looks quite similar to the one that wrapped up the 2013 campaign. Though that might worry some fans, especially after a 96-loss season, one of baseball’s youngest lineups should only improve with another year under its belt. Many members of the young Cubs core got their first full season at their respective positions in 2013, and that experience should pay dividends. Plus, the Cubs have one of the top farm systems in baseball, and many of those coveted players are getting closer to making their debuts at Wrigley Field.

“There’s room for improvement,” said Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. “There are a lot of talented players on the roster who didn’t have their best year. I know they’re really committed to the work they’re doing this offseason and to doing better this year. And we had guys who did have big breakthroughs last year, and they want to sustain that progress and build from there.”

The team also added depth at several positions and bolstered the bullpen. Last season, the rotation was good enough to win, but the team struggled to close things out. This offseason, they plugged Wesley Wright and closer Jose Veras into the back end of the ’pen, which should keep the squad in a lot more games.

To get you ready for the upcoming season, we go around the horn to see what the roster could look like as the Cubs open up the season in Pittsburgh in late March.

The Infield
Defensively, nobody plays the second-base position better than Darwin Barney. He captured a Gold Glove Award in 2012, and the 28-year-old had comparable numbers in 2013. But if Barney hopes to move into the Cubs core, the defense-first player is going to have to improve his offensive production. His on-base percentage and wins above replacement ranked worst of all qualifying NL second basemen last season.

“I think you have to remember that this game is hard, and that you’re not always going to play as well as you want,” Barney said. “Unfortunately, nothing came together last year, but I’m very confident that isn’t going to happen again.”

Logan Watkins, the Cubs’ 2012 Minor League Player of the Year, will continue his playing-time push at second and compete with the versatile Emilio Bonifacio and nonroster invitee Ryan Roberts for the extra infield spot.

Around the diamond, nobody’s job appears to be safer than first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s. Despite a dip in his slash line, the power numbers were pretty much as expected, including a position-leading 40 doubles. It’s easy to forget the 24-year-old just concluded his first full season in the majors, and the grind of a 162-game schedule might have gotten the best of him. The slugger’s numbers dipped midway through the year—he hit .210 in July and just .190 in August. But throw in his Gold Glove-caliber defense, and it’s safe to assume mistakes will be kept to a minimum on the right side of the infield.

The left side, however, has a few question marks surrounding its personnel. Sure, young veteran Starlin Castro will begin the season as the team’s shortstop. New manager Rick Renteria has gone out of his way to describe the great communication he’s had with the 23-year-old two-time All-Star, who is under contract for at least six more seasons. But it’s hard to ignore the production of top shortstop prospect Javier Baez, who has received plaudits from the front office, minor league experts and anyone else who has seen his lightning-fast, ultraviolent swing.

Depending on Castro’s production, as well as Baez’s continued development, the incumbent may have to eventually make way for baseball’s No. 4 prospect according to Baseball Prospectus, and shift to second or third. For now, the position is Castro’s to lose. He’s never been a patient hitter, but he’ll have to cut down on his 18.3 percent strikeout rate, which was second highest among qualifying NL shortstops last year. A simpler approach might be necessary to get the 2011 NL hits leader back to that level of success.

“I can’t really speak to what was the change or what transpired to cause how he approached his at-bats,” Renteria said of Castro’s offensive struggles in 2013. “But I can assure you that [the new coaches] are just looking to have Starlin Castro be himself and swing at good pitches.”

Third base is the grab-bag section of the Cubs infield. There are upward of five players who could realistically man the position at any point this season, and that doesn’t include the overflow from short. As it currently stands, the underrated duo of Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy should begin the year as a hot-corner platoon, with the left-handed Valbuena likely seeing more time. Despite a .230 batting average between the two, they combined for 23 homers, 23 doubles and a .327 on-base percentage last year.

Trade deadline acquisition Mike Olt also has an outside shot of breaking camp as the everyday third baseman if he can regain the form that once made him an untouchable prospect in the Rangers organization. But that will depend on whether he can put last year’s concussion- and allergy-related eye issues behind him and show the power/defense combination that got him all the way to the major leagues with Texas in 2012.

Catcher
The first full season of the Welington Castillo era was a resounding success. The 26-year-old backstop exceeded expectations offensively while serving as one of the finest defensive catchers in the game. At the January Cubs Convention, pitching coach Chris Bosio and catching instructor Mike Borzello both took time to praise Castillo’s work ethic and the strides he made over the course of the year.

Typically, catchers don’t get to call their own games until they have years of experience, but Castillo picked up the ins and outs of the position so quickly—and so impressed Bosio with his ability to dissect the scouting report—that he had free rein on pitch selection in 2013. According to baseball website Fangraphs, he also posted 19 defensive runs saved, tops at the catcher position and sixth best for any player in the NL.

Former Royal George Kottaras will replace Dioner Navarro, who signed with Toronto this offseason, as the club’s backup backstop. Though Kottaras is only a career .214 hitter, he is a base-on-balls machine, drawing walks in 14 percent of his 820 career plate appearances. He should be a good addition for a team that had the third-lowest on-base percentage in the game last season.

The Outfield
Much like the infield, the outfield appears to be pretty well set, at least for Opening Day.

Expectations are high for 30-year-old right fielder Nate Schierholtz, a 2013 free-agent signee who opened eyes in the Cubs outfield last year. He led all of the team’s returning outfielders in WAR and nearly doubled his career home run total with 21, though he’s significantly better against right-handers (.262 average and 20 homers against righties vs. .170 against lefties).

It’s also a safe assumption that Junior Lake will get plenty of regular playing time in left field this season. Thanks to his slightly surprising but solid major league debut in mid-July, fans are expecting big things from the Dominican, who will turn 24 four days before the season opener. If Lake can cut down on his strikeout rate of 26.8 percent, it will bode well in other categories. His 27.8 percent line-drive rate ranked second in the NL among players with 250 plate appearances, and his .377 batting average on balls in play ranked third among NL outfield rookies. If Lake can cut his K total down, even to just his career minor league average of 23.8 percent, he could finish with a near .300 average.

The biggest offensive acquisition this offseason came in the form of Justin Ruggiano, a 31-year-old former Marlin with the ability to man all three outfield spots. Traded from Miami during the Winter Meetings for Brian Bogusevic, Ruggiano adds much-needed right-handed pop to the lineup and could form an effective platoon with Schierholtz. The lifetime .251 hitter had a career-high 18 homers last season and looks to improve on that total now that he is away from the spacious Marlins Park, where he hit only three dingers in 2013.

“I don’t think it can get much tougher [as a] ballpark than Miami,” Ruggiano said. “I’ve seen so many balls go 420-plus feet and go for doubles. [Wrigley Field] is going to be a good park to hit at.”

Ryan Sweeney, who re-upped this offseason to stay on the North Side, could see a lot of playing time in center field. Sweeney got off to a fast start in 2013, hitting .295/.342/.527 in 44 games before fracturing a rib trying to make a play on June 29. Though his return was less than stellar, he is a singles machine. More than 20 percent of his at-bats have resulted in singles since he started playing regularly with Oakland in 2008. That ranks 21st of all players during that time.

Ryan Kalish, Darnell McDonald and former NL Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan will compete with prospects Brett Jackson and Matt Szczur for a potential fifth outfield spot.

The Rotation
The starting rotation was undoubtedly the strong point of last season’s squad, as fans saw many young talents evolve with more playing time and higher inning totals. But the byproduct of two active trade deadlines under Epstein and Hoyer has been a lack of depth. Though the Cubs fell short in the bidding war for Japanese ace Tanaka, they did make a few under-the-radar acquisitions, adding Jason Hammel and James McDonald late in the offseason, that should serve them well.

Former manager Dale Sveum tabbed Jeff Samardzija as the squad’s Opening Day starter in 2013, and the power arm fought to live up to that honor all year. Though his 8-13 record and 4.34 ERA were not what Samardzija or Cubs fans had hoped for out of a No. 1 starter, he did strike out 214 hitters, reach 213.2 innings and complete an entire season for the first time as a starter. His 9.01 strikeouts per nine innings were fifth in the NL, and his cumulative strikeout total was good for fourth.

“I really feel like last year was a big learning process, coming off starting 30 times the year before and, before that, throwing 80 innings of relief. I really feel like I had to adjust myself toward the end of the year,” Samardzija said. “I think you look at August and July, and they weren’t great. You look at my September, and I really liked my September and how I finished.”

Though Samardzija slotted in as the ace last year, nobody put up a better season in the rotation than left-hander Travis Wood. The Cubs’ lone All-Star representative was as consistent as it came, going at least six innings in 26 of his 32 starts and making it into the fifth inning on all but two occasions. His 3.11 ERA was good for 12th in the NL, and he kept his team in a lot of games with his 6.9 percent home run-to-fly ball ratio, fifth best in the NL.

After signing a four-year, $52 million contract last offseason, Edwin Jackson will need to step up in his second year in Cubbie blue. Though he showed glimpses of the top-end guy the Cubs hoped he’d be last year, Jackson’s ERA ballooned to one of the worst in baseball, and his 18 losses led the NL.

The good news is E-Jax has dealt with adversity before, having been traded six times in a five-year period. At 30 years old, he has already been around the game for 11 major league seasons and has earned a reputation as a solid workhorse. The last time he finished with such a high ERA, he cut the total down by well over a run the following season.

A newcomer to the fray, right-hander Hammel adds some veteran experience to the rotation. The Cubs signed the 31-year-old, who was Baltimore’s Opening Day starter a year ago, to a one-year deal on Jan. 31. Hammel got off to a fast 7-2 start in 2013, despite a 4.98 ERA during that time. However, he dropped his next six starts and spent more than a month on the DL with a forearm injury. When he returned, he was inserted into Baltimore’s bullpen.

Many predict a successful first half for Hammel could lead to a trade, similar to what happened with Scott Feldman a year ago. Looking at the right-hander’s career splits, he could make a perfect midseason trade candidate, as he has proven to be significantly better in the first half (36-30, 4.47 ERA, 1.40 WHIP in the first half vs. 13-29, 5.29 ERA, 1.49 WHIP post-All-Star break).

Jake Arrieta looks to slot into the final spot despite and while he had arm issues as camp got underway, he comes off a successful spell with the North Siders in 2013. The once highly touted prospect came over in the Scott Feldman deal, and gave up one run or fewer in five of his nine starts to finish his Cubs run 4-2 with a 3.66 ERA.

That should give the Cubs a solid (and hard-throwing) front five, but the team also has some depth behind them, with lefty Chris Rusin and right-handers Justin Grimm and Carlos Villanueva. Rusin came up after the Cubs parted ways with Matt Garza in July and made 13 late-season starts. Though he definitely faded in the last month, he showed he has the ability to get major league hitters out.

Grimm, one of the arms exchanged for Garza, was told to prepare to compete for a starting job prior to Spring Training. Despite having just 19 career major league starts, the 25-year-old has an effective fastball/cutter combination and is still viewed as a solid prospect going forward.

Villanueva will serve as a nice cushion for the Cubs, who know exactly what they’ll get out of the 30-year-old swingman. He won a starting job out of Spring Training in 2013 and was great in April (2.29 ERA, .171 OBA) before stepping in to stabilize the bullpen. If Villanueva doesn’t win a rotation spot, he’ll likely serve as a long reliever while Grimm and Rusin are sent to Triple-A to hone their skills in the I-Cubs’ rotation.

The Bullpen
If the rotation was the strong point last year, the bullpen was definitely its weaker counterpoint. Cubs relievers finished with a 4.04 ERA, a 1.35 WHIP (both 13th in the NL), 26 blown saves and 210 walks (both 14th in the NL).

The front office spent the early part of the offseason overhauling the ’pen, adding closer Veras as the group’s centerpiece.

“I think we’re bringing [Veras] in because I have confidence that he can follow through in the ninth inning. That’s a special inning in baseball,” Renteria said. “Obviously you guys have seen in times past that there have been particular issues in that particular inning.”

The 33-year-old finished last year with a 3.02 ERA and converted 21 of 25 save opportunities between stints in Houston and Detroit. He also brought his WHIP down nearly half a point from 2012 to an impressive 1.07, while striking out a respectable 8.6 batters per nine innings.

Pedro Strop should continue to improve since his July arrival via trade. The right-hander got off to a rough start to open the year in Baltimore, but finished with a 2.83 ERA, a 0.94 WHIP and 10.8 K/9 over 35 innings with the Cubs. He fits the mold of a two-pitch, late-innings power arm, and could spell Veras in the closer’s role if needed.

James Russell will again operate as the top lefty in the ’pen—but this year, he won’t be the lone lefty, thanks to the acquisition of free agent Wesley Wright. Though Russell gave the club all it could ask for in the first half of 2013, pulling into the All-Star break with a 2.78 ERA, the southpaw was plagued by overuse down the stretch.

Wright should help ease the load this season. The veteran lefty uses a combination of a two-seamer and a slider to get batters out, and he fanned 55 hitters over 53.2 innings in 2013.

Aside from Arodys Vizcaino—who hasn’t pitched since 2011 because of complications following Tommy John surgery—and possibly Villanueva, there are a number of arms who could compete for the final bullpen spots, including Alberto Cabrera, Blake Parker, Justin Grimm, Hector Rondon and Zac Rosscup. Last year’s big free-agent acquisition Kyuji Fujikawa should also be back in the mix by the All-Star break.

Down the Line
For the past two-plus years, Epstein and Hoyer have been preaching patience. Just one look at the Spring Training invitee list is proof positive that the club’s patience is close to paying off. The five biggest offensive prospects will all be in attendance to start the preseason, including the aforementioned Baez.

Kris Bryant will likely begin the year as Double-A Tennessee’s third baseman, but he could really push Valbuena, Murphy and Olt in camp. Though his professional career just started late last year, the game’s No. 17 prospect (Baseball Prospectus) has hit at every stop along the way, including in the Arizona Fall League. A productive half season of minor league ball could have him knocking on Wrigley Field’s door by the end of the season.

Another name to keep an eye on at the hot corner is Christian Villanueva, a return from the Ryan Dempster deal with Texas in 2012. Villanueva will start the season at Triple-A Iowa, but most scouts believe the plus defender could excel at third base right now. The only questions in the past have surrounded his bat, but an impressive offensive campaign in 2013, in which he showed strong doubles power and drove in runs, opened eyes around the game.

Infielder Arismendy Alcantara started gaining recognition after his scorching first half at Double-A Tennessee in 2013 and his productive Futures Game performance, in which he hit a homer for the International side. Though he’ll begin 2014 at Triple-A, the five-tool player could give Barney a run for his money at the keystone sooner rather than later.

A year from now, we might be having similar conversations about top outfield prospects Albert Almora and Jorge Soler. Though hopes of seeing the two manning the Wrigley outfield when camp breaks are a little premature, the duo will get an opportunity to impress in spring camp before being sent to their respective minor league destinations.

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