Once again spring is in the air, and baseball fans are gearing up for another season in the sun. With Spring Training games getting underway, that familiar itch to see my Cubs vie for the all elusive World Series title is beginning to settle in. However, a few questions still need to be answered before the Big League team moves north. As with all Major League teams, the Cubs have a few holes which need to be addressed and a few scenarios that need to be played out this spring. Manager Lou Piniella will have to answer these questions before he and the Cubs can begin the defense of their National League Central Division crown, and hopefully bring home their first World Series Championship in a century.
With that, I give you the Chicago Cubs 2008 Spring Training preview.
Question 1: Who will be in the starting rotation?
Unlike last year when there was really only the fifth spot in the rotation open, the Cubs have two slots they need to fill. They are in the envious position of having four quality pitchers with which to choose from however. We already know Carlos Zambrano is a lock for the number one spot, and it has already been announced he will make his fourth straight Opening Day start on March 31st. Ted Lilly has already been penciled in for the second spot in the rotation, but after that it gets tricky. Rich Hill is guaranteed a spot, but instead of being the third starter, Piniella has said he wants a right hander in-between Lilly and Hill in the rotation to break up the two lefties. This means Ryan Dempster, Jon Lieber, and or Jason Marquis will be the third starter. The two out of that trio who lose out on that position will then compete with Sean Marshall for the fifth and final in the starting rotation.
Piniella has come out and said he likes the way Dempster looks and how he is throwing the ball. The question with Dempster, who has been the team’s Closer the last few seasons, will be a matter of arm strength and stamina. Supposedly Dempster spent the off-season getting ready for his transition back to being a starting pitcher. Lieber is recovering from injuries which forced him to cut his season short a year ago. He has also had arm trouble in the past, and has had trouble staying healthy in recent seasons. He did have his career best years in a Cubs uniform however, and was the last Cubs pitcher to win twenty games when he was 20-6 back in 2001. Marquis has recently fallen out of favor with Piniella for comments made about what would happen if he was not in the starting rotation. According to reports, Marquis has said if he does not win a spot as a starter with the Cubs, he would want out of Chicago. Marshall is recovering from injuries of his own, and is still unproven at the Major League level with only 43 starts under his belt.
I predict Jon Lieber and Ryan Dempster will win the two open spots in the Cubs rotation. I think Dempster has the real opportunity to shine here and will even win the third spot with Lieber then becoming the fifth starter. I think the Cubs are unhappy with Marquis and now that he has gained the ire of manager Lou Piniella, he is not long for this team. The Cubs would love to jettison Marquis hefty salary even if they had to eat some of it in the process. Marshall is being used as trade bait, and if he is not moved before Opening Day, will start the season at Triple A. He will more than likely be the first call up if any one of the starting five goes down with an injury.
Question 2: Who will be the Closer?
With Ryan Dempster stepping out of the bullpen and trying to win a spot in the starting rotation, the Cubs Closer position is currently vacant. The three pitchers trying to win that job are Kerry Wood, Bob Howry, and Carlos Marmol. Howry has been a bullpen mainstay throughout his career and does have experience as a Closer both with the White Sox and the Cubs. Marmol came out of nowhere last year to stabilize the Cubs bullpen and become one of the premier set up men in all of Baseball. Wood’s story is well know to Cubs fans by now, and since his days as a starter appear to be over, has shown he does have some value coming out of the bullpen.
In all honesty, I think the Closer’s role is Kerry wood’s to lose. Though Marmol has the stuff and Howry has the experience, I believe everyone in the Cubs organization would like to see Wood step up and prove he can do the job. Marmol is young and does have shut don stuff and a near unhittable pitch when his slider is working. I think with him however, it’s a question of confidence at this stage in his career. Plus, I believe Piniella loves having a go-to-guy like Marmol he can bring in during the 7th and 8th inning of a close ballgame. Howry could win out however if wood has a poor showing this spring.
Wood seems to have the inside track and all the momentum in his favor. Reports say he is looking good, and Piniella himself commented he liked the way Wood was throwing the ball. The real question here is can Kerry stay healthy. Will he have the ability to throw in back to back days as Closers are often asked to do? Wood definitely has the confidence and right mental approach to be an effective Closer; I’m just not sure his stuff is as dominant as he will need it to be. What would be a better feel good story though, than if Kerry Wood can become a shout down Closer and help lead the Cubs back into the Playoffs and possibly beyond.
Question 3: Who is in Center?
Right now the only two candidates for this job are Felix Pie and Sam Fuld. This could change however before the Cubs break camp and head for the Friendly Confines. Pie is a highly touted prospect that did get some playing time last year and showed flashes of his ability. Fuld was also a late season call-up who impressed many with his defense more than he did with his bat. Even though the Cubs and Piniella want us to believe there is a competition between these two for the starting Center Field position, there is no real contest. Felix Pie is going to get every opportunity to prove he has what it takes to be an every day Major League ball player.
Sam Fuld has gained in popularity with the fans for his willingness to sacrifice his body to make the circus style catches that get replayed on ESPN; he does not scare anybody with his bat however. He reminds me of former Cub Doug Dascenzo in that he will probably catch everything hit into the outfield, but will never be able to get on base enough to make him a viable option. He would make a decent fourth outfielder and a great late inning defensive replacement, but does not have what it takes to play everyday.
As of now, that leaves Pie as the Cubs Opening Day Center Fielder. The real question is will he be able to turn into the Kenny Lofton type hitter the Cubs want him to be or will he continue to strike out at an alarming rate trying to prove he is a home run hitter. The way the Cubs lineup looks at this point, Pie would hit eighth in the order which is not going to work in his favor. Piniella will probably be happy if Pie can hit in the.260 – .270 range and get on base where he can then utilize his great speed, but if Pie stays in the.210 – .220 range where he has been in his brief Major League career so far, Pie will find himself on the bench or back in the minors while the Cubs look for a solution elsewhere.
On a side note, there have already been rumors that the Cubs are looking for a right handed hitting outfielder they could platoon with pie in Center. Marlon Byrd’s name has been mentioned more than once, and seeing the list of free agents still looking for work, it is not out of the realm of possibility the Cubs could bring in a veteran player. Until then however, and barring an injury, Felix Pie will be the Chicago Cubs starting Center Fielder on Opening Day.
Other than the above mentioned items, there are a number of other concerns which fans of Chicago’s Northsiders might want to keep an eye on as well.
First off is Kosuke Fukudome. His spring will be spent getting acclimated to his new surroundings, the media frenzy of the Japanese press, and doing his best to learn a new League. His is also coming off an elbow injury which required surgery. It will be interesting to see how well he adjusts to the American game. Hopefully he will have a good spring which will go along way towards proving he can be a Major League star in the States as well as his native Japan.
Are the Cubs going to make a deal for Brian Roberts? This is a trade that has been rumored as far back as last season. With Derosa’s heart concerns over the recent weeks, the rumors have heated up once again. Roberts, a former All Star with the Orioles, would provide a much needed left handed bat and would fit nicely into the second spot in the batting order. This would also provide some back-up if Pie cannot find his stroke at the Major League level as Piniella could slide Fukudome to Center and move Derosa into Right Field. If this deal does not get done within the first couple of weeks of the Spring Training games however, then it is unlikely t happen.
Who is going to be the odd man out in the back-up infielder battle between Alex Cintron, Ronny Cedeno, and Mike Fontenot? This could get answered quickly if the Brian Roberts trade gets done as Ronny Cedeno has been rumored to be a part of that deal. Piniella likes versatile players who he can plug in at several different positions. This is going to make it hard for Fontenot who is limited to second base. He has a good bat and is a good option off the bench as a pinch hitter, but that might not be enough to make the club. He could also be packaged in a deal at some point as well. Cedeno has been a disappointment in all facets of the game with the Cubs so far in his career. He can second base, shortstop, some third, and even played some outfield in winter ball and this gives him some value. Alex Cintron however, is a proven Major League commodity, and is extremely versatile in where he can play. He is perfect for what Piniella likes to do, and though he was only signed to a Minor League contract, I have to believe it was with the idea he would definitely make the club. If Piniella decides to take two of these guys to Chicago with the team, then Fontenot will likely find himself starting the year at Triple A Iowa.
With the start of another baseball season right around the corner, Chicago Cubs fans are gearing up for another run at the Playoffs. Wanting to build off last year’s success, Manager Lou Piniella is hoping to end the 100 year drought which has plagued Cubs fans and bring a World Series Championship back to the Chicago National League Ball Club. First, however, he will have to answer several important questions concerning his pitching staff as well as figuring out which players are suited to what roles. That is, after all, what Spring Training is for, and so I am sure Cubs fans will be watching closely to see what unfolds as their beloved Cubs get ready for the 2008 Major League season.