The positional previews continue with the infielders tonight, and will be capped off over the course of the weekend with the rotation, the bullpen, and the coaching staff.
The infield probably offers the most stable portion of the roster, with a wealth of young talent and players who have staked claims on positions as pieces to build around. Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and Darwin Barney all appear to be locked into their positions, at least for a few more years. Wellington Castillo is a talent who could make his claim to the catcher position, and there are some intriguing prospects who could lay claim to the hot corner.
Catcher: Wellington Castillo, Dioner Navarro
I list both Castillo and Navarro because no catcher plays everyday. The most physically demanding position on the diamond requires two players who can handle the job effectively. This season, Wellington Castillo has the opportunity to stake his claim to the job as the primary back stop. Being guided by veteran, and 2008 All-Star, Dioner Navarro was one of the better moves the front office made this off-season. Navarro has history with Matt Garza and has been around long enough to be a calming and guiding influence on the young, talented Castillo. The talent aspect is what jumps out about Castillo. Bruce Levine posted a great article for ESPNChicago today about Castillo, and quoted one NL scout saying, “As a hitter he makes hard contact and has plenty of power. The only thing you aren’t sure of when you watch him is how he calls a game. Last fall they had so many below par starters that I could not evaluate his game calling skills.” Without spoiling the rest of the article, it goes on to talk about how it’s tough to judge Castillo’s ability to call a game because of the pitchers he was working with last year as the season came to a close. I tend to disagree with that a little, because he got reps with those pitchers in Iowa, but there is something to be said about major league experience. Either way, Castillo is mighty talented, and has a chance to solidify himself as the catcher of the future this season.
First Base: Anthony Rizzo
Two things jumped out at me about Anthony Rizzo since his call-up. The first was that he is a terrific defender at first. The second actually happened at the Cubs Convention this year when I really got to see him up close, and that is how big he is. He looks about as well put together as any baseball player I can think of. His hitting is tremendous, but he was known for that when he came over from the Padres. This season is going to be a challenge for Rizzo. How will he fare in Wrigley when the wind is blowing in and it’s cold? How will he adjust to the adjustments being made for him? I can speculate that he’ll be fine, and it is my guess that he will be. If he prepares and plays hard, his at-bats should continue to be positive. I am not sold that he will double his numbers from last season and become a 30 HR/ 100 RBI guy this season. I do think he will hit between 25 and 30 home runs, though, and probably drive in 80-90 runs. Those are Derek Lee type numbers, and he has a Derek Lee type glove, so we’ll take it…all while trying to remember he turns 24 this August.
Second Base: Darwin Barney
I’m not even going to hide it…I love Darwin Barney. I love that he hustles. I love that he takes pride in his defense. I love that he thinks the team can go to the playoffs this season. I love it all. I don’t even mind his career .305 on-base percentage. I’m not saying I would mind seeing that come up some, but I don’t even see it as that big of a problem for a guy who will likely be hitting in the lower third of the order. I do believe some of his on-base issues are with hitting so low in the order. A guy hitting in front of the pitcher with an offense like the Cubs had last season wasn’t going to get any free passes, and was going to get attacked. That shows in his numbers from last season against his numbers from his previous work in the bigs. If his offense rebounds at all, and he defends his Gold Glove, he will be the same steady player you’re used to seeing.
Third Base: Ian Stewart
I’m still going with Stewart here because it’s been a week and nobody is grabbing the bull by the horns and taking the job this spring. Brent Lillibridge is not going to be the every day third baseman. Luis Valbuena had a great winter and has started off well this spring, but I think everyone who has a say in the matter knows that he is a utility player. Josh Vitters has the same problems he had last season and seems ticketed for Iowa to work on his hitting and defense. Junior Lake is built like a third baseman, but hasn’t done anything to prove he deserves to be in Chicago, yet. It may be Ian Stewart’s job to win, but it’s not like anyone else has grabbed the bull by the horns and taken the spot. My feeling is, when Stewart gets back into action this spring, if he shows anything at the plate, and shows he is still the good athlete that Dale Sveum liked at third last season, he will be there on Opening Day. And he should be. The Cubs gave up a lot to bring him in. The sample size he showed last season is not anywhere close to enough to determine is he is a bust.
Shortstop: Starlin Castro
Entering his fourth big league season, the veteran of the group is the nearly 23 year old Starlin Castro. He hit .283 last year, and seems genuinely upset about it. That is a scary good thought. If he can be the .300 hitter he was in his first two seasons, increase his power to the extent that everyone seems to think he can, and keep the steady improvement of his defense going, he is going to be a lock for the All-Star team he’s already made twice. Don’t be fooled by his error totals, either. A number of those were early last season. And after the San Francisco debacle, his attentiveness improved dramatically throughout the season. As the only player to go all 162 last season, I would expect nothing less than continued improvement*.
*If you’re on the “he’s a bum and it’s time to trade him” wagon, you’re an idiot. Starlin Castro might be the best young shortstop in the game, and he’s 22. He’s not anywhere close to his prime, so I will repeat myself…when that kid grows up, he’s going to be really, really, really good.*
Bench: Luis Valbuena, Brent Lillibridge
Both of these guys offer quite a bit of versatility, but neither is an attractive option at first base. Lillibridge is a super-utility player, who can play all over the infield and can give you some innings in the corner outfield, also. Dale Sveum loves his versatility, so I expect him to break camp with the major league team. Valbuena is similar in that he can play second, short, and third. He’s another nice piece off the bench who is capable of giving a regular a day off. First base is likely to be backed up by Castillo and Navarro because there really is nobody else. Lillibridge can do it, but being 5’11” makes him a bit short for the job.