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.
Today’s game marked the first quarter of what has been a very down and up and down again 2012 season. Therefore, I find now to be a perfect time for the obligatory blog entry with premature grades and analysis of 41/162 games.
- Bryan LaHair has proven to be a worthy and able first baseman during the first quarter of the season. He’s hit for power, average, taken his walks, and done a respectable job manning first base in the field. While he is not the gold glove that Derek Lee or Carlos Pena had proven to be in their tenures with the Cubs, he is making the plays he is supposed to make. His bat is the important thing, though, and with talk of an Anthony Rizzo call
up potentially coming in the next few weeks, his bat could force a shuffle of the outfield. He could force the energetic Tony Campana to the bench to make room for David DeJesus in center, while he moves to right field. The takeaway is that he is swinging a strong enough bat to force another player out of the line up if and when Rizzo arrives, and that is a major positive for the Cubs’ offense.
- Tony Campana has been a spark since joining the roster and getting regular playing time. I know I took a cheap shot at Nyjer Morgan in an earlier post, but after watching Campana a little more, I don’t think he is a Morgan type as much as he is a Juan Pierre type of player. His range and versatility in the outfield is excellent, and he has found his swing this season, keeping the ball on the ground and slapping hits all over the park more than he did last season. With his speed, those are the things he needs to do to be a successful player in the majors. In the games in which he’s played, he has been mightily successful.
- The starting pitching has been fantastic, for the most part. With Chris Volstad being sent to Iowa, the one real weakness has been removed. Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, and Paul Maholm have all been very good with only a few rough outings among them. Samardzija, Dempster, and Maholm were all asked to pitch in the Wrigley bam box this weekend, and all did a respectable job. There were no cheap home runs off of Maholm today, but he limited the damage to solo home runs and kept the team in the game. Ryan Dempster gave up back to back home runs that were completely wind aided. Both of those are harmless fly balls on a normal day. I can’t fault a guy for giving up a fly ball that the wind carries just into the basket. Especially one that has been as dominant as Dempster this season. Unfortunately, none of the three were rewarded with wins. Actually, the starters only have 10 wins to this point. They deserve more. They have been excellent.
- The defense gets an honorable mention in the good because it has been. Starlin Castro’s eight errors are kind of misleading. Overall, his defense, notably his throwing, have been much better. The work in spring has very much benefited Starlin in the early going, and it seems as though he is moving in the right direction. The same can be said about Darwin Barney, who is a converted short stop. Alfonso Soriano, for as much as we ride him has also been much, much better. He makes all of the plays he is supposed to make and has been better in his paths to the ball how he plays the ball of the wall. Lately, he has been hampered with a leg injury that has made his defense suffer a little bit, but he is probably an average defender in left thus far, and that is a vast improvement over the last few seasons. Ian Stewart and David DeJesus have been as advertised with their gloves. They have been excellent at their respective positions.
- Joe Mather. The man is another Reed Johnson type that is always ready and can play anywhere he’s needed. That’s a valuable commodity in baseball, and he has provided steady and consistent play whenever Dale Sveum has called on him. He is turning into a very nice addition to the bench and is earning himself more playing time.
- Only the Toronto Blue Jays have walked more batters than the Chicago Cubs. So, while the .239 batting average against Cubs’ pitching is good for 8th in baseball, the walks have been a huge problem and need to come down. Many of those walks have come late in games by the bullpen. Carlos Marmol is tied for the team lead with Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija with 16. It is to be expected that the starters would walk more batters because they throw a significant number more innings, and for the most part, the starters have been solid in the BB category. The problems are with the pen. Marmol has 16 in 11.1 innings pitched. Rafael Dolis has 11 in 24 innings, Kerry Wood had 11 in his 8.1 innings before retirement this weekend, and James Russell has 10 in 17.1 innings. That’s 48 walks out of the late inning relief pitching, in 61.1 innings. Way too many…and a very big reason why the Cubs have 6 saves and 8 blown saves through 41 games.
- The rash of injuries to the catchers has been devastating and mind blowing. At current, Geovany Soto, Steve Clevenger, and Wellington Castillo are all banged up. That leaves the Cubs with the newly reacquired Koyie Hill and rookie Blake Lalli to serve is the back stops for a young bullpen. Hill is a veteran that has experience with the Cubs and is a reliable defensive catcher. He was an excellent addition with the onslaught of injuries to the catchers. Before the injuries, the catchers were fine. Geo got off to a slow start, but his bat was coming around as he was hitting some balls hard. Clevenger was said to have a “slump proof swing” by Manager and former Hitting Coach Dale Sveum. The catchers were not winning the team any games, but not costing them too many, either. Soto had two of his four errors in one inning, neither of which were his fault because Rodrigo Lopez should have fielded both balls, and Clevenger and Castillo each have a passed ball. Other than that, 2 errors for Soto in his other 27 games and doing a good job with the new and young pitchers. The catching has been about average, and lands in the bad category because all of that average catching is injured and has given way to reacquired veterans and rookie call ups.
- More about the walks, this time for the hitters. 105 in 41 games is good for 26th in baseball. The lack of patience at the plate has led to some quick innings, which don’t allow the team to see the weakest part of the bullpen…the middle relief. Any pitcher that is in middle relief is not the cream of the bullpen because if they were, they’d be starting, setting up, or closing. Unfortunately, the Cubs have only see starters, set up guys, and closers because there is almost no need to pull the starter for pitch count. Dale’s edict to take the first pitch, unless you can hit it a country mile has not brought about the patient approach the team needs. There have been some ugly swings and misses at pitches there is no chance at hitting. Bryan LaHair, David DeJesus, Ian Stewart, and Geovany Soto are the only guys in double figures. Guys like Starlin Castro, Alfonso Soriano, and Darwin Barney (who has 9 BB this season) should be in double figures. They get enough at bats that they should be seeing more free passes. They’re there for the taking…and the offense would benefit from a few gift base runners.
- I’ve spoken on the schedule before, so this will be brief. The games against good and surging teams have been a constant in the early going. Fortunately, the Houstons, Pittsburghs, and San Diegos are all right in front of the Cubs right now. This is a golden opportunity to win some games against some teams that the Cubs are better than. There is room for a better mark than 15-26 at the quarter pole, but many of those teams are, frankly, better than we are. I am not stunned that the record is 11 under right now because I would have looked at the schedule and thought it about right for this team against that schedule. The surge that we saw before the current 6 game skid is promising. I expect that to happen again this season, and to happen with a little more consistency as the season continues. That’s it for the ugly, though…tough schedule that led to some very up and down results.