Spring Training is coming. In a few days, pitchers and catchers will be reporting.
For Cubs fans, that means it's time to finalize travel plans to Mesa, AZ. The closer to HoHoKam and Fitch Park, the better.
For all intents and purposes, the Cubs' roster is set. Peavy probably isn't coming and there aren't any free agents that seem likely to sign with the club.
In that light, it's time to take a look at the lineup with an eye towards Opening Day.
Last year ended in disappointment once again for Cubs fans.
Although giving up 17 runs in the first two games of the Division Series was abominable, a large portion of the credit for the Cubs' collapse fell upon the lineup's lack of left-handed hitters.
They obviously set out to change that this offseason.
Hendry traded away right-handed hitters Mark DeRosa and Ronny Cedeno, and didn't re-sign fellow righty Henry Blanco. In turn, he acquired left-handed hitters Joey Gathright and Paul Bako, and switch-hitters Aaron Miles and Milton Bradley.
Now, going into Spring Training, 11 of the 18 position players on the Cubs' 40-man roster hit left-handed or switch-hit. Out of the ten non-roster invitee position players, another five fit that description.
Now it's just a matter of figuring out who fits where or if they fit at all.
Two Men Out
Some players on the 40-man roster have almost no chance of being on the 25-man roster when camp breaks. Of the 18 position players, two find themselves in that situation.
Brad Snyder is a left-handed outfielder who was once a yearly fixture on Cleveland's top prospects list. He's athletic with a good arm and plus speed, but his offensive production has declined over the past two years.
With a good showing in Mesa and some production early in the regular season, he might get a call-up—just don't expect to see him against the Astros on Apr. 6.
Richie Robnett is a very similar player. Though never a member of Oakland's top-10 prospects list, Robnett still got some attention.
His talent has been raw since he was drafted out of Fresno State in 2004. Good speed, a plus arm, and a swing described as "picturesque" got him where he is today, but a lack of consistent contact and a propensity to strikeout are keeping him from his ultimate goal.
Over the course of his minor league career, he has struck out five times for every two walks. Twice he has reached 146 total strikeouts in a season, the only two seasons in which he had over 300 at bats.
Until he figures out how to fix his approach, he won't take up a big league roster spot.
There are two familiar names among the non-roster invitees: Luis Rivas and So Taguchi.
Rivas has shown an average to below average bat in the past with the ability to hit five to 10 home runs, but his defense is thought by many to be atrocious.
If he makes the club, it's because Lou Piniella thinks he can produce as the starter at second base. Since he's right-handed and hasn't had a productive season since 2004, his chances are minimal.
Taguchi has shown that he can hit around .270 when given some consistent at bats. Defensively, he takes great routes to the ball, but he's lost a step or two and has an arm that's average at best.
Of the two, Taguchi has the best shot for a roster spot because he could slot in as a fifth outfielder. Still, it would likely take multiple injuries for Taguchi to hang on.
Mark Johnson will also be on the outside looking in. A left-handed hitter, he'll be battling Bako and Koyie Hill for the backup catcher spot.
Since he's been able to hit for a decent average in the minors, don't count him out to make the club. From what I remember, he was a pretty good defensive catcher for the White Sox a few years back. If he still has that defensive ability, he could be a reasonable alternative.
Battle for the Backup Spot
Geovany Soto obviously has a stranglehold on the starting position, but the absence of Henry Blanco leaves a hole to fill behind the plate. He was not only a great defensive catcher, but was Soto's mentor and a decent bat off the bench.
Bako, 36, might be able to fill those shoes to some extent. A left-handed hitter and a good defensive catcher, he is most likely the favorite to take over the role at this point.
The problem? He might as well be swinging a piano leg.
Hill is pretty much the opposite. He hit .275 with 17 home runs in Iowa (AAA) last year. Although he did struggle at the plate when called up, he can still call a decent game from behind the dish.
But while most backup catchers are catch-and-throw guys, Hill could still use help with both. His receiving skills are said to be less-than-stellar and he has some trouble throwing out runners.
It should be an interesting battle. Ultimately, if one guy has a distinctly better Spring Training than the others, he'll probably win the job.
Meanwhile, Sam Fuld could be the ultimate sleeper for Cubs fans.
In the Venezuelan Winter League this year, Fuld hit .322 with five triples and four home runs in 199 at bats as his team's leadoff hitter. He also walked 36 times compared to only 20 strikeouts.
Some Cubs fans may even remember Fuld's name being tossed around heading into Spring Training last season. That's because he hit .402 with two triples and three home runs in 107 at bats in the Arizona Fall League at the end of 2007.
With 10 stolen bases, 17 walks, and only 15 strikeouts added to the statline, he claimed the AFL MVP award over players such as Evan Longoria, Matt LaPorta, Travis Snider, Blake DeWitt, and Phil Hughes.
If Fuld can take that kind of play into Spring Training, he could grab a spot in the outfield mix or supplant Kosuke Fukudome as the left-handed part of the centerfield platoon.
Jake Fox could also play a large part in the Cubs' plans. Last season, Fox hit .287 with 31 home runs and 105 RBI in 505 at-bats. He even stole seven bases.
In the previous two seasons, he hit 21 and 24 home runs. Strikeouts are a slight concern, but he's putting up good enough numbers to overlook them.
The best part? He can play the corners (1B, 3B, LF, RF) and has experience catching. With Aaron Miles available to play second base, shortstop, and centerfield when necessary, Fox could complete a tandem that would cover every position on the field.
The scenario that's been tossed around the most in regards to centerfield is one in which Kosuke Fukudome and Reed Johnson platoon.
In the end, that's probably what Piniella will do.
With the money that the Cubs are paying out to Fukudome, they're going to give him a shot to figure things out. He's good defensively, so even if he doesn't figure it out, it's not a complete loss.
Johnson can hit and play pretty good defense. The only reason he won't be a full time starter is because of his high energy style of play.
Joey Gathright can fly and hits from the left side. It's been awhile since I've seen him play, but he is supposedly a good defender, too.
If he can hit like he did in 2005 and 2007 (.276 and .307, respectively), he might be able to supplant Fukudome as part of the platoon. Otherwise, he's the favorite for the fifth-outfielder spot.
The player with the most to prove on the roster is easily Mike Fontenot. With a perceived need for a left-handed hitter and DeRosa in Cleveland, Fontenot finally has a shot to start.
He has shown that he can hit for average with a .291 average over the past two seasons. Last year, he hit 22 doubles and nine home runs in 243 at-bats. If he doesn't try too hard to hit for power, as he's been accused of in the past, he should make a good run at the job.
His only true competition will be Aaron Miles—a switch-hitter who is better defensively than Fontenot, as shown in part by his versatility across the field. Some would argue that he's a better hitter, too. Over the past two seasons, he's hit .303 in 793 at-bats (316 more than Fontenot).
I would argue otherwise. Fontenot has a better OBP and a much larger difference between his batting average and OBP. Consider, too, that Miles slugs nearly 100 points less than Fontenot.
This leads me to believe that Miles is not the better option offensively, especially for any consideration to be slotted second in the batting order.
The Lineup—What's Given
So what is the lineup going to look like come Apr. 6? Let's start with the guys we know will be starting.
In all likelihood, Alfonso Soriano will be leading off. Whether I agree or disagree with that move is a matter for another time.
Aramis Ramirez, coming off a season that earned him the Hank Aaron Award, will almost certainly hit in the cleanup spot. He was the cleanup hitter behind Derrek Lee in 2008 and Piniella has shown that he likes to keep players where they're comfortable.
Geovany Soto, 2008's Rookie of the Year and National League All-Star catcher, will more than likely move into the sixth spot in the order.
The third and fifth spots are going to be filled by Derrek Lee and Milton Bradley. Since the statistics of each player are surprisingly comparable, it is anyone's guess as to which player will hit in which spot.
Both players can be counted on for at least a .290 average and 20 home runs. Bradley has had a much better slugging percentage the past two seasons but can't be counted on for as many games. Lee steals more bases, but Bradley is most likely still the better runner of the two.
Ultimately, I believe that Lee gets moved down in the fifth spot. His inclination for hitting into double plays doesn't play well for the third spot and Geovany Soto could still provide some protection in the lineup in an attempt to slowdown his downturn in production.
That just leaves Ryan Theriot. His ability to make consistent contact would work in either the second or eighth spots. Which spot he hits in depends largely on who ends up playing second base.
The Lineup—Up In The Air
If Miles gets the nod at second base, Theriot can hit in either spot and, in my opinion, would stay in the second spot.
I personally believe that Fontenot will get the nod to start at second base, freeing Miles up to be available off the bench in any capacity and at any position. That would likely force Theriot down to eighth in the lineup against right-handed pitchers to avoid having back-to-back lefties at the bottom of the order.
If that were to happen, where Fontenot hits in the lineup would be dependent upon who starts in center against left-handed pitchers and how well that player is performing.
Fukudome is the most likely to be tabbed for that half of the platoon. Due to his struggles in the second half of last year, he would probably start out seventh and only move up to second if he played more like he did in the first months of 2008. That would put Fontenot in the second spot.
Gathright could probably end up in either spot of the order. He has speed which would help at the top of the order, but lacks the ability to get on base at a good enough rate.
Fuld is a longshot to make the team, but in the event that he works his way into the platoon, he could hit seventh or eighth.
The Reds and Cardinals will have entirely right-handed rotations, the Brewers and Astros should both have two left-handed starters, and the Pirates could have as many as four lefties.
The Pirates should be an interesting matchup for the Cubs. Last season, the Cubs were able to walk over the predominantly left-handed rotation on their way to a 14-4 record against.
This season, a rotation with Maholm, Snell, Gorzelanny, and Duke might not be so easy. They are talented young pitchers that have each had at least one very good season in their past. With DeRosa gone, hitting lefties isn't going to be as easy.
The Reds have the greatest potential of any of the rotations. Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto have two of the highest ceilings of any young pitchers in the game. Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo aren't too bad, either.
If both Volquez and Cueto reach their potential and either Homer Bailey or Micah Owings can step up in the rotation, Cincinnati's all–right-handed rotation could be the ultimate test of whether or not Hendry fixed the lineup.
The Brewers are in a similar situation. Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush, and Chris Capuano should all do fairly well during the season, but their rotation will ultimately be judged by the performance of Yovanni Gallardo and Manny Parra.
Gallardo is due to break out this year and Parra may or may not follow his lead. Although losing Sabathia hurts their rotation quite a bit, this is still a good rotation.
The Cardinals and Astros don't seem to have much to offer at this point. When you look past Roy Oswalt and Adam Wainright, each team has a bunch of question marks.
For the Cardinals: Will Todd Wellenmeyer and Kyle Lohse pitch as well as they did in 2008? Will Chris Carpenter be able to start for an extended period of time and have success? Will one of their young pitchers step up and perform?
For the Astros: Will Wandy Rodriguez pitch as well as he did in 2008? Will Mike Hampton be able to start for an extended period of time and have success? Will Brandon Backe or someone else step up and perform?
In the end, when looking at how the Cubs lineup matches up against their division opponents' rotations, the Cubs should have a good challenge. They aren't the greatest pitching staffs in baseball, but they're good enough.
I believe that the Cubs should do better this year against right-handed pitching, which bodes well for results within the division. They also seem to be more balanced overall, although that balance does come at the expense of Jim Edmonds and Mark DeRosa's power numbers.
Aside from Mike Fontenot, Derrek Lee has the most to prove this year.
Most Cubs fans use his amazing 2005 season as their measuring stick for his success, forgetting that he has actually improved his ability to hit for average over his pre-2005 years. Instead, they want his numbers to reflect the power and ability to get on base that he had in those years, which actually has declined.
With a stat line along the lines of 35 doubles, 30 home runs, 85 walks, a .285 or higher average, and fewer than 20 double plays, the Cubs would easily be the best offense in the National League.
Milton Bradley also has quite a bit to prove. He needs to show that last season, in which he hit .321 with 22 home runs, wasn't a fluke and that he can stay healthy for a complete season.
On the whole, this lineup should still prove to be one of the best in the major leagues. With five players that can hit for power and almost every player capable of hitting for a good average, they should be tough to play.
Since nobody in the division made any major changes to their pitching staffs, it shouldn't be too hard to take the division. As far as the playoffs go, I'll wait until September to make my predictions.
For now, let's take it one step at a time.