Chicago Cubs: 5 Players to Watch Down the Stretch for 2013
For teams like the Chicago Cubs, this final stretch of the season is important for players who have something to play for. While this is an exciting time around the MLB with teams fighting for playoff spots and the World Series right around the corner, the Cubs are already focused on the 2013 season.
The beloved Cubbies weren’t supposed to be contenders heading into this season, but a 59-96 record is hard to stomach for fans. Chicago has been near the cellar of the NL Central for the majority of the season. Fortunately, the division rival Houston Astros have the worst record (51-105) in baseball.
That doesn’t mean the final week of the regular season is a lost cause. Here are five players who have a lot to play down the stretch.
Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney has been fighting to keep his position in the batting order all season. He has been doing that with strong defensive play―so strong that he is now tied for the MLB record for consecutive errorless games (141 games).
Barney’s story has provided the Cubs with positive news in the history books. He has been a bright spot in the Windy City, committing just one error and he already has the NL record for most games without an error.
Despite his defensive success, the final week of the season will put a significant amount of pressure on Barney to perform at the plate. The second baseman has raised his batting average eight points this month to .261.
A strong performance at the plate, coupled with an MLB record, should guarantee a multi-year deal for Barney, who is currently on a one-year, $500,000 deal.
Luis Valbuena (Ian Stewart)
The Cubs acquired third baseman Ian Stewart from the Colorado Rockies in the trade that sent Tyler Colvin. Stewart has been out since June after surgery on his left wrist and won’t return this season. Luis Valbuena has filled in at third base in his absence and done well.
Valbuena is a utility guy, playing outfield, second base, third base and shortstop in three combined seasons with the Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners. The Cubs have used him at second and third this year.
The undrafted Venezuelan has played 76 of 80 games at third base for the Cubs after Stewart went down. His subpar .221 batting average and .960 fielding percentage means Valbuena needs to impress in the final week.
Stewart is in a contract year, and Valbuena needs a strong impression to secure a spot on the spring training roster. He seems to have manager Dale Sveum’s vote of confidence (via Carrie Muskat of Cubs.com).
"I see him on the team," Sveum said. "He's definitely a quality guy, a left-handed quality utility player who can hit the ball out of the ballpark, give you quality at-bats all the time, catch the ball where he's at. If we don't sign somebody, you could definitely see him [at third on Opening Day]. He's done a heck of a job."
The Cubs traded away Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm this season, significantly depleting their starting rotation. Addressing depth in the rotation should be a focal point this offseason, which may put Travis Wood’s spot in jeopardy.
He has a 6-12 record with a 4.33 ERA this season and has been unimpressive at best. He started the year off slow by losing his first three decisions with a 4.58 ERA, but he recovered through early July.
Wood bounced back by winning four straight decisions and lowering his ERA to a respectable 3.05. Optimism started to grow for the 2005 second-round pick, but it came crashing down.
The southpaw has lost nine of his last 11 decisions, but is 2-1 in September. He needs to come up with a quality outing in his final start of the season to boost his odds at staying on the staff in 2013.
The volatile Cubs closer has done just about everything this season. He’s been brilliant, awful, promoted and demoted. Still, Marmol is the Cubs' ninth-inning guy with 20 saves this season.
The fireballer is in the middle of a three-year deal worth $20 million that he signed in 2011 to avoid salary arbitration. His contract suggests he will continue to be in a Cubs uniform next season. But with the roller coaster of a season he’s had, the Cubs may be looking for an upgrade.
Marmol stole the closer’s role in 2010 with a dominating 38 saves and a 1.18 WHIP. He has struggled to find that dominance since, and this season has caught up with him.
The nearly 30-year-old Dominican is nearing a career-high 1.57 WHIP with just 67 strikeouts. Both stats suggest a reduced effectiveness of the Cubs’ shutdown man.
With the league’s best closers recording WHIPs below one, Marmol needs a strong final week to solidify his spot in the closer’s role. Of course, that’s if the Cubs give him any opportunities with a lead in the ninth inning.
It’s awfully crowded in the Cubs infield with Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Darwin Barney, Ian Stewart and Luis Valbuena to name a few. When considering options at third base, rookie Josh Vitters should be included.
Vitters was the Cubs first-round pick in 2007 and is just 23 years old. In his first MLB season, he has a .117 batting average and 33 games, all at third base.
Nothing about Vitters’ stats are all that positive, but he does have some upside. At Triple-A Iowa this season, he was hitting .304 with 17 home runs and 68 RBI. Unfortunately, that hasn’t converted to Major League success, yet.
If Vitters wants to compete for a job in 2013, he needs to finish 2012 strong.