Only 21 days left until Opening Day, Cubs fans. With the seemingly never-ending spring training in full bloom in sunny Arizona, now is a good time to examine the potential roster for the 25-man club that will go north with the team.
Today, let's take a look at the pitchers, since there is a little more uncertainty there than with the position players.
The Fifth Starter's Competition Is All But Over
While Lou Piniella hasn't made any official announcement, it seems clear that Sean Marshall has won the derby to be the fifth man in the Cubs rotation. Now that doesn't necessarily mean he won't be in the bullpen to start the season, due to early off-days and rainouts (dare we say snow-outs?).
Marshall has had a good spring. He pitched into the fifth inning on Friday, allowing three hits and an unearned run (caused by his own error), and he has a 0.38 ERA for the spring.
Helping to make the decision easier is the fact that the other candidates have not exactly distinguished themselves.
With three off-days in April, it might be a good idea to let Marshall stay for an extended spring training, so he is stretched out and ready to go when they need that fifth starter.
So, barring anything unforeseen (such as an injury or unlikely trade), it appears that Marshall is the chosen one.
However, one of the odd men out may be...
Gaudin has looked awful this spring and is out of options. In 1.2 innings on Friday, Gaudin allowed five hits and four walks. He is set to earn $2 million this year, but if the Cubs release him by Wednesday they will owe him only 30 days pay.
I think it would make sense for the Cubs to release Gaudin, as he appears to have nothing. Perhaps his crazy dumpster injury from last year is still bothering him, who knows?
They could try to trade Gaudin since his contract is relatively agreeable, but a 10.38 ERA in the spring won't make him all that coveted.
If they release him, it would open a spot for...
Vizcaino hasn't been real good this spring (a 5.39 ERA), but he is likely untradeable due to his relatively hefty contract. This, combined with his having thrown a little better on Friday, makes him a likely choice to fill a role in the Cubs bullpen.
Plus, he's been better than...
Guzman was initially drafted by the Cubs and is back for second tour of duty with the club, but it's likely to be his last. He has allowed eight earned runs in five innings this spring.
Based on how poorly he's thrown, it would appear that Guzman is headed elsewhere (i.e., out of the organization). He's out of options, and at 27 is no longer a prospect, so it looks like Guzman will be spreading his wings on another team this season.
One guy who certainly isn't going anywhere is the young and talented...
It is clear that the Cubs organization wants "The Shark" to be a starting pitcher, so that likely means a trip to Iowa to begin the season.
Ah, but wait, not so fast. Here are Piniella's comments on Samardzija:
"We are going to take the best pitchers north, so if Samardzija does not get the fifth spot, he will get all the consideration in the world in the bullpen," Piniella said. "But let's see how the organization feels. The organization has a say in that also. We'll come up with the right conclusion. [Pitching coach Larry Rothschild] likes the improvement of his second and third pitches. And how you improve that the most is by starting and using him more. Usually when you come into a ballgame out of the bullpen, you rely on a couple of pitches."
Samardzija has surrendered 10 hits and six earned runs in eight innings this spring, but he could still be a candidate for the bullpen if Gaudin is released. I believe the 'pen is the best place for him at this time anyway.
However, given that the Cubs see him as a starter, it might make more sense to keep Samardzija stretched out at Iowa, so he could come up and fill in during the inevitable times when the fragile Rich Hardin can't go.
But this one is still up in the air for now.
One bullpen spot that is not up in the air goes to...
Heilman has pitched decently this spring, allowing nine hits but only two earned runs in 10 innings.
Aaron has appeared in four games, three of them as a starter, but his role is likely in the bullpen for the 2009 season.
Proving it's good to pitch with your left hand is...
Unless Marshall starts the year in the bullpen, Cotts will be the lone lefty in the Cubs pen. He has pitched well in the spring, but it remains to be seen whether he can improve upon a shaky 2008 performance.
Keep an eye on a possible trade scenario if GM Jim Hendry decides he needs another southpaw in the pen or if Cotts struggles.
The closer may be...Kevin Gregg
The battle for the closer's job may be won by Gregg, though no announcement has been made.
Gregg was acquired from the Marlins in the offseason. He lost the closer's job late in the season, more due to injury than poor performance. That said, he did blow the most saves in baseball in 2008.
But several of his blown saves occurred while he was suffering from a knee injury. Otherwise, his performance was fairly solid.
He has not allowed a run in five spring innings and is a lock to start the season as either the closer or main setup man.
No matter who the closer is, the Cubs best relief pitcher is...
Marmol raised some eyebrows by pitching in the Dominican playoffs, then appearing in the WBC. Yet, Piniella said he would keep the closer derby open until Marmol returned, and he has. Marmol gave up a triple and hit two batters, but recovered by striking out two in a scoreless inning Saturday.
In terms of pure stuff, Marmol is an easy choice over Gregg. Over the past two seasons combined, he has a 2.13 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 12.06 K/9 ratio.
For his part, Marmol says all the right things.
"I don't care. I'm glad to be on the team, and be on a good team," he told the Chicago Tribune. " It's not my decision, it's their decision. I pitch wherever they put me. I want to be a closer, but if they put me in the situation where I have to pitch the eighth, I'll go out there. I want to help the team."
Piniella has said he will decide by next weekend.
Another guy who is being counted on to help the team is...
While Harden is obviously a lock for the rotation, one move the Cubs could make is to switch him and Sean Marshall in the 4/5 slot, in order to give Harden extra time to get ready for the season. Given his injury-prone nature, that might help make him stronger for later in the season.
Projected to start fourth behind Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, and Ted Lilly, the Cubs have taken a cautious approach with Harden this spring. He didn't make his first appearance until last Tuesday, but was sharp, allowing two hits and striking out one in two innings pitched.
In his second outing of the spring today, Harden walked three and allowed three runs in a third inning he couldn't finish against the Diamondbacks, but he said afterward that it was "probably the best I've felt in a long time. I probably could have thrown 100 pitches today."
There is no doubt as to how good Harden can be when healthy, as long as you can live with the fact that you'll only get five innings out of him. With the Cubs in 2008, he was 5-1 with a 1.77 ERA and 0.97 WHIP. He says he wants to start 30 games this year, but Hendry wisely suggests 25 starts will be his best-case scenario.
Either way, keeping him healthy will be an arduous task for pitching coach Larry Rothschild again this season. A strong Rich Harden come October would go a long way toward postseason success for the Cubbies this year.
Knock on wood (not Kerry), but one starter whose health has been strong is...
Despite Zambrano's reputation, it was actually Dempster who was the Cubs ace last season.
The Cubs showed their commitment to Demp when they signed him to a four-year, $52M contract as a free agent this offseason. In return, Dempster showed his commitment to the team by deciding not to play for Canada in the WBC.
Dempster turns 32 this season, but has started only 195 games in his career, so he should have a lot left in the tank.
How many guys with a career losing record and a 4.55 ERA make $13 million per year? Well, in this case, it's probably warranted after coming off of an impressive 2008 campaign (his shaky start in the playoffs notwithstanding). Dempster was 17-6 with a 2.96 ERA.
Dempster is 1-2 with a 2.25 ERA in eight innings this spring.
He is unlikely to repeat his 2008 stat line this year, so the other Cubs starter will be expected to help pick up the slack, including...
The Cubs so-called "ace" will start on Opening Day for the fifth consecutive season. While battling little discussed shoulder problems and well known temper issues, Z hopes to bounce back from a 2008 performance that was, for him, somewhat shaky.
He has been decent this spring, with a 3.60 ERA in five innings, allowing four hits.
The Cubs will need him to be strong this year, but there is a steady rotation presence in...
Lilly did not allow a run in his two-inning start for the Cubs this spring. Despite a slow start in 2008, Lilly ended up 17-9 with a 4.09 ERA that was boosted by his penchant for surrendering the home run ball.
At 33, Lilly actually appears to be getting stronger, as evidenced by his strikeout rate, which was a career-best 8.09 per nine innings last season.
Other notable spring performances
Chad Fox, a 1.80 ERA in 5 innings; Jose Ascanio, no hits in 4 innings; Jeff Stevens (acquired from the Indians in the Mark DeRosa salary dump), seven hits in 4.2 IP; Kevin Hart, a 9.00 ERA in 5 IP; Mitch Atkins, a 10.50 ERA in two starts.