As Spring Training (finally) comes to a close and the 2009 regular season is upon us, let's take a look at how the Cubs stand at each position going into the season.
Now, as you will soon realize if you read some of my previous articles, I have been extremely pessimistic thus far, but several key factors have brought my hopes up that 2009 may, in fact, be the year.
First Base: B
Three-time Gold Glove winner Derrek Lee struggled throughout spring training while nursing a strained right calf that kept him out of the majority of the action. Lee, who grounded into more double plays than anyone else in baseball last season, has appeared to be on the decline since his career year in 2005.
However, some speculate that the wrist injury that Lee suffered in 2006 has caused the drop in numbers and expect big things from D-Lee in 2009.
Even with all of the negatives, Lee is still one of the best fielding and hitting first basemen in baseball and should continue to produce for the Cubs.
Rookie Micah Hoffpauir adds a great option off the bench at both first base and left field and has the potential to see a lot of time if his numbers look anything like they did in Spring Training (led majors in RBI).
Second Base: B-
With the departure of Mark DeRosa, the Cubs acquired Aaron Miles to compete for the job with Mike Fontenot. Fontenot's 2008 numbers were impressive, as he hit .305 with 9 HR and 40 RBI in only 243 at-bats off the bench.
Fontenot played extremely well this spring, hitting .311 while playing in the majority of the games. Fontenot earned the starting spot, but Miles will no doubt be an important factor coming off the bench, especially considering his ability to play literally every position, even pitcher.
Everyday shortstop Ryan Theriot is an above-average fielder who can hit for average. "The Riot" is a coach's player, as he plays hard, is scrappy, and does the little things that can make a big difference in ballgames.
Expect similar numbers (.301, 38 RBI) in 2009 for The Riot.
On another note, this will be the first year that LSU teammates Fontenot and Theriot (together nicknamed the "Cajun Connection") will both be the opening day starters at second and shortstop respectively.
Third Base: B+
Despite fewer home runs in 2008 than usual, Aramis Ramirez continues to be one of the National League's best cleanup hitters year in and year out.
There is nothing preventing Ramy from hitting 30 HR this year and the Cubs expect him to be a leader on the field and carry them offensively when needed.
One of the Cubs' main problems going into this year is the lack of infield depth, as there is no true backup third basemen. This could potentially be problematic, especially if Ramirez goes down.
Thus far in his career, Geovany Soto has been nothing short of sensational. Despite only being a second year player, Soto is a tremendous leader with the pitching staff and in the clubhouse.
Offensively, there are few catchers who can perform like Soto, who hit .285 with 23 HR and 86 RBI in 2008.
Soto is projected to have similar numbers in '09, but throughout his career he has exceeded expectations, so don't be surprised to see even bigger contributions in the upcoming season.
The backup catcher position battle between Koyie Hill (spring .392) and veteran Paul Bako (spring .364) couldn't have been closer. Eventually, the club ended up choosing Hill, who saw significant time in 2007 with the major league squad.
Hill struggled offensively in his first stint with the Cubs and does not have the talent to be an everyday catcher. Hill is a decent backup, but if Soto goes down, the Cubs could be in trouble behind the plate.
Left Field: B+
Ah, Alfonso Soriano. Another year, another debate about whether to move the free-swinger out of the leadoff spot. Lou opted to keep Soriano in the leadoff role, as Soriano clearly prefers batting first. While Soriano doesn't fit the role perfectly, he is an offensive force and can single-handedly carry a team when he is hot. On the other hand, Soriano is also known for dropping fly balls, swinging without discretion at every pitch, and failing to get on base.
Soriano, like Lee, is in his declining stages, but nevertheless should be counted on for power and potentially speed if his hamstring holds up in 2009.
Center Field: B-
Center field is an interesting position for the Cubs. Lou Piniella clearly dislikes Kosuke Fukudome, but how can you blame him? Fukudome hit .211 this spring, hit .200 and was benched in the World Baseball Classic, and was in a miserable slump during the second half of '08.
Reed Johnson, on the other hand, has worked extremely hard and played well, too, hitting .324 during Spring Training. Although the two are expected to platoon in center, expect Johnson to see the majority of the action, especially if Fukudome continues to struggle. Lou has him on a short leash.
Joey Gathright will provide speed and fielding off the bench.
Right Field: B+
Despite Milton Bradley's controversial and injury-plagued past, it appears (so far) that he has turned over a new leaf with the Cubs. Bradley hit .500 this spring (22 for 44) with four HR, including one four-for-four game.
Bradley continues to be an offensive force and may actually end up putting up better numbers than he did in '08 with Texas (.321, 22 HR, 77 RBI). Additionally, Bradley gives the Cubs a switch hitter who can perform from either side of the plate.
He is not only extremely talented, but extremely confident, an attribute that is essential come October. Bradeley could be the difference maker for this Cubs team.
The key with Bradley, obviously, is whether he can stay healthy, especially playing in the field everyday rather than as a DH like he did with the Rangers.
Starting Rotation: A-
On paper, the rotation is tops in the National League. Ryan Dempster and Carlos Zambrano were two of the top pitchers in baseball in 2008, and Ted Lilly won 17 games.
Zambrano is expected to have a better year this year, while Dempster is expected to put up similar or slightly worse numbers.
The key in 2009, however, will be Rich Harden. Harden is absolutely dominant when he is not injured, but he has only pitched in 100+ innings three times in his six year career.
If Harden goes down, that means that Sean Marshall would be the fourth starter with Aaron Heilman being the most likely candidate to pitch fifth. Losing Harden would be a huge blow to the Cubs starting rotation and, unfortunately for the Cubs, Harden will probably spend some time on the DL in 2009.
The only thing stronger than Cubs starting pitching in 2009 might be its bullpen. Kevin Gregg earned the closer role in which he has had success in the past. That means lights-out Carlos Marmol will deal in the eighth with Jeff Samardzija in the seventh.
Marmol provides great insurance should Gregg struggle as closer, and the Cubs have all the pieces to make games six or seven innings long for opponents.
The Cubs recipe for success boils down to one thing: consistency.
The Cubs clearly have the talent to make a run deep into the playoffs, but it will be essential that hitters and pitchers produce consistently and stay injury-free throughout the year.
One of the major problems with the 2008 team was a lack of consistency, and although the club won, 97 games, the problem haunted them during the playoffs.
The Cubs will also need contributions from their role players such as Fontenot and Johnson. Without success throughout the lineup, especially considering that this team isn’t as deep as it has been in previous years, the Cubs will not perform up to their potential.
Expect to see a confident Cubs team with a chip on their shoulder during the upcoming season.