Will Luis Valbuena open the season at third base for the Cubs?
The Chicago Cubs' overall goal is to win a World Series someday.
But that can wait. There are more pressing matters to attend to for the time being, such as figuring out this spring just who the heck is going to play where when the regular season starts.
The Cubs don't have too many position dilemmas to resolve over the next few weeks, as their infield, outfield, starting rotation and bullpen are pretty well set. But as Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune outlined last week, they do have some question marks at third base, at the back end of their starting rotation and on their bench.
There's also a question as to whether Carlos Marmol will be able to hold on to his job as the club's closer. The Cubs said in December that the signing of Japanese right-hander Kyuji Fujikawa didn't compromise Marmol's place as their closer, but Fujikawa could change their mind.
There's still plenty of time for these situations to be resolved, but here's who I see coming out on top in the end.
Reserve Outfielder: Dave Sappelt or the Field?
With Tony Campana gone to Arizona, the Cubs have an open competition going on for a reserve outfield role. The primary contestants, according to Sullivan, are Dave Sappelt, Darnell McDonald and Brian Bogusevic.
Based on what's happened this spring—and it's obviously still very early—McDonald and Bogusevic are trending in the right direction.
McDonald only has one hit this spring, but it was a big one: a three-run homer against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Monday. The Cubs already know he has experience and that he can play all three outfield spots. If he shows there's more pop where that came from, he may force their hand.
Bogusevic, meanwhile, had a couple hits in the Cubs' exhibition against the San Francisco Giants on Sunday. He can also play all three outfield spots, and he showed when he posted an .805 OPS for the Houston Astros in 2011 that he's by no means hopeless as a hitter.
Sappelt is off to a slower start this spring with no hits in five at-bats. That's not ideal for him, especially given the fact that he didn't hit so well at Triple-A last year. He can't afford to have the bosses feeling skeptical about his bat.
But it's too early for Sappelt to be worried about that. He should get the benefit of the doubt for a while still after posting an .800 OPS in 26 games with the big club down the stretch last year. He also played well in the field, posting a 5.4 UZR and a plus-two DRS in limited action (see FanGraphs).
Sappelt probably isn't in an invincible position, but he should still have the upper hand against McDonald and Bogusevic.
Closer: Carlos Marmol or Kyuji Fujikawa?
Carlos Marmol is the Cubs closer. They said so in December, and he has a "CL" next to his name on the club's depth chart. Always a good sign, that.
But given his history, it's fair to assume that Marmol is never standing on solid ground. Not until he cleans up his track record of maddening performances, anyway.
Marmol didn't give any indication in his Cactus League debut on Sunday that he's about to start. He pitched an inning, allowing a hit, a walk and an earned run with one strikeout.
Basically, it was a typical Marmol outing. B/R FC Adam Wells hit the nail on the head:
Breaking news: Carlos Marmol still can't throw strikes. #Cubs— Adam Wells (@adamwells1985) February 24, 2013
Meanwhile, the Cubs' new toy looked pretty good in his debut. Kyuji Fujikawa's first outing in Cactus League play saw him strike out two and work around a hit on Sunday.
Said Cubs manager Dale Sveum, via MLB.com:
The life on the fastball was better [Sunday] than in [Friday's] intrasquad game. We definitely saw much better life. Sometimes it's because it's a real ballgame and not against your own team. Obviously, the one split he had incredible depth. I think the guy swung at a 50-footer [and struck out].
The concern with Fujikawa is that the scouting report on him will start getting around and he may not look so hot anymore once hitters adjust to his stuff.
But even then, the Cubs are going to have a tough choice on their hands if Marmol continues to struggle with his control and generally keeps being frustrating. They may be willing to take their chances on a new guy rather than continue to put their trust in a guy who has repeatedly shown he doesn't really deserve it.
I have to side with the new guy here.
Fifth Starter: Travis Wood or Carlos Villanueva?
Scott Baker will be a member of the Cubs rotation when he's healthy, but that's going to be a while still.
According to Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cubs are expecting Baker to be ready to join their rotation in the middle of April. Between now and then, he still has some rehabbing to get out of the way as he prepares to return from Tommy John surgery.
So long as Matt Garza is healthy at the start of the year—and Sullivan has reported that he's expecting to be—that leaves a spot in Chicago's rotation up for grabs, with the two primary contestants for it being lefty Travis Wood and right-hander Carlos Villanueva.
Neither is off to a strong start this spring. Wood allowed a pair of earned runs in two innings against the Los Angeles Angels on Saturday. Villanueva made his Cactus League debut on Monday against the Dodgers and didn't even survive the first inning, as he had to be lifted once he reached his pitch count.
Between the two, Wood has to have the leg up because of how he finished last season. He had a 4.98 ERA at the end of July, but he finished by quietly posting a 3.56 ERA over his final 13 starts.
Wood also doesn't have much major league experience as a reliever, as 61 of his 65 career appearances have been starts. Only 56 of Villanueva's 301 career appearances have been starts, and his career ERA as a reliever is over a full run lower than his career ERA as a starter.
Things will get interesting if Wood struggles this spring while Villanueva is pitching well following his rough debut, but Wood deserves the benefit of the doubt for the time being.
Third Base: Ian Stewart or Luis Valbuena?
Poor Ian Stewart just can't catch a break, and that's good news for Luis Valbuena.
Stewart was looking to come back strong from wrist surgery, but instead he barely even got going. He suffered a left quad strain rounding first base in an intrasquad game last week, and Sullivan has reported that he could be out as long as three weeks.
Meanwhile, Valbuena's spring training season is off to a very encouraging start. He homered in an intrasquad game on Friday and again on Saturday against the Angels. He doubled on Monday against the Dodgers.
That Valbuena is driving the ball early has to intrigue the Cubs. He showed last year that he's worked on his patience, drawing 36 walks in 303 plate appearances for a solid 11.9 percent walk rate. By showing off some pop, he could convince the Cubs that he might at least be an average offensive producer at the hot corner.
Who will open the season at third base for the Cubs?
That's something that Stewart hasn't gotten a chance to do as a member of the Cubs due to his health woes, and it doesn't bode well that his track record is working against him. He did hit 25 home runs one year with the Colorado Rockies, but he has a career OPS+ under 100.
The one area where Stewart doesn't have to worry about proving himself is on defense, as he has a reputation as a solid glove man and the numbers don't disagree. He has a career 7.5 UZR and a plus-19 DRS at the hot corner (FanGraphs).
The tricky part is that Valbuena proved in 2012 that he's no slouch at third, finishing with a 6.8 UZR and a plus-five DRS (FanGraphs). He could thus be an offensive upgrade at third who wouldn't be a defensive downgrade.
There's also the money situation to consider. If the Cubs hold on to Stewart for the season, they'll have to pay him $2 million. If they cut him at the end of spring training, they'll have to pay him $500,000 and then just a $930,000 salary for Valbuena in the regular season, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts.
In all, the signs look pretty good for Valbuena.
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