Breaking Down Chicago Cubs' Key Position Battles

Adam WellsFeatured ColumnistMarch 5, 2014

Breaking Down Chicago Cubs' Key Position Battles

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    One of the most exciting parts about being a team in full-blown rebuilding mode is the way it makes spring training infinitely more watchable. Top prospects are going to be given a bigger stage with more opportunities to show fans and teams what the future holds. 

    For a franchise like the Chicago Cubs, which has been in a perpetual state of rebuilding for more than 100 years, promising fans the future doesn't really mean a lot to them. It should in 2014, because this is as good a farm system as they have had in a long time. 

    With high-end talent, as well as quality depth at every level of the minors, the Cubs enter this season with more than a few questions around the diamond. That's why every game in March is so important for the players in camp and for the team to get a look at adjustments that have been made since the end of last season. 

    Now that we have a sample size, albeit small, to judge players battling it out for a starting job and/or spot on the 25-man roster, here is a breakdown of the Cubs' key position battles. 

    Note: All stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted. 

Third Base

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    The Contenders: Luis Valbuena, Mike Olt, Christian Villanueva, Kris Bryant

    Incumbent: Valbuena

    The most intense battle for the Cubs this spring is at the hot corner. You could throw top prospect Javier Baez into this group, but he's played exclusively at shortstop this spring. It appears the Cubs are going to keep him there until he proves he can't do it. 

    You'll notice a wide variety of choices for the Cubs, which isn't an accident. They used six different players at the hot corner in 2013 (Valbuena, Cody Ransom, Donnie Murphy, Brent Lillibridge, Alberto Gonzalez, Steve Clevenger).

    Valbuena played 108 games at the position last year, posting a career-high .708 OPS. Carrie Muskat of MLB.com noted in December during the winter meetings that Valbuena "appears to be the front-runner for the job in '14."

    It's hard to see anyone challenging him for the gig, though the players directly behind him have brighter futures. 

    Christian Villanueva is a defensive wizard at third base, even being named best defensive third baseman in the Southern League by a poll of coaches and managers conducted by Baseball America

    Acquired from Texas in the Ryan Dempster trade two years ago, Villanueva isn't all glove. He's got some power, as evidenced by his 41 doubles and 19 homers last year, but lacks an approach and pitch recognition. 

    Kris Bryant was drafted as a third baseman but could end up in right field because he's a little stiff at the hot corner. A lot also depends on where Baez's defensive development puts him.

    Bryant has the power and patient approach to be in the big leagues very soon, but with no experience above High-A and a long swing that will give him problems against better velocity, he needs more time in the minors. 

    Mike Olt is the wild card in this race. He was awful last year, hitting .201/.303/.381 in 107 games, but has corrected a vision problem and said things feel much better already this season. 

    Given Olt's age (25) and experience at Triple-A, a strong spring could give him the edge. He hit his first spring homer on Tuesday against Oakland. That is a huge step in the right direction for a player who once ranked as high as No. 16 on MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects list. 

    Until we get a more definitive look at Olt, Valbuena is still the player to beat in this race. 

    Prediction: Luis Valbuena

Left Field

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    Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

    The Contenders: Junior Lake, Justin Ruggiano, Chris Coghlan, Ryan Kalish

    Incumbent: Lake

    If you can figure out what will happen with the Chicago Cubs in left field, congratulations. It's not an inspiring group, though Junior Lake is going to get a lot of leeway based on a .284/.332/.428 line in 64 games last year. 

    Lake was a prospect Cubs fans knew and is just 23 years old. He's not going to be as good as that slash line suggests—he didn't hit righties at all in 2013 (.692 OPS)—but the team may make use of him in a platoon role. 

    If that's the case, Justin Ruggiano becomes a bigger factor for the Cubs in 2014. He's a journeyman player at the age of 31 and doesn't offer much in the way of on-base percentage.

    As a platoon outfielder who is only expected to mash against lefties, Ruggiano has value. He has a .506 career slugging percentage and 17 home runs in 353 plate appearances against southpaws. 

    Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer told Carrie Muskat of MLB.com after acquiring Ruggiano from Miami for Brian Bogusevic that his job will be to hit left-handed pitching. 

    He can platoon with one of several guys we have and play all three outfield positions. Sometimes it is about fit. Brian did a really good job for us. Ruggiano fits our roster better, and we're excited to work out a deal for him.

    Chris Coghlan was signed on a minor league deal to put pressure on Lake. Coghlan, who unlike Lake hits from the left side, is a player who struggles to hit lefties (.643 OPS). If the Cubs don't want to keep two right-handed hitting left fielders in a platoon, Coghlan could take Lake's spot on the roster. 

    Ryan Kalish was brought over to add minor league depth because Hoyer and Theo Epstein know him well as a former ninth-round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox in 2006. 

    Based on the things that Lake, Ruggiano and Coghlan do well, as well as Hoyer's comments, there are going to be two players from this group who will be on the 25-man roster. 

    Lake is the homegrown talent. Ruggiano is the new acquisition, so that pushes Coghlan to the minors. 

    Prediction: Ruggiano will start vs. RHP; Lake vs. LHP

Second Base

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The Candidates: Darwin Barney, Emilio Bonifacio

    Incumbent: Barney

    The Cubs continue to give Darwin Barney an opportunity to start, despite ample evidence that he can't hit. His glove is the only reason he's still around, having won a Gold Glove in 2012 and ranking as the best defensive second baseman in 2013 by FanGraphs' metrics

    One thing that also works to Barney's advantage is Starlin Castro's hamstring injury that is expected to keep him out for at least one week. Manager Rick Renteria told Carrie Muskat of MLB.com that Barney, along with Emilio Bonifacio and Javier Baez, will get a lot more playing time at the position. 

    Bonifacio hasn't played shortstop on a regular basis since 2011, so looking at him there doesn't seem like it will help anyone. Barney was a shortstop in college and played 19 games at the position from 2010-12. 

    Renteria did tell Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune that he sees Barney starting the season as the team's second baseman. There's a comfort level that goes along with this decision; since the Cubs know Barney so well, he has a built-in advantage. 

    Bonifacio is hurt by the fact he isn't a much better hitter than Barney. The former had a .625 OPS last year, compared to the latter's .569 mark. Since there isn't much separating their offensive games, defense becomes the separator, and that favors Barney. 

    Don't feel bad for Bonifacio, who also has the ability to play all three outfield spots when not playing in the infield. 

    Prediction: Barney

No. 5 Starter

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    The Contenders: Jason Hammel, Carlos Villanueva, Chris Rusin, Justin Grimm

    Incumbent: Chris Rusin

    One thing the Cubs have done well over the last two years is stockpile affordable pitching to eat innings. They don't have any delusions about where they are, or where they want to go when the prospects arrive, so getting bogged down in big deals for pitchers isn't the way to go. 

    In fact, with the exception of Edwin Jackson, the Cubs don't have a pitcher on the roster making more than $6 million (Jason Hammel) in 2014. That leaves the team a lot of flexibility next winter, when Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, Justin Masterson and James Shields are scheduled to become free agents. 

    For now, though, it leaves a lot of questions at the back of the rotation.

    Since Hammel is the most expensive pitcher in the group, you would think he has the inside track. However, given his injury problems with Baltimore the last two years, a role in the bullpen would be in the best interest of both parties. 

    Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio raved about Hammel in a recent report from Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun Times, saying, "we’re unleashing somebody, to be honest with you." Bosio didn't specify what role Hammel would be "unleashed" in, but he figures to play a vital role for the team in 2014. 

    Chris Rusin is just 27 years old and posted a solid 3.93 ERA in 10 starts last season. He also allowed 66 hits and eight homers in 66.1 innings, while posting a pedestrian 36-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio. 

    Carlos Villanueva is a valuable arm to have because he can start when asked, or can throw multiple innings out of the bullpen. He appeared in 47 games last year (15 starts) with a decent 4.06 ERA and 103-40 strikeout-to-walk ratio. 

    Acquired from Texas in the Matt Garza trade last year, Justin Grimm was awful in the Rangers' rotation. He allowed 116 hits with a 6.37 ERA in 89 innings but pitched better in a small sample out of the Cubs' bullpen (2.00 ERA, 8-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio, nine innings pitched). 

    Out of this group, Villanueva has the best combination of track record and upside as a starter. Hammel has the upside but has to prove he can stay healthy to make 25-30 starts. 

    Prediction: Carlos Villanueva

     

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