I think most Cubs fans would agree that the Friendly Confines felt like an "ivy-covered burial ground" a few too many times last season.
Yes, a few players actually had pretty decent seasons and the Cubs finished second in baseball's largest division—but it just wasn't good enough.
Five games over .500 is not at all what Cubs fans, or the Cubs themselves, were expecting coming off of back-to-back division titles.
This season's team is full of new faces though, as evidenced by the finalized roster for Opening Day.
Gone are Andres Blanco, Milton Bradley, Neal Cotts, Chad Fox, Jake Fox, Kevin Gregg, Rich Harden, Aaron Heilman, Reed Johnson, and So Taguchi.
Replacing them are Marlon Byrd, Xavier Nady, Carlos Silva, Chad Tracy, and a host of young players that will be pushing for playing time.
Though fans may miss the good that came with some players (i.e. Blanco's defense, Fox's production, Gregg's hot streaks, Harden's better starts, Johnson's energy), the club is looking to get a fresh start with all these fresh faces.
Now, with spring training basically over, it's time to look forward to how this roster might hold up.
The late innings are set in stone for Opening Day: Carlos Marmol will close while John Grabow and Esmailin Caridad setup from the left and right, respectively.
The success of the Cubs this season will likely rely heavily on these three roles.
Hopefully Marmol can find what made him so great in 2007 and 2008, Grabow will perform up to his paycheck, and someone will prove themself worthy of the right-handed setup role.
If any of those roles are shaky, consistency will be hard to come by.
Justin Berg and James Russell will both see work in the middle innings, as will Jeff Samardzija and Sean Marshall. What separates the former and latter groups (other than big league experience) is the kind of work they will be getting.
Both Samardzija and Marshall were among the four players who were getting serious consideration for the final two rotation spots. Should a rotation spot lie vacant, they will likely be the first players called upon to fill it.
As such, both could see time as long men to ensure that they are stretched out enough for spot starts or a full-time spot.
Marshall, who has extensive experience as a swingman, will almost certainly take on that role with ease.
Samardzija, who had his share of struggles being shuttled between the major league 'pen and the Triple-A rotation, has made it clear that he wants to be in the rotation and would probably welcome the role.
However, the innings for such a role are (hopefully) going to be too little to have both players get any sort of consistent innings out of it.
With only one lefty in the rotation at the beginning of the season and Marshall's more extensive experience in the role, it's likely that Samardzija will be stuck working one inning at a time.
This, of course, brings up a whole new situation.
If Samardzija performs as well as he did in 2008, he could easily challenge Caridad for a setup role and simply take it over.
Going back to the other pair of relievers, we are likely looking at the two candidates for demotion when Ted Lilly returns to action.
Their performance will probably be the largest factor in making the decision, but we have no way of knowing how that will play out.
Russell easily had the better spring, with an 11:3 strikeout-to-walk ratio and only one earned run in 12 innings—but Berg was no slouch, allowing only three earned runs in nine innings.
There are other factors, however.
For instance, if Carlos Silva carries his stellar spring into the season and Tom Gorzellany gets sent to the 'pen, it is unlikely that Jim Hendry and Lou Piniella will feel the need to have four lefties ready in relief.
If neither Berg or Russell is impressive, Russell will likely be headed for Iowa.
On the other hand, if Gorzelanny stays in the rotation (keeping two lefties there), then the advantage will likely shift to Russell.
Then, although Lilly will likely be back before any minor leaguers have a chance to earn themselves a call-up, both Berg and Russell will have plenty of people breathing down their necks.
Arms Off the Farm
There are eight other pitchers on the Cubs 40-man roster: Mitch Atkins, Rafael Dolis, John Gaub, Jeff Gray, Marcos Mateo, Blake Parker, David Patton, and Jeff Stevens.
Out of this group, I would only be surprised to see Patton or Dolis get a call-up at some point in the season. Aside from Patton's Rule 5-required time in the big leagues, neither player has pitched a significant number of innings above High-A.
Meanwhile, the other six have shown promise, though Atkins did struggle somewhat in Triple-A last season.
There were also six pitchers invited to major league camp that didn't make the club: Andrew Cashner, Casey Coleman, Thomas Diamond, Jeff Kennard, J.R. Mathes, and Vince Perkins.
Cashner is easily the biggest prospect out of the group, with a fastball than can reach 98 mph and an 85 mph slider. Piniella said himself that he wouldn't be surprised if Cashner found his way to the big league squad this season.
Thomas Diamond is a former first-round pick and Baseball America top 100 prospect, but has struggled some since having Tommy John surgery in 2006.
Kennard, Mathes, and Perkins are all 28-year-old pitchers that will likely start the year in Triple-A. Mathes and Perkins were both fairly successful last year in Iowa and Kennard's ERA of 2.83 for Cincinnnati's Triple-A affiliate looks promising.
Coleman, on the other hand, is a 22-year-old righty who pitched well for Double-A Tennessee last season and held his own in big league camp this spring.
Once again, you could see any of these guys at some point during the season, but Cashner is as close to a given as it can get and Coleman will likely stay in the minors to gain some seasoning.
Not to be forgotten, Rule 5 pick Mike Parisi was on the 40-man roster, but was not kept on the roster. Instead, after achieving minor league free agent status, he decided to sign a minor league contract and was outrighted to Triple-A Iowa.
Although he struggled pitching in limited action for St. Louis in 2008, he was under consideration for a spot in the bullpen this spring. If he has success in Iowa and nobody else steps up for an open spot with the big league team, he might get the call.
In addition to those 15, there are also two dark horses for potential action late in the season: Jeremy Papelbon and Jay Jackson.
Papelbon, the left-handed younger brother of Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, pitched well in the rotation for Double-A Tennessee last season, posting a 2.84 ERA in 14 starts. Although he used to be a reliever, the success he had in 2009 means he will most likely be starting in Iowa this year.
Finally, Jackson, the Cubs' second-best pitching prospect behind Cashner, could also see time with the parent club this year. With a 95 mph fastball, two above average breaking balls, and an effective changeup, all the 22-year-old needs to do is show that he has command of his arsenal at Triple-A Iowa.
Basically, when you look at the Cubs bullpen, there's plenty of depth in terms of guys who might contribute. The truth is, however, that Marmol, Grabow, and a right-handed setup man (whether Caridad or someone else) need to step up and have a great year in order for the Cubs to stay consistent through the season.
Otherwise, the Cubs will have to rely on the starters to go deep into games and use any relief innings as a way to get some experience for up-and-coming arms.
You can read part two, which covers the rotation, here.
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