Although they may not be at the forefront of every fan's mind, the players that make up any team's bench can be a huge factor in the failure or success of a season.
In the National League, where it isn't uncommon to have multiple pinch-hitters or a few defensive replacements in a game, these guys are crucial.
For the Cubs, a team whose Opening Day lineup will have an average age of just over 30 and a few key players with injury histories, the five man bench will be more of an extension of the lineup than a cast of potential fill-ins.
For those of you who don't know, the five guys who will be jumping off the pine this year are catcher Koyie Hill, infielders Jeff Baker and Chad Tracy, and outfielders Xavier Nady and Tyler Colvin.
Lou Piniella has an interesting situation in the outfield.
According to a recent story by Carrie Muskat, the Cubs' manager will make sure that all five of their outfielders see their share of playing time.
For 24-year-old Tyler Colvin, that means taking a few starts away from 32-year-old Marlon Byrd in center and 34-year-old Kosuke Fukudome in right each week.
For on-the-mend Xavier Nady, it means the occasional start out in left field and being the right-handed bat off the bench.
You can expect Colvin's above-average speed and good instincts to provide very good defense at any of the outfield positions and the occasional swipe on the basepaths.
At the plate you'll see a kid who won't let too many hittable pitches go by uncontested, having only walked 31 times in 479 plate appearances last season and not walking at all this spring.
Of course, if his production is anything remotely close to his .468 average and 1.221 OPS this spring, then Cubs fans will forget the lack of walks in much the same way that Mariners fans have with Ichiro.
Nady, meanwhile, could provide a very steady bat in his role.
From 2006-2008, before Tommy John surgery cost him the vast majority of 2009, he averaged 21 home runs with a .289 average and a very solid .824 OPS.
He, too, suffers from low walk totals, though. Despite having five seasons with more than 350 plate appearances, it was only in his career-high 607 plate appearance 2008 season that he surpassed the 30 walk mark with 39 on the year.
Considering the fact that his arm has not fully recovered (possibly requiring defensive shifts to help him out early in the season) and that he doesn't draw many walks, he can't afford to spend the first few weeks working off any rust that remains from missing last year.
Baker will start the season coming off the bench as a backup for Mike Fontenot at second and Aramis Ramirez at third while Tracy backs up Ramirez and veteran first baseman Derrek Lee.
Baker hit well all throughout his minor league career and managed a .305 average with four home runs in 203 at bats as a Cub in 2009, which would seem to bode well for the season to come. A problem might present itself, though, if his production is more along the lines of his .253 average with the 2007-2008 Rockies.
Tracy had two great seasons starting for the Diamondbacks, but those seasons came in 2005 and 2006. As a platoon player the past three seasons he's averaged eight home runs with a .256 average and a .736 OPS.
Each player can hold their own defensively, but neither player is going to provide anything like the recently traded Andres Blanco.
Obviously, Baker was in competition with Fontenot for the starting job at second base last year and this spring, so he could end up with his fair share of starts if Fontenot falters.
Tracy, on the other hand, will only make the starting lineup if Lee or Ramirez is hurt or in need of rest. Look for him to be the left-handed bat off the bench when Colvin is starting.
The Man Behind the Man Behind the Plate
Hill will obviously be filling in for Geovany Soto every once in a while, but don't expect the switch-hitter to get 284 plate appearances again this year. Barring another injury to Soto, the highest number you should realistically expect is more like 150.
In all honesty, that might be a good thing. Although Hill has had a few good seasons hitting the ball down in Triple-A, he's never really set the world on fire in the big leagues.
Of course, backup catchers usually aren't on the roster for their bat. What Hill does bring to the table, though, seems to be wins.
For instance, take a look at the Cubs' record in games started by Hill versus those started by Soto in 2009:
● With Soto behind the dish, the Cubs were 41-51 (.446) with an average of 4.32 runs allowed.
● In Hill's games, the Cubs were 42-27 (.609) with an average of 3.99 runs against.
Then, there's his time with the Cubs in 2007. In 25 starts that year, the Cubs were 17-8 (.680) with an average of 3.40 runs against.
In other words, Cubs fans should have nothing to worry about on Soto's days off.
Creeping on a Call-Up
There are four other position players on the Cubs' 40-man roster: Welington Castillo, Micah Hoffpauir, Sam Fuld, and James Adduci.
Fuld was the 2007 Arizona Fall League MVP, had a great winter season leading off for the Venezuelan Tigres de Aragua in 2008, and was stellar last year in action at both the Triple-A and major league average. If an injury or transaction of some sort opens a spot in the Cubs' crowded outfield corps, he'll be the first man called up.
Hoffpauir needs to get back to his 2008 form and have either Tracy or Nady's spot on the roster open up if he wants to get back with the parent club before September.
Adduci needs to maintain the high batting average that he's had this spring and each of his past three minor league seasons if he wants to have a chance. Even then, he's going to need a few guys to falter if he's going to make his way onto the 25-man roster.
Finally, Castillo needs to bounce back from the .232 average he had in Double-A last year if he wants to get to the big leagues this year.
Among the non-roster invitees, five players have a shot at getting the call this year: Starlin Castro, Darwin Barney, Brian LaHair, Matt Camp, and Brad Snyder.
Castro has been a hot topic from the day he reported to Mesa this spring. If he gets off to a hot start in Iowa, the Cubs will have some tough decisions to make with their roster.
To begin with, room would need to be made on the 40-man roster—but the toughest decision would be how to open a spot for him on the 25-man roster.
Most likely, one of Tracy, Fontenot, or Baker would have to be released, traded, or find their way down to the minor leagues.
If, however, one of the Cubs middle infielders loses his roster spot before Castro gets into a groove, Barney could easily be called upon to bring his slick glove to the parent club.
The other three are longer shots.
LaHair, Camp, and Snyder are all coming off of strong 2009 seasons in Triple-A, but LaHair is likely stuck behind Hoffpauir and Tracy while Camp and Snyder are looking up at Colvin, Nady, Fuld, and Adduci.
As it looks right now, the Cubs bench isn't going to be the best defensively, but it should provide a good amount of offense.
If a few spots open up, it seems as though the team has good enough depth to replace them without too much of a problem and the team may even improve defensively.
Although not the strongest bench in the major leagues, this bench and the immediate talent available will be solid. You might even say it's a strength.
You can read part four, which covers the starting lineup, here .