After Aramis Ramirez exercised his $14.6 million player option, the Cubs' only true free agent was Xavier Nady. Since then, Brad Snyder was outrighted off the 40-man roster and opted to join Nady in the pool of free agents, leaving the Cubs with only 15 position players.
That's obviously a number that will need to increase, but most of the spots on the Opening Day roster will probably be filled by players from that group. For instance, I fully expect Darwin Barney, Starlin Castro, Tyler Colvin and Geovany Soto to be lining up along the third base line come April 1.
Castro and Colvin each have their share of things to work on, but each showed enough talent with both the glove and the bat to start for this team; Soto had a few injury issues, but proved that he is one of the better hitting catchers in this league after a disappointing sophomore campaign in 2009; and Barney may very well be the perfect backup infielder—a talented and versatile defender with enough of a bat to fill-in when necessary.
I'd also be very surprised to see that roster without the likes of Marlon Byrd, Ramire, or Alfonso Soriano.
After Ramirez's 2010 season that featured poor defense, a drop in offensive production, and a myriad of injuries, teams won't look to acquire the veteran third baseman until they see exactly how well he bounces back in the early goings of the season, especially since he has no-trade protection via his ten-and-five rights. And at $14.6 million, he's too expensive to simply release him and eat his salary unless he completely collapses.
Soriano actually improved defensively and in almost every offensive category, but his full no-trade clause and the four-year, $72 million commitment that comes with it leaves him in almost the exact same situation. The lone difference is that trading Soriano at any point in 2011 without taking on a very large portion of his remaining salary would qualify Jim Hendry as a miracle worker, especially in the wake of last year's Milton Bradley-Carlos Silva swap.
Byrd, on the other hand, will likely return because he is fairly cheap ($5.5 million salary in 2011) and was a catalyst for the 2010 Cubs on both offense and defense. Even if his production were to fall off somewhat, he would still offer value as a clubhouse presence and mentor to the younger players.
Of course, Byrd might get moved if too many younger players prove themselves ready for big league action. For instance, what would happen if Sam Fuld, Brett Jackson and Brandon Guyer all did exactly that during spring training?
As previously stated, Soriano isn't going anywhere. So if Kosuke Fukudome isn't traded or Colvin remains in the outfield, then those three players would take up the other three outfield spots and Byrd would need to find somewhere else to play.
If both Fukudome and Colvin remain, then only two of those three would be needed to push Byrd out. And the possibility could still exist that Snyder could be re-signed in much the same way as Angel Guzman—on a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training—and eventually play his way onto the team, which would only require one of Fuld, Jackson and Guyer to accomplish the task.
As you may already know, Fuld is a strong defender and base-stealing threat that draws a lot of walks and doesn't strike out a whole lot. In fact, he might develop into a classic leadoff hitter if given the opportunity, though he would need to bounce back from a lackluster 2010 season. After being among the final candidates to make the roster out of spring training last season, I expect him to be a front-runner for one of the outfield spots.
Guyer, the Cubs' 2010 Minor League Player of the Year, and Jackson, the Cubs' first round pick in 2009, are both top outfield prospects for the Cubs who can hit, play good defense, and steal their share of bases. Just like the Cubs' 2010 Minor League Pitcher of the Year Chris Archer, Guyer is eligible for the Rule Five Draft in December, meaning that he'll most likely be added to the 40-man roster.
Since he's also three years Jackson's senior, I'm left to assume that Guyer would have the upper hand on landing a roster spot, although I can't assume that either player would make the Colvin-like jump from Double-A in 2010 to the majors on Opening Day.
Snyder, whose chances seem dim after not being re-signed to a minor league contract, put up huge numbers in Triple-A last year (.308/.381/.568) while stealing 19 bases and playing very good defense. If he is re-signed, he could be the dark horse that forces someone out the door.
Most likely, no matter what happens with other players, the Cubs will try to relieve themselves of most of Fukudome's $13.5 million to clear some room for the other outfielders. I'm skeptical of the market that exists for him, but management only needs to find one team offering the right package, which I do believe will happen.
The infield is a little more straightforward as it will probably consist of Barney, Castro, Ramirez, and at least one of Jeff Baker and Blake DeWitt. In all likelihood, both Baker and DeWitt would stay as a platoon at second base with the former starting against lefties and the latter against righties, but the team might feel the need to have a better offensive backup to Ramirez at third than what Baker, Barney or DeWitt would offer.
From within the organization, the most likely candidate would be Marquez Smith, who hit .314/.384/.574 in 91 games at Triple-A Iowa and can play good defense at the hot corner. Josh Vitters was the Cubs' top pick in 2007 and may make his own way up to the big leagues before too long, but he is probably better off spending another year in the minors after a less-than-stellar showing at Double-A Tennessee and a season-ending injury to his middle finger.
It gets a little murky over at first base, though.
Micah Hoffpauir is the only true first baseman on the roster, but Colvin's name has already been thrown into the fray and Ramirez may be a consideration if his defense declines any more. The possibility exists that Nady might return, but it's been well-covered that the Cubs would like to have a left-handed bat added to the lineup, which would be easiest to do at first base. Nady is a right-handed hitter.
Hoffpauir had a pretty good offensive season in Iowa (.283/.368/.529), putting up the seventh-best wOBA (.386) in Triple-A and improving his walk rate considerably (up to 11.3 percent from 6.7 percent in 2009), but seems to be an afterthought in the minds of almost everyone involved. With no minor league options remaining, he'll get his final shot at the role in spring training, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him in a different uniform come the regular season.
I expect the Cubs to be looking hard for external options at first base, but if they do look internally, the most likely scenario would involve Colvin re-learning the position.
Finally, although it may not be grabbing many headlines, one of the most important decisions will involve the men behind the plate. Soto is entrenched as the starter, as he should be, but his continued problems with injuries may force the Cubs to replace his backup, Koyie Hill.
Unlike first base, this position will definitely be filled from within. With Welington Castillo and Robinson Chirinos on the 40-man roster, two players who have shown the ability to hit in the minors and are known as good defenders behind the plate, Hill will have some competition. If the team believes that Soto's health is a legitimate concern, then Hill might even be non-tendered in favor of one of the younger and better hitting alternatives.
You can read part five of this series, which covers the team's external options, by following this link.