In the bleak mid-winter of February in Chicago, it is hard to imagine that baseball's Opening Day is less than seven weeks from this gray, wintry afternoon on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Such is the case, though, and so, as pitchers and catchers congregate in Arizona to prepare for the upcoming 2010 season, it is time to look at some of the most pressing questions facing the Cubbies this year.
1. Who will fill out the back end of the starting rotation?
With left-handed ace Ted Lilly out until at least the end of April, Chicago has only three starting rotations spots written in pen for Opening Day. Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, and Randy Wells are a solid trio, but the Cubs will need good supporting performances over the first month from two more players, and thereafter, from one.
Tom Gorzelanny should be front-runner for one of the spots, with his 2007 success in Pittsburgh and his 40 strikeouts (against just 13 walks) in 38 1/3 innings last year down the stretch.
The second temporary position will likely fall to Sean Marshall, but Marshall will have ample competition for that role. Jeff Samardzija—the young, flame-throwing right-handed hurler—had success in 2008 as a reliever and will now look to prove his 2009 setback was an aberration. Carlos Silva and Mike Parisi came to the Cubs this offseason by way of the baseball junk pile, but both have talent and will look to impress enough in camp to win Major League jobs.
Also on the verge of contending are big-talent prospects Andrew Cashner, Chris Carpenter, and Jay Jackson, as well as erstwhile Rangers phenom Thomas Diamond.
Realistically, Marshall and Gorzelanny will almost certainly earn the jobs, and whichever performs better stands a very good chance of keeping that position all season.
2. Can Alfonso Soriano and Geovany Soto bounce back from horrendous 2009 campaigns?
In 2008, Soriano and Soto combined for 52 home runs and 161 RBI. Soriano posted an on-base plus slugging of .876 and Soto's was .868.
In 2009, the two right-handed sluggers saw the wheels come off. Soriano's OPS plunged to .726; Soto's dropped all the way .702. They had only 31 homers and 102 RBI between them, and each missed significant time due to a mixture of injury and ineffectiveness.
Soto, however, has returned to camp in infinitely better shape, and showed very good command of the strike zone even during his sophomore slump. Soriano is more worrisome, at 34 years of age and having shown no signs of improving his horrendous plate discipline. Both should rebound somewhat, however, and that may well be enough to boost the team's lineup back into the ranks of the NL elite.
3. How will manager Lou Piniella divide playing time at second base?
Piniella no doubt dreams of a straight platoon between the left-handed batter, Mike Fontenot, and the right-handed Jeff Baker. Until Fontenot proves his miserable 2009 was a fluke, however, Baker will see more than his share of the at-bats.
With Fontenot set to turn 30 on June 9, and Baker to turn 29 shortly thereafter, both men are now distinctly beyond the prospect phase, and neither has given any sign of an imminent breakout. If Fontenot can rebound to his 2007 and 2008 levels of production, however, they make a more than acceptable second-base platoon.
4. Who will win the last spot on the bench?
The team will presumably carry 12 pitchers through the first month to make up for the absence of Lilly. That means that, accounting for the timeshare at second base, there are four bench spots to be had on the entire club.
Koyie Hill will certainly nab one of those, as the team needs a back-up catcher. Understanding the economics of the game, Xavier Nady seems an exceptionally safe bet to win another spot as the team's fourth outfielder.
Andres Blanco stands an excellent chance of grabbing one role, because he is the only Major-League ready shortstop the team has, save current starter Ryan Theriot. That leaves only one bench role in dispute.
It is an open battle. Chad Tracy, whom the Cubs signed as a free agent, may have the best chance to win it. He bats left-handed, and hits right-handed hurlers well when healthy. He can also play either corner position on both the infield and the outfield, thereby providing valuable versatility. Health is a major concern with him, but then, Chicago likely would not have signed him if they thought him incapable of staying on the field.
Sam Fuld's defensive prowess in center field, along with his speed and surpassingly patient approach on offense, speak well for him. Chicago GM Jim Hendry, however, said he thinks Baker can play center if need be. That suggests that the team will content itself with allowing Baker and right fielder Kosuke Fukudome to spell newcomer Marlon Byrd there.
Micah Hoffpauir, who brings power from the left side of the plate and can play first base or either corner outfield spot, will also get a chance. In an extended audition for a top pinch-hitting role in 2009, however, Hoffpauir struggled mightily to take walks and get on base enough.
First baseman Kevin Millar has also been brought in to fight for the job. His defensive infelicities and rapidly eroding offensive skills make the 38-year-old an unlikely choice, but if he can still hit at all, there may be room for him in a clubhouse very much in need of a vocal leader; Millar was the consensus leader of the World Series-winning Boston Red Sox in 2004.
5. When will Starlin Castro be ready?
Castro will not turn 20 years old until two weeks before the season, yet already there is rampant talk that he may get his first taste of the Major Leagues in 2010.
ESPN's Keith Law ranked Castro 12th among his top 100 prospects. The rangy shortstop has shown already that his glove is major-league ready.
Yet, he has work to do. Castro drew only 29 walks in two stops in the Minor Leagues last season, the highest being Chicago's Double-A franchise in Tennessee. He also needs another season of conditioning, to add muscle and endurance to his 6'1", 160-pound frame.
When he does arrive, which Cubs fans should hope will not be before August, he could bump incumbent Theriot either to the bench or to second base. Although the two would make a spectacular double-play combo, the pinch-hitting and defensive sub role better suits Theriot's skill set.
Despite all of these questions, it is important to remember that Chicago has six solid weeks to iron out answers, and that every team in the league faces such dilemmas. If Chicago can get rejuvenated performances from key veterans and improvement from young pitchers, they may well find positive answers to all of their questions in 2010.