With just two weeks to go until Opening Day, the Chicago Cubs spent the weekend crystallizing a number of hazily defined roles on their 2010 club.
To the established bullpen core of right-handers Carlos Marmol and Esmailin Caridad and lefty John Grabow, manager Lou Piniella added young right-handed fireballer Justin Berg. Berg, 25, allowed just 10 hits and one walk during his 12-inning audition at the end of last season. This spring, opponents have logged only one hit and two walks in six innings against him.
With Berg now a definite part of the mix, the team has only one open spot remaining in its bullpen, as would-be starters Sean Marshall and Jeff Samardzija seem assured of consolation roles in relief. The battle for the final spot will come down to right-handed hurlers Jeff Gray and Mike Parisi; and southpaws John Gaub and James Russell.
With just three walks and five hits allowed and eight strikeouts in as many innings, Russell has made the strongest case for himself during Cactus League play. He has also allowed only one unearned run.
Less officially, Mike Fontenot has landed himself the starting second base job. After Piniella said last week that he was not considering a platoon, Fontenot and fellow second-base option Jeff Baker continued to make the decision easy on his skipper.
Piniella said he would let the two battle it out during Cactus League action. Fontenot's .294 batting average and demonstrated fielding prowess both at second base and shortstop more than prove he is the superior option to Baker, who is batting .115 for the spring.
The other major sorting out left to be done for the Cubs is to solidify their bench. To that end, 24-year-old outfielder Tyler Colvin has made great strides toward earning the team's fifth outfield spot.
Ideally, the Cubs would carry either Jim Adduci or Sam Fuld in Colvin's stead: both men can play center field much more smoothly than Colvin. Moreover, both have above-average plate discipline, while Colvin has failed to draw a walk this spring, despite a .442 batting average, and had only a .332 OBP at Double-A last season.
As well as he has hit for power from the left side, however, GM Jim Hendry may feel it is time to give the 2006 first-round pick a shot to contribute in the Major Leagues.
To make room for either Fuld or Adduci, the Cubs would need corner infielder and left-handed hitter Chad Tracy to show he can hit well enough to be the left-handed pop off the bench. If right-handed first baseman Kevin Millar wins that job, it means the Cubs need to have Colvin on board to provide some useful offense off the bench when opposing teams bring in southpaw relievers.
Andres Blanco's ankle injury actually makes things somewhat simpler for the time being. He is an out-of-options player, meaning that if he weren't hurt, the Cubs would have to choose between carrying his feeble bat, or hoping he would clear waivers if they tried to send him to Iowa.
Unless and until an injury to shortstop Ryan Theriot derails them, however, the Cubs need not use up a roster spot on a defense-first middle infielder right now.
That said, Blanco's days in the Cubs organization may be numbered, and those of Micah Hoffpauir are almost surely over. Hoffpauir is a distant third in the race to be the team's left-handed pinch-hitting specialist, and although general wisdom says he is one of the good guys in the organization, he has more utility now as a trade chip than as a 30-year-old Triple-A slugger.
He would not merit a return like the one Chicago might have gotten for him last year, in light of a rough 2009, but many teams still need left-handed punch off the bench, and Chicago may opt to shop Hoffpauir as part of a small package in return for a bullpen arm, or a more useful Minor Leaguer.
The Cubs still have some chance to contend strongly in what will be a weak National League Central division. To do so, however, they need to quickly establish some consistent role definitions at the fringes of their roster. They took some steps in that direction this weekend. But there remains much to be done in the ten days or so before the Cubs break camp.