Projecting the Cubs' Final 25-Man Roster at the Start of Spring Training
As spring training gets underway and position battles begin, it's time to look forward to who's in and who's out on the Chicago Cubs' Opening Day 25-man roster. Several spots are already set in stone for the North Siders, and many more are still to be decided.
There are plenty of intriguing storylines. Will Darwin Barney hold onto the starting second base job? Will Mike Olt finally claim the third base job? These and plenty of other questions may be answered this spring.
New additions such as Jason Hammel and Emilio Bonifacio will look to prove their worth. Bonifacio will fight for a spot on the 25-man roster, while Hammel will work to be the team's No. 4 starter. It's always interesting to see new faces in spring training and consider how they could possibly contribute.
On the infield, there are essentially five guys battling for three spots. Bonifacio, Olt, Luis Valbuena, Ryan Roberts and Logan Watkins will be battling with each other all spring long. It's going to be a tight one and it's a rare occasion where Spring Training results will completely matter in determining who makes the 25-man roster come April.
Another area of note is the bullpen. Many players already know what their roles will be and that they have a spot locked up. However, others like Blake Parker, Arodys Vizcaino, Hector Rondon and Justin Grimm will be battling for the last couple of spots. Additionally, Pedro Strop could potentially win the closer job with a strong spring even though the veteran Jose Veras is the favorite.
Based on the direction their careers are going and how they fit into the team's future plans, here are the 25 players on the Cubs' projected roster for 2014.
Jeff Samardzija: Even with all of the noise flying around about "Shark" getting traded, he's still in a Cubs' uniform. While Travis Wood had a better season last year, Samardzija is still the closest thing the Cubs have to an ace in the organization. He had an average year last season in terms of ERA as he recorded a 4.34. However, he did show that he has the ability to pitch like an ace. He struck out 214 batters a year ago and if he can get his ERA down, he will start being worth the hefty paycheck that he's seeking.
Travis Wood: The Cubs' lone all-star a season ago, Wood will look to continue the solid start to his Cubs career in 2014. As the best and probably only lefty on the Cubs staff, the North Siders will need him to be just as effective. He proved that he's more than capable as he posted a 3.13 ERA in 2013. Wood isn't a big strikeout guy, but he is effective in hitting his spots and provides a nice change of pace to Samardzija at the top of the rotation. There's an outside chance he could be the team's Opening Day starter, but based on the change of pace he provides, the No. 2 job seems more likely for Wood.
Edwin Jackson: Last season, Jackson really disappointed, especially given his large contract. While earning $12 million, Jackson had an ERA of 4.98 while losing a National League-high 18 games. That performance will have to improve in 2014. His ERA should come down a little bit, although he will never have a stellar one and he has proven capable of eating up innings. Going 3-1 last July gave the Cubs a glimpse of what they paid for, but Jackson will need to sustain that performance over an entire season in order for the Cubs to have a complete rotation.
Jason Hammel: While it may be hard to believe, Hammel will be one of the Cubs' highest paid players in 2014, earning $6 million. It's likely the Cubs will try to flip Hammel for prospects at the trade deadline the way they did Scott Feldman a season ago. Hammel has major league experience and is a potential comeback player. That's what makes him the likely No. 4 starter. His best season came in 2012 when he posted a 3.43 ERA, but he struggled last year, keeping his ERA just below 5.00. His comeback potential is likely why the Cubs were interested in him. If Hammel realizes it in 2014, he can help push the Cubs from inferiority.
Jake Arrieta: After suffering a shoulder strain before spring training even started, Arrieta is questionable for the start of the season. He's optimistic that he'll be back in time and if he is, there's no reason he shouldn't be the No. 5 starter. Coming over from Baltimore last season, he showed flashes of why he was a top prospect a few years ago for the Orioles. He showed the Cubs enough that they should be comfortable placing him in the starting rotation to start 2014.
Hector Rondon: This may be Rondon's best chance to prove to the Cubs that he belongs at the big league level. As a 25-year-old rookie, he posted a 4.77 ERA in 2013. He is very much on the bubble, but the fact that the club needs to see what they have in him long term may help his cause.
Blake Parker: One of the more pleasant surprises for the Cubs last season was Parker, who pitched effectively out of the bullpen. He posted an impressive 2.72 ERA across 46.1 innings. This year presents a chance for him to become the seventh-inning guy of the future for the Cubs.
Arodys Vizcaino: A relatively unknown player to the average fan, Vizcaino has a chance to be a surprise at Wrigley Field this season. Before undergoing Tommy John surgery in the spring of 2012, he was the Braves' No. 2 prospect and was dealt to the Cubs in the Paul Maholm trade at the 2012 trade deadline. Vizcaino throws gas. In 2011, his fastball averaged 96 mph.
James Russell: One of the most dependable bullpen arms that the Cubs have had over the last few years, this lefty is a lock to make the team. Russell should be more effective after the addition of Wesley Wright as he can be used in multiple situations now that the team has two lefties in the bullpen.
Wesley Wright: Signed as a free agent this offseason, Wright figures to make a major contribution to the Cubs bullpen. He gives the pen more flexibility, as he and Russell provide a one-two punch of lefties.
Pedro Strop (Setup Man): Acquired from the Orioles in the same trade that netted Arrieta, Strop benefited from a change of scenery last year. He was so impressive a season ago that if the team hadn't signed Jose Veras, it's likely that Strop would have been the team's closer this season.
Jose Veras (Closer): A relatively surprising free-agent signing, Veras makes the Cubs bullpen appear 10 times better going into 2014 than last season. His experience in the closer role gives him the advantage over a young Strop.
C Welington Castillo
Even though he batted just .272 a season ago, Castillo had an on-base percentage of .349. While he will never be a superstar in the major leagues, he projects as a very solid backstop for years to come, especially as his defense improves.
Another thing to watch, especially in spring training, is the health of Castillo's knee. He underwent surgery at the end of last season to repair a partially torn meniscus in his right knee. Even though he was supposed to be out for only four to six weeks following the surgery, a knee injury is always concerning to a catcher.
As long as he can come back strong from the surgery, Castillo has a great chance of taking the next step in his promising career in 2014.
1B Anthony Rizzo
Along with Starlin Castro, Rizzo is a cornerstone of the Cubs as they move forward with their youth movement. While he struggled at times a season ago, he has 30-plus home run ability and will be in a Chicago uniform long term.
Rizzo was disappointing last season. But his batting average in balls of play of .251 shows that he had bad luck when he made contact. He will have to work on his strikeout numbers, but last season, Rizzo's offensive production wasn't as bad as it was made out to be considering it was his first full year in the major leagues. This could be a big measuring-stick year for the Cubs' first baseman.
2B Emilio Bonifacio
Recently acquired, Bonifacio will be a welcomed addition to the Cubs’ clubhouse. He has speed, which makes him a candidate to pinch run in late game situations. Additionally, he is very versatile, with the ability to play both the infield and outfield. Players like that don’t come around every day and every bench could use a player like him. Ultimately, his major league experience and ability to play more roles off the bench will earn him a job on the major league club.
Beyond what he can provide from the bench, Bonifacio is an interesting candidate to lead off for the Cubs. He likely will compete for the leadoff job with shortstop Starlin Castro, who is expected to miss seven to 10 days due to a hamstring strain he sustained in spring training.
It's also possible that Bonifacio could start at third base if prospect Mike Olt can't prove he can get it done this spring. Either way, the fact that Bonifacio once stole 30 bases in a season in which he played only 64 games, shows that his speed threat should be at the top of the Cubs' lineup.
Starting Bonifacio at second base would push Darwin Barney to the bench after he hit .208 last season. Plenty could change over the course of spring training, but right now Bonifacio seems like the best choice to start at the position.
3B Mike Olt
Olt has the inside track at the starting third base job this season for a couple of reasons. First of all, he has major league experience, so management shouldn't be worried that he's being rushed. Secondly, the Cubs don't have much time to wait and see what they have in him. With infielders like Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Arismendy Alcantara coming up through the minor leagues, the team needs to have a clearer picture of what the roster will look like in 2015 and beyond.
SS Starlin Castro
His struggles last season were well-documented, but as young as he is, Castro gets a pass on one bad season. It essentially was the first season of his professional career that he could classify as a failure, and he could be better for it in the long run. Going back to his old hitting approach should help him have a bounce-back season.
Only time will tell if Castro remains at shortstop or not. With plenty of infield prospects coming up in the future, the club could decide to move him to second, or more likely third base. One of the Cubs' top prospects, Javier Baez, plays shortstop, so there could be an interesting shift in infield positions for at least a couple of players in the future.
Left Field: Junior Lake
As a prospect who came up a little bit earlier than the rest, Lake impressed in more than a third of a season at the big league level in 2013. He batted .284 and showed flashes of power, clubbing six home runs and driving in 16 runs. Even though he has above-average speed, he stole just four bases in 2013, so look for that number to jump this season.
He probably was the Cubs' most pleasant surprise last season. Lake previously was viewed as a solid role player, but his performance last season has the Cubs thinking he could be a future starter. He showed power upside and plus speed at times. With so many other outfielders looking to make it to the major league squad in the near future, there will be plenty of competition.
Center Field: Ryan Sweeney
While it seems like he's been around the league forever, Sweeney is just 28 years old. His performance a season ago and his veteran presence are enough to keep him in the fold in 2014. In the future, he can either mentor Chicago's many young outfielders or move forward as a bench player.
Sweeney's ability to drive the ball to the gaps and leg out extra base hits is one of the reasons he was brought back after a surprisingly solid 2013. Even though he's likely a placeholder for Albert Almora, the Cubs will enjoy having him around in order to contribute and mentor, much in the way that David DeJesus had done for the Cubs in the past.
Right Field: Nate Schierholtz
Previously in his career, Schierholtz hadn't had the opportunity to be a full-time starter. Last season, he got that opportunity and took full advantage. He hit 21 home runs and drove in 68 runs while also totaling 32 doubles. With several top prospects on track to make their debuts soon, Schierholtz appears likely to be dangled at the trade deadline.
Schierholtz provides lineup flexibility in the middle of the order. Since he and Rizzo are lefties, Schierholtz can slide down to the No. 5 spot in case someone like Olt, who hits right-handed, is getting a start in the cleanup spot. If there weren't so many outfield prospects coming up through the organization, Schierholtz might fit into their future plans. But he likely will be flipped for prospects when the time is right.
Darwin Barney (2B/SS): Despite his stellar fielding, the Cubs know they need an upgrade offensively at second base and Barney might serve the team better in a backup role. He can be a late-inning defensive replacement and get frequent playing time at second base when needed.
Luis Valbuena (2B/3B): Since joining the Cubs, Valbuena has been a solid contributor, but his days as a starter may be over. As long as Olt plays well in spring training, Valbuena figures to be a solid utility man for the Cubs at either second or third base.
George Kottaras (C): He was acquired from the Royals this offseason after hitting .180 in limited action a season ago in Kansas City. Kottaras surely wasn't brought in for his offensive prowess, but he will provide a veteran presence in the clubhouse and a day off every now and then for starter Castillo.
Donnie Murphy (Utility): A season ago, Murphy randomly broke out for the Cubs. In just 129 at-bats, he clubbed 11 home runs. While it's unlikely he will duplicate that production over the course of an entire season, having some power on the bench in pinch-hitting situations never hurts. The fact that he can move around the infield also makes him valuable as a role player off the bench.
Justin Ruggiano (Outfield): After agreeing to a one-year, $2 million deal with the Cubs, Ruggiano better be on the big league squad when they break camp in April. While he will never hit for a high average, his 18 home runs in 424 at-bats a season ago exemplify the power value that he provides off the bench. Expect him to contribute both as a fourth outfielder and as the club's go-to pinch hitter.