Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Position battles continue as off-day is upon us

The Chicago Cubs have made it to the off-day in their exhibition schedule, which means that the preseason is just less than half over. The Cubs enter their mini-break with a 7-6 record which is sixth best among 12 Cactus League teams, but their performance shows more reason for optimism.

To me, 22 of the 25 roster spots are settled. Zambrano, Lilly, Hill, and Marquis are four of the five starters, while the bullpen should consist of Cotts, Ohman, Eyre, Wood, Dempster, and two others. The two catchers are obvious, and the announcement that Ryan Theriot will break camp with the big team makes the six infielders equally obvious. The outfielders should include Murton, Soriano, Jones, Floyd, and Pagan.

The final spot in the rotation I considered to be Prior's to lose, and so far, he has. The once highly coveted pitcher has allowed seven earned runs in 3.1 innings and will make a minor league start this Friday. Of most concern is the fact that Prior has only been able to throw one pitch all spring (the fastball) and has failed to get much velocity or control behind it. Looking to fill that spot include prospect Angel Guzman, who's allowed just a pair of earned runs in 6.1 innings as well as former Astros ace Wade Miller, who has a 4.00 ERA but a 1.89 WHIP in nine innings. Lefty Neal Cotts has apparently run himself out of contention, by allowing six earned runs and seventeen hits in 7 innings, but should still make the team as the long reliever.

Heading into Spring Training, Roberto Novoa and Michael Wuertz were locks in the bullpen for me, but now it appears that the door has been swung open for youngsters Rocky Cherry and Carmen Pignatiello. Cherry has been serving as the team's closer in March, converting all three of his save opportunities while posting allowing just a run on four hits, while fanning nine batters in 5.1 innings. Meanwhile, Pignatiello has allowed just one hit in 5 innings.

It's more likely, however, that Guzman, Miller, and Prior all make the big league club, leaving Cherry and Pignatiello to start yet another season in the minor league ranks.

Of course, I understand how foolish it is to be debating roster spots when no pitcher has thrown more than nine innings, but with Opening Day less than three weeks away, we have to atleast start speculating.

Left field is also a job up for grabs this March. Though initially believed to be Matt Murton's job, the acquisition of free-agent Cliff Floyd brings about a whole new scenario of possibilities. Despite the fact that Murton is hitting .308 (8-26) and has two homeruns this spring, it appears that manager Lou Piniella likes the idea of having Cliff Floyd's bat in the middle of the lineup, allowing him to move Jacque Jones into the two spot of the batting order.

Other notable Cubs who have had good Spring numbers thus far include first basemen Derrek Lee, who leads the team with a .520 (13-25) average. Ramirez, despite a slow start, is now hitting .375 (9-24) and Izturis' .412 (7-17) has been a pleasant surprise. More good news is that Barrett appears to be shaking off his injury issues at the end of last season; he has a .333 (8-24) average.

Most encouraging for me, however, is the performance of the pitching staff, mainly the fact that Jason Marquis has yet to implode. Marquis has allowed just two earned runs in 9 innings and more importantly no homers and just two walks, while Lilly has surrendered one run on four hits and (get this) no walks in 5 innings. Zambrano and Hill have looked equally solid.

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