Top Ten List: Things to Look For As Spring Training Games Get Underway

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We’re in March!  And that means that meaningless baseball games are just around the corner.  They don’t count in the standings, but we’ll actually see real baseball players play a game that resembles baseball.  That’s better than nothing!

Earlier, we published a list of things to keep in mind as position players reported for camp.  With the Cubs tuning up with a couple intrasquad games before Sunday’s Cactus League opener, let’s take a moment to list what we should be looking for as the boys slog through a month of practice games…

Top Ten List: Things to Keep An Eye On

10.  Who will be in the starting rotation?

We know that Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster will have the top two spots pretty much locked up.  We can also guess that with a modest free agent contract, Paul Maholm will be penciled in for the number three spot.  That leaves a logjam of candidates to compete for two spots — Chris Volstad, Randy Wells, Travis Wood, Jeff Samardzija, Andy Sonnanstine, Casey Coleman and maybe Rodrigo Lopez.  The best two guys will get those two rotation spots, and the stragglers will either be relegated to the bullpen or to Iowa.  If I had to make a guess I’d think T. Wood and Volstad make it, with Wells and Samardzija going to the pen and everyone else getting either released or demoted.  However, T. Wood might have an option left, so it would be interesting to see whether the Cubs hide him in the minors for a bit.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see Garza-Dempster-Maholm-T. Wood-Volstad to start the season.

9.  Who’s going to triumph in Cubs Buntfest 2012?

Carrie Muskat has been keeping tabs on the bracket as the Cubs are moving into their Sweet 16.  Would-be tournament favorite Tony Campana was destroyed by Steve Clevenger in the first round.  Actually, it’s really fascinating that the catchers are doing so well in this tournament.  Of course, it’s probably a lot easier to bunt against batting practice meatballs than against actual pitching, but it seems that some of the guys have better form than the others.  Let’s keep our money on Dempster as he’s pretty good at laying down sac bunts in actual game situations.

8.  Anyone want an extra pitcher?

It’s not officially official yet, but at some point MLB will announce that they are adding a second wild card in 2012.  It’s likely that most big trades will happen towards midseason around the trade deadline (MLBTR has a good article), but there’s also a possibility that a fringe team might put out feelers now and see if they can snag the Cubs’ most valuable assets, such as Garza or Geovany Soto or maybe Marlon Byrd.  It’s a bit of a long shot this early in spring training, but don’t be surprised if something does happen.

7.  Can everyone stay healthy?

You may have heard about A.J. Burnett‘s wacky injury that required surgery and may threaten an on-time start to his season.  Geovany Soto’s had a nagging groin problem and Starlin Castro got plunked by Kerry Wood (not beaned!) so every moment the Cubs spend on the playing field, whether in practice or in a game situation, is an opportunity for injury.  Spring training games will be rather laid back with waves of substitutions until they get close to last cuts, so if the injury reports are sparse then we’d be doing okay going into Opening Day.

6.  How will the prospects do?

There’s really no reason to call up top prospects like Brett Jackson or Anthony Rizzo if the team is likely going to suck anyway (even with the second wild card the Cubs probably won’t make the playoffs).  But it will still be fun to keep an eye on how they take advantage of their opportunities at the plate and in the field until they are reassigned to minor league camp.  Even if they hit the snot out of the ball I’m guessing the Cubs keep them in the minors and avoid burning unnecessary service time.  While spring training statistics don’t tell you a lot, the boys beating the hell out of baseballs will be a positive sign.

5.  Who will become the role players?

Will Cubs legend of speed and grit Tony Campana make the team as the designated late-inning pinch runner?  Will Dave Sappelt unseat Campana because he can actually hit a ball out of the park?  (By the way, you should enter our contest if you haven’t already)  Because aside from the rotation battle, the only main competition is who gets to ride the pine as the fifth outfielder.  And then there’s…

4.  What’s on second?

The Cubs aren’t just going to give the job to Darwin Barney, but that doesn’t mean Barney isn’t working hard to keep it.  If Barney doesn’t get the starting gig he’s the most logical backup infielder as he can play both 2B and shortstop competently.  He will have to show that he’s better than Adrian Cardenas and Matt Tolbert and all of those guys will have to try to keep Jeff Baker from being the full-time 2B.  I’m pretty sure Barney is on the team no matter what, but the biggest question is whether he’s the starter or a benchwarmer.  The Cubs’ claiming Cardenas suggests that they’d rather have a guy who could actually hit and get on base at that position, and that assumes that Cardenas doesn’t suck at defense.

3.  What are Dale Sveum’s managerial tendencies?

We sort of see from Buntfest that Sveum likes small ball and will emphasize small ball, defense and smart baserunning as the only true power threat on the team now is Alfonso Soriano, and maybe Soto if he remembers he’s supposed to be good at baseball.  When will he order bunts?  Will there be hit-and-runs?  What about intentional walks and enforcement of unwritten rules?  So far Sveum’s said things in interviews that make me feel like he’s a smart manager so I’ll be keeping an eye on how he manages practice game situations.  We may or may not be able to use that information to extrapolate for the regular season.

2.  How will Alfonso Soriano do?

It’s unlikely that the Cubs just flat out release Soriano or trade him in a salary dump, so we might as well hope he does well.  I’d like to see them try Soriano at first base just for pure comedy purposes, but if he can handle it, he’d be an ideal platoon guy at that position if Bryan LaHair sucks against lefties.  If they are able to unload Soriano in a beneficial trade (like, actually getting something useful back) that’s great, but if not, it would be wonderful if he turns out to be an excellent cleanup or middle-of-the-order hitter.

1.  What will the Opening Day lineup look like?

Assuming no one gets injured and based off Sveum’s statements to the media so far, it sounds like he’s still experimenting with lineups but has hinted at David DeJesus leading off.  The #2 hitter remains a history, but we can assume that LaHair and Soriano are in the middle of the order in some capacity.  I doubt Soto will hit any lower than sixth in the lineup.  It’s anyone’s guess as to where Castro ultimately hits, but he’s probably going to be in the #2 spot.  Get used to a lot of shuffling in the early going, but towards the end of March you’ll likely see the regular lineup that will be used on Opening Day and beyond, as Sveum doesn’t seem keen on altering the lineup too much.

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