Jesse Rogers previews the Cubs by position in the days leading up to pitchers and catchers reporting for spring training on Sunday.
This could be the year of the infield if all goes right for the Chicago Cubs. There are no newcomers to the starting four though not all four were there for the entire 2012 season. All have legitimate shots at improving or even taking a big next step.
Here's a look at the infield:
Starlin Castro, SS: Now a seasoned veteran of three years -- though just 22 -- it's time for Castro to take that next step. And that's saying something considering he already is a two-time All-Star. Everything that would have held him back is in the past, the biggest of which is his contract situation. He's signed for long term and his family is well taken care of -- both were admittedly on his mind a year ago. Castro will even have a little more protection in the lineup having Anthony Rizzo around for a full season. At the plate, Castro needs to cut down on the strikeouts (100) and increase the walks (36) while keeping his head in the game for a full nine innings. He can do everything, now he just needs to do it all for a full season.
Anthony Rizzo, 1B: To date, this is Theo Epstein and Co.'s best showing that they know how to scout. They drafted him in Boston and GM Jed Hoyer traded for him in San Diego before bringing him to the Cubs last offseason. The move paid off after Rizzo came up from the minors for half the season in 2012. Left-handed power is so essential at Wrigley Field, making Rizzo, who batted .285 with 15 home runs and 48 RBIs last season, even more valuable. He has a sweet swing along with a great attitude. Barring injuries or a reversal in his progression, he's destined to be the next fan favorite on the North Side, if he isn't already. He appears to be the real deal and it will be interesting to see how he produces over a full season.
Darwin Barney, 2B: He's almost a throw-back considering his good-glove, no-bat reputation. The Cubs are trying to change that as a .299 on-base percentage in 2012 isn't going to cut it. If Barney wants to be considered a core player along with Castro and Rizzo, he'll have to make major strides at the plate. That's not to undermine his defense as his Gold Glove was most deserving, but it's not enough. If Barney doesn't improve his offense the Cubs might be looking elsewhere.
Ian Stewart, 3B: There was some debate if Stewart would be back with the Cubs when they non-tendered him, making him a free agent this offseason. But Stewart eventually signed -- with no guarantees -- and now has to prove himself all over again. Spring games could go a long way to doing that while showing he's fully healed from his wrist issues that made his 2012 season forgettable. He played in just 55 games, batting .201 with five home runs and 46 strikeouts in 179 at-bats. The good news is his defense was never an issue. If Stewart returns to his form in Colorado when he hit 43 home runs over two seasons, it would be a huge boost to a team wondering if Josh Vitters is still a viable prospect at third base.
The bench: The Cubs are a little thin on the bench in terms of proven infielders who might be able to help in a pinch. Luis Valbunea provides some insurance at third base, but non-roster invitee Brent Lillibridge might be the next best option on the roster. Alberto Gonzalez was signed in the offseason as a minor-league free agent who can play up the middle. He's spent time with the Yankees, Nationals, Padres and Rangers and will probably back up Barney and Castro. Rizzo won't get much of a break as there is no experience behind him at first base.
OUTLOOK: Defense won't be an issue for the infield as they are strong all around the diamond. Castro and Barney should be that much better as a combination after a couple of years together while Rizzo and Stewart are looking for a full year at their respective positions.