MESA, Ariz. -- A day off for the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday gives us a chance to assess the team as it heads into the stretch run of spring training.
There are nine Cactus League games remaining and two more exhibition contests in Houston before the Cubs begin the regular season on April 1 in Pittsburgh.
Here are some issues facing team president Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and manager Dale Sveum:
The injury to Matt Garza has complicated matters for the rotation but not as much for his trade value as you might think -- at least not yet. If the Cubs are going to unload him it's probably going to happen near the trade deadline.
As long as he's healthy and pitching well near that time they shouldn't get much less for him than if he was throwing now. Then again his lat injury has lingered long enough and combined with his return from elbow problems it remains to be seen if he actually will be throwing consistently into the summer.
The more pressing issue is getting enough quality starts without him. Carlos Villanueva is better in the bullpen and Travis Wood and Scott Feldman are probably better suited down a notch in the rotation, but that's not how things will begin this season. The Cubs should consider Chris Rusin – who's been very good this spring -- as their No. 5 starter until Garza is ready. He's a natural starter and it strengthens the bullpen by allowing Villanueva to return. They can always make a change if it doesn't work out.
While some will lament the signings of Scott Baker and Ian Stewart -- both of whom are hurt – it all depends on your perspective. Pretend as if Baker was never signed. He is/was a reclamation project. The Cubs have enough legitimate starters without him and so would anyone be asking why there aren't more in camp if Baker was never signed?
Of course that money could have been used elsewhere, but the bottom line is if the Cubs are going to contend this year it probably wasn't going to be because of Baker, and he's not an answer to the future when they do contend. Besides, there is precedent for the Cubs picking up an injured player and rehabbing him until he's productive again. That's exactly how Ryan Dempster came to the organization. So don't lose any sleep over Baker. Anything he gives the Cubs is gravy.
Stewart's situation is a little more complicated. It would be very easy to criticize the Cubs for re-signing him and by all indications it wasn't exactly their top priority. But talent at third base is rare around baseball these days. It's arguably the weakest position in baseball. That's what prompted Epstein this winter to jokingly say Mike Schmidt would get a killer contract in today's game. The Cubs know they are thin at that position. There is no indication that there is a third baseman of the future even in the organization. The y hope Josh Vitters can turn the corner and hope that Junior Lake can play there once healthy but those are far from guarantees.
With a healthy and productive Stewart, the Cubs could have one of the better defensive infields in the National League, but a quad injury combined with his return from a wrist injury has placed his whole season in doubt. It might be popular to call for the Cubs to cut him since his contract is non-guaranteed, but the Cubs are simply too thin at the hot corner.
Unlike Baker, the Cubs actually do need production out of Stewart, who will open the season on the disabled list. Luis Valbuena and Brent Lillibridge have both had good springs so maybe the Cubs can max out their abilities until, or if, Stewarts returns. And in the meantime the Cubs will scour the waiver wire over the next two weeks to see if anything looks good at that position.
The top four regulars -- David DeJesus, Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Alfonso Soriano -- could be very dangerous, especially if DeJesus gets on-base. The quietest story of camp has been his bat. He's hit everything, even while making outs. Keep an eye on him as the regular season begins. It's hard to know if things will carry over but if DeJesus starts hot it will be because adjustments he made in seeing the ball out of the pitcher's hand.
The bottom four hitters -- Nate Schierholtz, Welington Castillo, Luis Valbuena and Darwin Barney -- are question marks. Each has had their moments this spring but all have something to prove at the plate. Schierholtz could be the key batting behind the top four. He's big and strong and has hit the gaps in spring training, something he'll need to do as a left-handed hitter at Wrigley Field. Consistency out of those bottom four hitters -- plus Scott Hairston and Lillibridge -- is bound to be the key to the offense.
The rest of the roster
Everyone with the Cubs, including the guy himself, believes Dave Sappelt can hit left-handed pitching in his sleep and he's done that lately, making him a favorite to make the team. Hector Rondon has been good as a Rule 5 pickup and should have a bullpen spot as will Kyuji Fujiakawa, Carlos Marmol, James Russell and Shawn Camp. That leaves two spots up for grabs with Villanueva, Wood, Edwin Jackson, Feldman and Jeff Samardzija in the rotation.
Casey Coleman has pitched well as has Blake Parker and Michael Bowden. And one of two lefties should make it -- either Rusin or Hisanori Takahashi. Zach Putnam has a chance as well. The infield spot vacated with Stewart on the disabled list is between Edwin Maysonet, Alberto Gonzalez and Steve Clevenger.
Baez and Soler
There was no better storyline than prospects Javier Baez and Jorge Soler throughout their time in major league camp and Baez emerged in the final weeks as a force to be reckoned with. Common sense says they should be in the minors but a part of any baseball fan should be curious to know how he would fare right now in the big leagues. If Baez was a true third baseman there might be more of a cry for it to happen considering the Cubs have no one to play there but there's no legitimate reason to rush either of them. None.
Then again, take a look at Rizzo's maturation process. He came up earlier than he should have with the San Diego Padres and it didn't hurt his long-term confidence. He struggled but went back to the minors and returned in even better shape. Maybe Baez washes out and has to be sent back down -- then again maybe not. No one can answer that question. But it's a moot point.
Maybe Samardzija said it best in relation to both prospects. He said if they show Bryce Harper or Mike Trout ability they'll force the Cubs' hand. Then we'll really have something special to talk about at Wrigley Field.