The Chicago Cubs' infield could be one of the better ones in the National League -- at least on defense.
Anthony Rizzo is more than capable at first base and although Ian Stewart is a natural third baseman, his replacement for now, Luis Valbuena, showed last season he could play the position. Welington Castillo is the X factor as a first time starting catcher.
The questions come on offense. Can Barney be better? And will Rizzo do it for a full year as most expect? Castro remains the centerpiece. He has all the abilities to put together a breakout year and should be a bigger threat with his speed and power. Castillo has pop but hit under .200 in spring training.
It remains to be seen if Valbuena can raise his average enough to be respectable after hitting just .219 last season in 303 plate appearances. His on-base percentage (.310) wasn't very good either and he hit just .071 with runners in scoring position and two outs.
Barney has to get on base more. A sub-.300 on-base percentage -- he was at .299 last season -- isn't going to last in the big leagues very long, no matter how talented he is defensively. Batting eighth, Barney will get pitched around some to get to the pitcher, but with two outs teams will want the pitcher to lead-off the next inning if they know Barney is an easy out.
Barney had a lesser-talked about swing change like outfielder Brett Jackson. We'll see if it pays off.
The backups, Steve Clevenger and Brent Lillibridge, both showed flashes this spring but the Cubs will be exposed if any more of their starters goes down. As maligned as Stewart is among fans he's needed -- if he can get and stay healthy.
3 KEYS TO SUCCESS
Castro, Castro, Castro: He might be all three keys. Playing the most important position on the diamond and batting second, Castro will be in the middle of everything. There is no reason he can't have a huge year on both offense and defense. Mentally, he's in a great frame of mind with his contract and off-the-field issues behind him. The Cubs go nowhere if Castro isn't a near superstar in all facets of the game.
Counting on Castillo: Most of the time the catcher position is underrated from a defensive standpoint, and if Castillo isn't calling a good game then backup Dioner Navarro might see more time. Castillo's spring average isn't a huge concern because he played well on defense and that's just as important as what he does at the plate. Last season he allowed 33 of 44 runners steal on him. A solid performance from Castillo is key in several ways, but mostly from a pitching perspective and several hurlers have commented on his maturity since last season.
Year 2 for Rizzo: It's hard not to envision Rizzo a key to the offense overall. He'll bat third and probably play close to 162 games. That's a far cry from half a season in the minors and half in the majors as he did last year. Asking for 30 home runs and 100 RBIs might be too much. He'll have to make adjustments as pitchers are bound to make them on him. Keep an eye on this stat from last season: Rizzo slugged .530 in day games but only .398 at night in a similar number of at-bats.