<
>

Cactus League: Five things to watch

MESA, Ariz. -- The Cactus League schedule begins for the Chicago Cubs on Thursday when they play their debut game at new Cubs Park against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Here are five things to keep an eye on during spring games:

Third base: The baseball world is aware of what Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy can do at the hot corner and although they did a respectable job there in 2013, there is talent behind them in the form of high-ceiling prospects. Mike Olt, acquired in the deal that sent Matt Garza to Texas last season, says he's seeing the ball well after vision problems plagued him in 2013. Now he has to show that in games. If he takes the job -- and keeps it -- it could have long term ramifications at the position. If not, Murphy and Valbuena will keep the position warm until Kris Bryant or another prospect is ready.

Starting rotation: The usual names need to get ready for the season, possibly none more than Edwin Jackson. Spring results don't mean a lot, but for a pitcher coming off an 8-18 season, any kind of confidence boost can't be a bad thing. How serious is Jake Arrieta's shoulder injury? The rest of the spring will tell that story. If he's unable to pitch then James McDonald and Chris Rusin are next up. Rusin starts Friday and can make an immediate impression on his new manager. And then there is Kyle Hendricks. He's a longshot to make the team, but if he pitches as he did in the intrasquad game on Wednesday, going eight up and eight down, he could open some more eyes.

The outfield: On paper, the Cubs don't exactly have the strongest group heading into the regular season. Junior Lake will get his playing time but could the much-maligned Josh Vitters or Brett Jackson win a job? Without perennial All-Stars making big money out there someone could get pushed down the ladder. Right now Justin Ruggiano and Ryan Sweeney have a beat on starting jobs, but if Jackson or Vitters goes off in spring games, one of them could at least head north with the team. If there is a surprise in camp, it's most likely to come in the outfield. Lake is playing center and Ruggiano is in left for Thursday's opening game. It's still undecided where Lake's long-term future lies although he likes center better.

Second base: Is Darwin Barney on his way out or to the bench or does the late addition of Emilio Bonifacio just add depth? Bonifacio is getting the start ahead of Barney on Thursday but little can be deduced simply from that. Still, Bonifacio has skills the Cubs could use at the top of the order, but Barney has the skills to save runs at second base. One thing is for sure, the Cubs probably won't let Barney be the starter all season if his batting average hovers around .200 as it did last year. A good spring sets the tone but still might not stave off Javier Baez from playing there if he's called up this season.

Starlin Castro: Like Jackson, a rebound season is needed and he says he wants to be "locked in" from the beginning of spring games. It doesn't mean he has to hit .600 in February and March games, but with his newly added muscle and commitment to the game you'd like to see it pay off right away. Why wait until April? Castro never takes it easy once the games begin. He hates days off and so if he's going to play a lot it would be nice to see some production -- or at least an inkling that he's back to the old Castro.