About halfway through spring training a couple of storylines have developed for the Chicago Cubs. One affects 2014 while the other could have longer-range implications.
The addition of infielder/outfielder Emilio Bonifacio is the short-term story to follow. How much will he play and at what positions?
He’s already given manager Rick Renteria some pause for thought when it comes to a leadoff man. Starlin Castro was Renteria’s early, offseason choice for that role, considering he’s had success there. And the Cubs want him as comfortable as possible going into what they hope is a rebound year. But Renteria noted Bonifacio is just as capable of getting on base from the one-hole and has more dangerous base-stealing speed. Two triples so far in spring games back up those thoughts.
As most players get about a day off a week, Bonifacio could simply rotate around the infield and outfield to get his at-bats while Castro would most likely bat second on those days. If Bonifacio puts up starter-type numbers while someone slumps, then a transition into becoming an everyday player could be in the offing.
Speaking of where Bonifacio bats in the lineup, the question of Castro’s spot in the order if and when the Cubs become a contender, is still relevant. And still there is no answer. Is it really best for the team in the coming years if he’s the leadoff man? Can he handle whatever is needed batting second? Some may think it really doesn’t matter, and maybe the most important thing is to get him back to being an All-Star type player before worrying about the batting order. It’s hard to argue with that perspective.
The narrative that has more long-term implications for the Cubs is the situation involving third baseman Mike Olt. He’s presumably still a third baseman, though he’s played more at first and been a designated hitter due to a tender throwing shoulder in the early going. His story is well-documented. Previously untouchable when the Cubs were in trade mode in 2012, they were able to nab him for Matt Garza last July as his season went south (.201 overall) after vision problems popped up during spring training. He says his vision is fine but he does lead the team with six strikeouts going into Sunday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers. He’s 3 for 14 so far in spring games and had a nice pinch-hit, two-run home run last Tuesday in a 6-4 loss to the Oakland A’s. But as a designated hitter and first baseman so far it’s hard to know if Olt is the Cubs third baseman of the future.
All of a sudden the organization is stacked at that position throughout their minor league system. A year ago at this time, Kris Bryant hadn’t been drafted yet, Olt played for Texas and former first-round pick Josh Vitters was struggling and hurt. But with the promotion of Christian Villanueva, who came from Texas in 2012 for Ryan Dempster instead of Olt, to Triple-A and good reports on Single-A third baseman Jeimer Candelario, the hot corner could easily be a source of strength for the Cubs in the trade market in the coming years. They’re not quite yet in the mode of moving young players for more established veterans -- or even rentals for a playoff run -- but that time should be coming soon. The surge of prospects there even moved Vitters to first base and outfield.
So what does all that mean for Olt?
It’s possible he wins the job at third, outright, over the next three weeks. Or maybe he makes the team in more of a backup role with a chance for the right-hander to play first base against tougher lefties to spell Anthony Rizzo. If Luis Valbuena or the righty Donnie Murphy struggle then Olt could slide back to third on a more regular basis. If somehow he takes off at third base -- either now or very soon -- it will have implications throughout the organization, mostly affecting Bryant’s future. That could mean a move to the outfield for the No. 2 overall pick of last June. But all this is premature as Olt hasn’t played enough third base in spring so far to win any job there.
The most likely scenario for Olt entering this spring was to start the season at Triple-A Iowa. He had such a bad year in 2013 battling his vision problems it wouldn’t be a shock if he needed a confidence boost in the minors to help return him to 2102 form. That’s when he hit 28 home runs at Double-A for Texas and kept him off the trade block when the Cubs came calling. In Iowa he could split time with Villanueva at third, play some first and get at-bats as the designated hitter as well. In fact, Vitters – who’s 2 for 7 with two walks so far -- might be that right-handed backup for Rizzo who can also play the outfield and third.
The less the Cubs have “invested” in a player the more likely he is to make the team as a backup. In other words, the time may have passed for Vitters to be regarded as a player who needs at-bats every day because he’s an eventual starter. Olt still has some upside if he returns to 2012 form so he might need the Triple-A at-bats he may not get in the majors. Then again, with no clear cut No. 1 third baseman on the roster the Cubs could just hand it to Olt and see what he does.
That’s not likely to happen, so the third-base saga for this season and beyond will continue -- at least until Bryant is ready. He’s up next.