Tinkers and Evers. Kessinger and Beckert. Dunston and Sandberg.
Castro and ???
Barring a setback or complete lack of progress, Starlin Castro figures to remain a fixture at SS for the Cubs for the foreseeable future. He's 21 years old. He'll be here for a while. The real question is who will be he his partner at 2B. Castro has already had 2 different players residing next door. The first was Ryan Theriot, but he's already gone and the second was Darwin Barney, a utility type who has kept defying the odds and now looks to be a starter for the second straight season. Holding on to that job long term will be a little more difficult, however. Despite losing top prospect Hak Ju Lee, the Cubs have a lot of candidates to consider with their ages (all 26 or under). Here's a list of them and the level they expect to play at in 2012. Note that they are in order of the professional level at which they are expected to play, not talent or probability of being the long term solution.
1. Darwin Barney, 26, majors. The thing about Barney is you know what he's going to give you. Good defense and .275-ish batting average at the plate. Defensively he fits the profile of what the Cubs want, but offense is a different story. Barney is a decent singles hitter, but his lack of any kind of extra base power really hurts his ability to make an impact offensively. He also doesn't walk much, not so much because he is undisciplined, but because pitchers aren't afraid to throw him strikes. Few hitters saw as many pitchers throw strikes as Barney did, and it hurts his ability to supplement his decent batting average with walks. The story with Barney is either get stronger and become more of a threat at the late (unlikely with his age and smallish frame) or get passed up by another 2B in the system and become a utility infielder.
2. Jeff Bianchi, 26, AAA. A lot like Barney in that he is good enough defensively to play SS. Bianchi has sure hands and is fundamentally sound as an infielder. His bat has a bit more pop than Barney's but is still short for what you want at 2B. Bianchi was once considered the Royals SS of the future and ranked as high as their 11th best prospect per Baseball America. Injuries have derailed him and eventually helped land him on the waiver wire. Ironically, he's probably one injury away from becoming the Cubs starting 2B next year, but long term he looks more like a utility guy.
3. Junior Lake, 21, AA. Lake was born in the same country in the same month in the same year, and signed at the same time with the same agent as Starlin Castro. Doesn't it seem natural that he should be Castro's DP partner? Like Bianchi, Lake will probably play more SS as he has more than enough arm to play there. Lake isn't going to be the kind of defensive player that the first two players on the list are. He relies less on solid fundamentals and more on raw tools. His value is in his ability to provide a power/speed combo that no other Cub on this list possesses. Unfortunately his lack of polish at the plate and in the field threatens to undermine that immense potential. He did show more willingness to draw a walk in the AZ Fall League, so perhaps there is reason for hope in that area.
4. Logan Watkins, 22, AA. Watkins is an athletic player with excellent hand-eye coordination and speed. Combine those skills with the fact that he hits from the left-side of the plate and it's likely that Watkins will be able to hit for a solid batting average. He also has a fair amount of plate discipline in that he has walked in roughly 10% of his plate appearances over the past 2 seasons. Last season his skill and eye at the plate combined to give him a solid .351 OBP to go with his .280 BA. Like the first two names on this list, Watkins biggest question is how much power he can provide. The Cubs think he's deceptively strong and will add extra-base power in time. They may have caught a glimpse of what's to come last season as Watkins slugged over .400 for the first time in his professional career, close to a 70 point jump from the year before. Watkins is also a good defensive player with a lot of experience turning the pivot at 2B, though he has the range and arm to play SS. He plays with an intensity that tends to rub off on his teammates, making him a potential leader down the road.
5. Renaldo Torreyes, 19, A+. Torreyes hit .356 as an 18 year old in his first year of full-season ball for the Reds' Class A Dayton team. Torreyes can flat out hit. His plate discipline is better than the numbers would indicate but he makes contact so easily (6.2% strikeout rate) that he doesn't always lay off pitches he should -- which sounds a bit like Starlin Castro himself. Like Castro, he's extremely advanced as a young hitter, able to easily handle pitchers that are much older than he is. He's also a good athlete with the range to play SS but his arm limits his future to 2B. Torreyes weakness? His size. He's generously listed at 5'10 but some feel he may his height may be a lot closer to 5'7". He is surprisingly strong, however, and has extra-base pop. He's still young and could get a bit stronger. In Torreyes, perhaps Sr. VP of Scouting Jason McLeod sees a little of another small 2B with uncanny ability at the plate in Dustin Pedroia.
6. Zeke DeVoss, 21, A. The speedy switch-hitting DeVoss is a player once coveted by Epstein and McLeod as they drafted him out of high school, offered him above slot money, and nearly stole him away from a strong commitment to the U. of Miami. DeVoss didn't hit for much extra base power but the Cubs feel he has the strength to eventually hold his own in that area. What cannot be questioned is his tremendous batting eye, the best of anyone on this list, and his ability to flat out get on base, then wreak havoc once he gets there. He's a prototypical leadoff man, putting up an incredible .462 OBP in short-season ball that included a .311 batting average and an eye-popping 19% walk rate. Defensively, he's athletic and has good range and surprisingly soft hands, though he is prone to throwing errors. There's a good chance he may stick at 2B if he continues to progress. If he doesn't, he has the speed to play another premium position, CF, down the road.
7. Marco Hernandez, 19, A-. The lefty swinging Hernandez is a favorite sleeper of mine. He has average to above average tools across the board at a premium position, but doesn't possess one outstanding tool, which sort of makes him the SS version of Brett Jackson, with a little bit less batting eye and a lot more contact ability. He hit .333 in Rookie level Arizona and had a respectable .152 ISO despite just 2 HRs. He projects to hit for a good average with possible 10-15 HR power/speed combo. Defensively he has good range and a strong arm.
8. Gioskar Amaya, 19, A-. A natural hitter, Amaya hit .377 as he played mostly 2B and 3B as Hernandez's teammate in Arizona. He showed some extra base power (.132 ISO and .510 slugging), but didn't hit HRs. Although his instincts are good, his defense lags behind Hernandez at this point as he is not as athletic and projects to get bigger and lose some speed and range. That may relegate him to 3B down the line, but his bat will be his ticket to the major leagues. He could project as an offense first 2B if he can play just adequate defense.
9. Carlos Penalver, 17, AZ Rookie League. Penalver was one of two big Cubs signings out of Latin America (Venezuela) in 2010. The other was the more well-known Jeimer Candelario. Penalver is a different kind of player than Candelario is. He's more athletic, speedier, and is very likely to stick in the middle infield somewhere, with 2B being the most likely bet. Penalver is a good hitter with a solid approach at the plate but doesn't figure to have the offensive impact that Candelario will. He hit .272 in the Dominican Summer League last year with a very respectable .364 OBP to go with 21 SBs.