People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring. -Rogers Hornsby
We can stop staring out the window. The baseball calendar says that spring has finally arrived.
It's a time of great hope and expectations for fans. For a team it is also a time for renewal...a chance to start with a clean slate. And for some players, it's an opportunity to get their first look, or perhaps jump start a stalled career.
It seems every year there is a player or group of players that spring seemingly out of nowhere. It can be a non-roster player that catches the manager's eye as RP Blake Parker and utility player Joe Mather did last March. Or it may be a young veteran who shows that he's ready to take things to the next level, as Jeff Samardzija did last season Other times, it can be a budding young star who shows us that he's much more ready than we think, as a 19 year old Starlin Castro did in 2010.
As the first example shows, spring success can often be fleeting (though Parker showed enough to get another invite this spring). But sometimes, like Samardzija and Castro, they can become a core piece of the long term plans.
So with that I ask, who will be this year's spring surprises? Here are a few candidates...
We gotta play 'em one day at a time...
These players' careers may not have gotten off to the fastest start but maybe patience is the key here. Like Samardzija last season, these players could use a good spring to carry into what will hopefully be a breakout season.
- Ian Stewart, 3B: Stewart has been hampered by a wrist injury the past two seasons but feels that surgery has finally corrected the problem. If he can stay healthy and productive, it would be a huge boost to the Cubs. Stewart's strengths as a ballpayer -- power, defense, and the ability to grind out ABs -- make him a good fit with front office philosophy.
- Nate Schierholtz, RF: Schierholtz was once a top prospect with the Giants but playing half his games at AT&T has put a drag on his overall numbers and, although he improved last year, Schierholtz has generally struggled against LHP. His career numbers on the road vs. RHP are much more encouraging ( .281/330/.443 and .334 wOBA), and it wouldn't surprise me to see Schierholtz put up some career numbers in a platoon role this season.
- Scott Feldman, RHP: The Feldman signing has been lauded as a great value deal for the Cubs. At first glance a 6-11 record with a 5.09 ERA doesn't look very good, but there is plenty of reason to think Feldman can be much better this season with the Cubs. His peripherals (3.81 FIP and solid strikeout ratio of 7 Ks/2.3 BBs) bode well, as does a move from one of the most hitter friendly ballparks in baseball. His stuff should play better in the NL as well.
Sleeper: Jeff Samardzija went from starter in the minors, to struggling reliever, to successful MLB starter. Can Alberto Cabrera follow the same path? There are some similarities between the 2011 Samardzija and the 2012 Cabrera in that both are physically gifted pitchers with great stuff... but with inconsistent command and an unrefined approach. Samardzija shored up his weaknesses and became a good MLB starting pitcher. Can lightning strike twice? Cabrera isn't going to make the team, but a big year at Iowa may put him in position later in the season should the Cubs deal starting pitchers at the deadline again.
I'm just happy to be here, hope I can help the ball club...
The Cubs are surprisingly set as far as the 25 man roster goes, but there are job opportunities for a utility player and maybe a bullpen spot or two. These guys can snag those spots with a good spring...
- Hisanori Takahashi, LHP: The Cubs are looking at Travis Wood as a starter, so that leaves James Russell as the only lefty reliever. Takahashi had a tough year (5.54 ERA) but showed he can still miss bats (9.3 Ks/9 IP) and still throw enough strikes (2.5 BB/9 IP)
- Brent Lillibridge, OF-3B: After a solid 2011 season, Lillibridge fell off the map last year. His biggest advantage is that he can play two positions in which the Cub could use a right-handed bat. His energetic style of play is sure to get attention as well.
- Edwin Maysonet: IF: Maysonet also offers a RH bat who could spell Stewart at 3B but has the additional advantage of being able to play a respectable SS. The Cubs current backup SS options are less than ideal. Luis Valbuena isn't quite what you want defensively and Darwin Barney is going to be playing 2B on an everyday basis.
Sleeper: Technically these guys are all sleepers but I like Cory Wade in this spot. His ERA (6.46) was awful last year, but his xFIP (3.65) was pretty respectable. We know he'll throw strikes (1.85 BBs/9 IP) and that alone will get Dale Sveum's attention.
I'm just going to give it my best shot, and the good lord willing, things will work out....
In all likelihood, these players aren't going to make the team, but a strong effort this spring could put them on the fast track to the big leagues...
- Javier Baez, SS: Can the latest Cubs phenom turn heads the way Starlin Castro did 3 years ago? The approach may not be MLB ready but there are few in baseball, even at the MLB level, who have the kind of bat speed that Baez has. At this stage, it's likely experienced pitchers will be able to fool him, but if they decide they want to consistently challenge him with power stuff, it's going to be a different story. The Cubs have said Baez is only in MLB camp to get experience, but an impressive spring and a big year in the minors will speed up his timetable.
- Brett Jackson, CF: Much has been made of Jackson re-tooling his swing and there is cautious optimism that he can lower his strikeout rate to an acceptable level. The first big test comes this spring as Jackson unveils his new stroke against live pitching. Jackson has everything else the Cubs want in a player: defense, speed, power, plate discipline, and strong mental makeup. The Cubs don't have a true CF'er at the moment and if Jackson shows he can make more consistent contact, then the job will be his by mid-season.
- Junior Lake, SS, 3B, OF: Lake is about as toolsy as they come, but an unrefined approach threatens to undermine all that physical talent. He has made some progress with that approach and he continues to produce offensively even as he reaches the upper levels, including an outstanding stint in the winter leagues this past offseason. Lake has been on Sveum's radar since last season so a good spring will get him a step closer. The question will be if he'll hit enough to be a big league regular, but if not he can sill be an asset to the Cubs as a versatile player who can provide speed and a little power vs. RHP off the bench. His ability to play SS, 3B, and probably all 3 OF spots adds to his value, especially to a team that lacks depth at those positions.
Sleeper: There is nothing wrong with Trey McNutt's sfuff. It's as good as almost any Cubs pitcher on the roster. The problems have been commanding it and staying healthy. He's on the 40 man roster now so he'll get longer look. If he puts it together, he could move quickly and put himself in line for a call-up later in the season.
As usual, we'll probably see a few surprises this spring. Some may do just enough to make the team short term, others may use it as a springboard to a breakout season, and perhaps a young player or two will put themselves in position for a call-up in the near future.
Who do you think will be the 2013 spring surprises?
Filed under: Spring Training