For a team that had the 4th worst record in baseball, there isn't going to be a whole lot of competition in spring training for roster spots as things stand now. There is a 5th OF"er spot available and if Mike Olt doesn't win the 3B job, there could be a utility infielder position open. The catching is all squared away with Welington Castillo and George Kottaras.
The tentative rotation is :
- Jeff Samardzija
- Travis Wood
- Edwin Jackson
- Jason Hammel
- Jake Arrieta
Likely nailing down bullpen spots are:
- Jose Veras
- James Russell (L)
- Pedro Strop
- Carlos Villanueva
- Wesley Wright (L)
- Blake Parker
- Alberto Cabrera (out of options)
Barring a trade, it's really difficult to see anyone else squeezing in for the Opening Day roster. But as we have seen the past two seasons, the roster in April will almost certainly look very much different by August. Injuries, ineffectiveness, and perhaps trades will create openings as the season goes on. Depth will be important as the Cubs try to stay afloat over the course of a 162 game season.
Amassing pitching depth isn't easy and nobody likes to dip into their 8th or 9th starters unless it's absolutely necessary. The Cubs have quietly built some solid depth forthe rotation. Their role early on is to provide depth, but hopefully an arm or two emerges as the year goes on and force the Cubs to make some tough decisions as the year goes on. The Cubs don't have any can't miss prospects knocking on the door, but at least this year they may not to be rummaging the scrap heap for last minute replacements. We may finally see the Cubs start to answer some of those concerns in-house.
But as the Cardinals shown, starting depth doesn't necessarily mean they have to be used as starters -- at least not right away. The Cardinals have shown great success grooming power arms out of the bullpen early in their careers.
Here are 8 power pitchers who are yet to enter their prime to keep an eye on this spring...
Grimm was told to prepare as a starter and was set to be the leading candidate for the 5th spot before the signing of Jason Hammel. He tops my depth chart for that reason and because he has the best chance of being something better than a 5th starter based on the quality of his stuff, particularly his top two pitches (fastball, curveball). Continued development of the change-up and consistency with command could make him a #4 starter.
As a reliever, however, he doesn't need to worry about the change or being as consistent with his command. He can reach 97 out of the pen and can use his curveball as a wipeout change of pace pitch.
Ramirez has been a starter but many feel he will actually end up in the bullpen where he can play up his fastball and limit exposure with his spotty command. Ramirez gets every chance to start, however, because like Grimm, he has good stuff and the kind of size/strength to eat innings if healthy. Ramirez rebounded from a poor season in 2012 to put up intriguing numbers in 2013, but shoulder health, repeating his delivery consistently, and command will determine his future.
Cabrera had success at AA as a starter but ran out of gas after the big innings jump from 2012, which he spent as a reliever. It remains to be seen whether Cabrera gets another crack at starting or if the Cubs will make his late season move to the bullpen permanent. He has a mid-90s fastball and a slider which can be an outpitch, so he has a good starting kit for either a starter or a power reliever -- but he's out of options so he is going to have to prove something quickly or go the way of Rafael Dolis.
There is some speculation about trying Rondon as a starter but his injury history makes that very risky. Rondon finished strong last year in terms of both numbers and stuff, flashing a 97 mph fastball and a slider which took a big step forward last year. After being basically guaranteed a roster spot last year, Rondon may be on the outside looking in this year. He'll compete with Blake Parker and Alberto Cabrera for one of the last 2 spots, but it won't be easy. Parker was one of the Cubs more effective relievers last year and Cabrera is out of options. Rondon may need to wait for an opportunity at Iowa, but you can't rule out him making the team this spring if he builds on his strong finish.
Vizcaino showed electric stuff this fall but the Cubs will bring him along slowly for obvious reasons. He hasn't pitched in over 2 seasons so his command is a bigger question than it was 2 years ago, when Keith Law ranked him as the 12th best prospect in all of baseball. He may need some catching up to do and build some strength up at Iowa, but when he comes up, he has a chance to add an impact reliever. Vizcaino will almost certainly spend any time with the Cubs this season out of the pen but that could change down the road if he proves he's healthy and can build stamina.
Like Rondon, Rivero may also get a look as a starter this season. The lanky 26 year old Cuban struggled out of the gate, then suddenly found his velocity, consistently throwing in the mid 90s in the second half of the season. He also has a bit of a slurve which he can get hitters at lower levels to chase when he's ahead in the count, but he's going to have to be more precise with it at the upper levels.
Pimentel already transitioned to the bullpen in 2012 after some moderate success as a starter but returned to the rotation in 2013 where he was able to maintain his high strikeout rates while showing significant improvement with his walk rate. The stuff isn't as overpowering as other pitchers on this list, but Pimentel can pitch in the low 90s and perhaps turn that up a notch out of the bullpen. He's still just 24 and younger than many of the pitchers on this list so it was a worthwhile waiver claim by the Cubs to see if his step forward in 2013 is a sign of things to come. Results out of the winter league were encouraging where Pimentel went 5-0 with a 1.67 ERA, striking out 32 and walking 14 in 37.2 innings.
Not a starting candidate but another potential power arm out of the bullpen. Hatley sits in the 93-95 range and can touch 97. He has a power curve that he has trouble commanding, but last year he showed an improved ability to miss bats. He is your Blake Parker type sleeper for this offseason in that he's a guy with good stuff/good makeup but perhaps a bit of a late bloomer.
Deeper Down on the Farm
The list above is for this spring but there is no reason the Cubs can't continue this pipeline for years to come. Here are my favorite pitching prospects who could fall back as power relievers if they don't make it as starters.
- Corey Black: Stuff to be a starter, including a 97 mph fastball, but size may limit him down the road.
- Tyler Skulina: Low to mid 90s as a starter with some projection left but could be even more overpowering out of the pen.
- Dillon Maples: Up to 96 in short spurts with a breaking pitch that can be unhittable when he's on.
- Scott Frazier: 6'7" pitcher who can hit 96 mph and pitch with hard, downward plane. Can be intimidating in short bursts.
- Trey Masek: Smaller pitcher with great arm strength who can pitch in the 93-95 range with potential for good command.
- Zach Cates: Was up to 96 mph late in the season. Has a good slider and a solid change as well. Great athlete.
- Josh Conway: Has closer's stuff (mid 90s fastball, wipeout slider) but needs to stay healthy.
- Duane Underwood: Arm strength is there but still learning to pitch. May need to start his career out of the bullpen.
- Juan Paniagua: May have the best arm on this list, touching 98 with some reports that he has hit triple digits, but visa issues have hampered his development.
- Starling Peralta: If he can show some of the promise he showed in 2012 and early 2013, he still may have a shot. But time is running out.
- Matt Loosen: 93-94 mph as a starter but showed some promise in the AFL out of the bullpen.
- Jose Arias: Big body, mid 90s fastball with decent command, but inability to sell change may eventually relegate him to the pen.
The Cubs have made it a point to stock up the system with power arms for this very reason. Power arms who don't make it can still be effective out of the bullpen -- particularly the late innings. The same isn't as true with finesse, pitchability types who project as bottom of the rotation type starters. It's in many ways just another manifestation of the Cubs inclination to go after players with high floors. And arm strength gives pitchers a higher floor because it becomes a potential weapon out of the pen if they can't make it as starters.
Can the Cubs have anywhere near the success that the Cardinals and other teams have had by stockpiling power arms? That remains to be seen. But it seems obvious that this is part of their plan.
To me, the progress of some of these young power arms is what will be most interesting to watch this spring and it could be where we start to see that first wave of talent emerge as the Cubs look ahead to 2015 and 2016.
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