Cubs still waiting on final roster answers

422882.jpg

Cubs still waiting on final roster answers

Thursday, March 24, 2011Posted: 1:15 p.m. Updated: 4:24 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. Mike Quade loves the ponies and spent four years managing Triple-A Iowa. This has the feel of a Des Moines caucus, and is being covered like a political horse race.

Its all whos up, whos down and whos surging ahead that day. A week out from Opening Day, the Cubs are putting the finishing touches on their roster, but delaying the major decisions on their pitching staff until the weekend.

Heres what we know: Jeff Baker and Darwin Barney have made claims on the second-base job by hitting above .350 and with their steady defensive play. Reed Johnson a 34-year-old veteran valued for his experience and clubhouse presence will be the fifth outfielder.

Phase 1 is done, Barney said. Im breaking with the Chicago Cubs. Its pretty amazing. Now the focus is on the team its on winning.

The Cubs appreciate Barneys intangibles he won the College World Series twice at Oregon State University and the 25-year-old represents another player drafted and developed by the organization.

Blake DeWitt has essentially made the team, but will again start working at third base an idea the Cubs had resisted and transition into more of a utility role. The 25-year-old has struggled at the plate (.167) and there are concerns about his range and ability to turn the double play at second base.

You still got to perform, Quade said. I can be as excited as I want about the possibilities of Blake DeWitt getting better and having a better season than he has this spring. If I didnt believe that, he wouldnt be on the club.

But suddenly (Baker and Barney) are making a case for themselves. And so now versatility becomes as important as anything.

The picture became clearer on Thursday when the Cubs optioned outfielder Fernando Perez to Triple-A Iowa and sent infielders Bobby Scales, Scott Moore, Augie Ojeda and Matt Camp to minor-league camp.

Perez was included in the Matt Garza deal and the Cubs would like to see him develop in Iowa. He turns 28 next month and has unbelievable speed but needs to improve his jumps and the angles he takes in the outfield.

Besides, the Cubs were already comfortable with Johnson, who made many friends during his first tour on the North Side (2008-09). Fans loved his reckless style and enjoyed watching him dive at the wall.

Johnson feels like he has rediscovered his swing after working closely with Rudy Jaramillo. Johnson remembers that the hitting coach basically turned around Mark DeRosas career in Texas.

Johnson signed a minor-league deal in January because he was so familiar with the organization. But he also noticed how non-roster players are on their own schedules and even take their drug tests at a different time.

Youre given all those constant reminders. (You) try to forget about it but stay focused, Johnson said. About a week to 10 days ago was really where I just put the confidence in myself (to say): Hey, Im going to make this team. And thats the way its going to be.

Yet the biggest question remains: Who becomes the fifth starter?

Andrew Cashner will start Saturday against the Rangers and try to eliminate Carlos Silva from consideration.

Silva had the best outing of any candidate on Wednesday one run in six innings but his spring ERA is still 10.90. There are concerns about how engaged and effective Silva will be for an entire season.

Cashner has a guaranteed spot on the roster and proved himself as a major-league reliever last season and could be another weapon in what looks like a very good bullpen. It has to be tempting to consider that possibility.

No temptation at all right now, Quade said, because that would do us no good if Im running him out there as a starter and not taking that seriously, or all of a sudden on the basis of four or five starts abandoning this completely.

The only time that Ill consider the other side of it is when his success as a starter or lack thereof has come to the point where we need to talk about whats best for him and the club. But right now I think we continue to let him pitch and let this play out.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Cubs show why they are defending champs while Nationals still have something to prove

Cubs show why they are defending champs while Nationals still have something to prove

WASHINGTON – The Cubs already visited the White House. The Washington Nationals are still the team with so much more to prove.

Dusty Baker needs this October to cement his spot in Cooperstown, the way Joe Maddon put the final bullet point on his Hall of Fame resume. Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant took different routes out of Las Vegas, but only one has the World Series ring to go with the Rookie of the Year/MVP hardware. While the clock is ticking on Max Scherzer and that championship parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, the Jon Lester megadeal essentially paid for itself.

Cubs vs. Nationals is supposed to be a circle-your-calendar event. Except the Cubs rolled out a Cactus League lineup on Monday night and Nationals Park featured rows and rows of empty seats amid a crowd of 29,651 where the celebrity vibe became more George Will than A-Rod and J-Lo.

The Cubs still hung on for a 5-4 victory that might have been their best under-the-circumstances win in a season that will hit the halfway point this weekend, showing why they’re the defending champs.

“It is exciting – don’t get me wrong,” Maddon said. “It’s just that we’re attending with a different group than we thought we would be attending this party with.

“And that’s OK, because these guys now are getting the kind of experience that is going to be very beneficial to us in August and September.”

A rash of injuries forced the Cubs to start Jeimer Candelario at third base and Mark Zagunis in right field and Javier Baez kept making highlight-reel plays while Addison Russell rested his sore right shoulder, leaping to grab to a Harper line drive and racing across the left-field line and sliding into the wall to make another spectacular catch in foul territory.

“Games like this is what we need right now – competition,” said Baez, who struck out in his first three at-bats and finished at 2-for-5. “Playing tight games like this will make us make adjustments better and be more in the game.”

With Kyle Schwarber more than 1,000 miles away in Des Moines and hitting the reset button at Triple-A Iowa, Willson Contreras became the leadoff hitter of the day and launched Gio Gonzalez’s fifth pitch of the game into the left-field seats.

The young Cubs manufactured their next run in the eighth inning when Baez stole third base and scored on Albert Almora Jr.’s perfectly placed bunt into the no man’s land between the pitcher’s mound and the first-base line. The bullpen is Washington’s Achilles’ heel and showed with a three-run meltdown in the ninth inning.

Eddie Butler – who began the season in the Iowa rotation – neutralized a powerful Washington lineup while getting just one strikeout in five innings. Maddon pushed a lot of bullpen buttons, not going to Wade Davis for a four-out save and then summoning the All-Star closer when Hector Rondon couldn’t work with a five-run cushion.

In a dramatic finish, Davis survived giving up three hits, a walk and a wild pitch, striking out Ryan Zimmerman with a curveball to end a game that lasted 3 hours and 54 minutes.

“To play so well and not win that game would have really been awful,” Maddon said.

The Cubs needed this with Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg looming the next two nights. But for all of their talent and regular-season dominance – three division titles since 2012 and close to a 100-win pace this year – the Nationals still haven’t won a playoff series in a city where the Senators once won it all in 1924.

This could be an epic matchup in October, bursting with stars and pumping with bad blood. Just listen to Baker during his pregame media briefing, responding to a question about a power hitter like Anthony Rizzo batting leadoff: “I ain’t worried about the Cubs. They can do their thing.”

Or Baker dismissing Maddon’s mind games and the possibility of intentionally walking Harper when Ryan Zimmerman is a Triple Crown contender: “It’s a new time and a new day.”

The last word from Maddon, who keeps insisting the 39-37 Cubs have a hot streak in them and that he digs the youth movement: “If this was a spring training lineup, we might get a call.”

Jason Heyward: Banged-up Cubs ready to be tested vs. Nationals

Jason Heyward: Banged-up Cubs ready to be tested vs. Nationals

WASHINGTON – The cut on Jason Heyward’s left hand has been compared to a third-degree burn, an injury that would have required stiches if the skin had not ripped off already.

The Cubs can’t count on their Gold Glove outfielder – or their World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist) or ERA titleholder (Kyle Hendricks) – for this four-game showdown against the Washington Nationals. All-Star shortstop Addison Russell didn’t start Monday night while dealing with a sore right shoulder, taking more juice out of this potential playoff preview at Nationals Park.

“Every day’s a test, regardless of whether we’re healthy or not,” Heyward said after taking about 15 swings off a tee. “Bottom line, every team goes through tests. Every single season, guys get hurt. And whoever’s there at the end of the year in the playoffs, they handled that the best and was able to weather that storm the best. 

“This team’s no different. Every single day, you’re expected to win. We expect each other to win and go out there and try to find a way to get it done every day. There’s going to be more tests, but that’s what you want.”

The next step for Heyward would be getting cleared to take a full batting practice.

“It’s getting better every day,” Heyward said, “but until it gets to the point where I can swing every day and take BP, I just got to do a little more waiting and healing.”

Heyward – who sliced open his hand while trying to make a sliding catch in foul territory on June 18 – is eligible to be activated from the 10-day disabled list on Thursday but would probably need some at-bats in the minors first.  

“We’ll let you know,” Heyward said. “I don’t do ‘probablys.’ I probably wouldn’t have wanted to be on the DL, either, but we’ll see what happens.”