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