PHOENIX — Who’s in? Who’s out? Who’s on the bubble?
Mesa March Madness doesn’t have the same sense of drama, especially since the Cubs had almost all of their 25 guys already in mind when they reported to camp, even after sitting through 96 losses and punting this offseason.
One week from Opening Day, the Cubs haven’t announced who will be their stopgap fifth starter. The last bench job is up for grabs. There might be a spot or two open in the bullpen.
The Cubs have no idea what they’ll get from a full season of Junior Lake, but they’re willing to go through the highs and the lows because he has so much raw talent. In front of the WGN cameras and 6,511 fans, Lake put on a show at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, blasting three home runs in Sunday’s 10-6 win over the Oakland A’s.
Here’s a rundown of the pressing issues before the Cubs pack their bags and fly to Pittsburgh for the March 31 opener:
• Mike Olt is another X-factor, and the Cubs need to see him test his sore right shoulder and get comfortable at third base if he has any chance to make the team. This injury has lingered all spring, and it can’t all be explained away by saying he’s rusty.
Olt has a reputation as a plus defender, but he committed two errors in the seventh inning, making a high throw to first base and missing a backhand play. He responded in the eighth inning by blasting a pitch from Oakland lefty Drew Pomeranz over the left-field wall for his fifth home run this spring.
• With or without Olt, the infield picture got a little clearer with Starlin Castro taking at-bats in minor-league games this weekend. The next step would be playing shortstop in a minor-league game and he appears to be on track for Opening Day.
“We’re very happy,” manager Rick Renteria said. “We got to make sure we’re careful with him, but he came in today and he was all smiles.”
The locks are first baseman Anthony Rizzo, second baseman Darwin Barney and utility guys/third basemen Luis Valbuena, Donnie Murphy and Emilio Bonifacio.
• Ryan Roberts is another utility guy who could play the outfield and back up Rizzo at first base. But Ryan Kalish appears to be gaining momentum as the fifth outfielder who would become part of the mix with Lake, Nate Schierholtz, Justin Ruggiano and Ryan Sweeney.
Kalish entered Sunday hitting .300 with five walks and five stolen bases this spring, showing he’s recovered from the cervical fusion surgery performed by the same doctor who did the neck procedure for Peyton Manning. Shoulder surgeries wiped out most of the last three seasons for Kalish, who used to be a top prospect and has the Boston Red Sox pedigree loved by this front office.
“Thankfully, he’s healthy,” Renteria said. “We’re trying to give him as many opportunities as we can to get out there. He busts his rear end every single day and gives you some really good at-bats. He’s playing a very good outfield and he’s running the bases well. So there’s a lot of things to like about Kalish.”
• The Cubs sliced their roster to 35 by optioning right-hander Neil Ramirez to Triple-A Iowa and giving lefty Tsuyoshi Wada his unconditional release. Three more pitchers appear ticketed for the disabled list — Jake Arrieta, James McDonald and Kyuji Fujikawa.
That leaves veteran swingman Carlos Villanueva and lefty Chris Rusin as the two options for the No. 5 spot in the rotation.
“It’s getting close to the end,” said Rusin, who’s put together 12 scoreless innings across his last three outings. “I try not to (think about it). But you got to figure out where you’re going to live and all that, so you start to think about it a little bit. But I’m still even keel. Just keep doing what I’m doing.”
• If it’s Rusin, Villanueva slides back into bullpen with closer Jose Veras, setup guy Pedro Strop and left-handers James Russell and Wesley Wright. Justin Grimm — who came over in last summer’s Matt Garza deal with the Texas Rangers — appears to be a safe bet.
Alberto Cabrera is out of minor-league options and has pitched well this spring, giving up one run in nine innings, so you can probably write his name in pencil. If Rusin moves to Iowa, it could open up a spot for Hector Rondon.
• Catching has to be a good farm system’s biggest weakness, so the Cubs need Welington Castillo to take another leap forward and play 100-plus games. George Kottaras is already on the 40-man roster and has a one-year, $1.075 million contract. Veteran catchers Eli Whiteside and John Baker are the insurance policies.