MESA, Ariz. – The cram session is over.
That’s what Cubs manager Dale Sveum had called Ian Stewart’s chance to recover from a quad injury and get ready by Opening Day. Stewart failed that test as an MRI revealed a pocket of fluid that had to be drained on Tuesday, eliminating any possibility of being at third base on April 1.
Stewart – who underwent wrist surgery last summer and returned on a one-year, $2 million deal after getting non-tendered – will open the season on the disabled list. The quad issue has lingered for almost a month, ever since his first at-bat in an intrasquad scrimmage.
“I just can’t run,” Stewart said. “I can pretty much do everything (else). I know what it’s like to play through pain and that’s what’s hard about this. I can’t get through that pain and play with it because it’s just too much.”
This could be the beginning of the cram session for a Cubs team that’s dealing with widespread injuries and evaluating several players on the bubble. Here’s what we learned during a busy news cycle in Mesa:
One through eight, Sveum rolled out his probable Opening Day lineup during a 5-4 win over the Texas Rangers in front of 10,024 fans at HoHoKam Stadium:
1. David DeJesus, CF
2. Starlin Castro, SS
3. Anthony Rizzo 1B
4. Alfonso Soriano, LF
5. Nate Schierholtz, RF
6. Welington Castillo, C
7. Luis Valbuena, 3B
8. Darwin Barney, 2B
Next man up
With Matt Garza (lat) and Scott Baker (elbow) in holding patterns, the Cubs are down to five starters and have to be looking at backup plans. Chris Rusin is on the radar as the potential No. 6 starter.
The Cubs believe Rusin learned from his seven-game audition (2-3, 6.37 ERA) in the big leagues last season after Garza’s injury and a fire sale at the trade deadline made it look like a Triple-A Iowa rotation.
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Rusin went five innings and gave up four runs to a legitimate Texas lineup. The 26-year-old left-hander has looked sharp this spring, posting a 2.50 ERA through 18 innings. All this could be enough to send him back to Chicago, sooner or later.
“I don’t ask questions,” Rusin said. “If they want to tell me, that’s fine. It’s up to them. I just go out there and try to put all that aside and concentrate. If I look too much into being the sixth guy or whatever, making the team, I won’t be able to concentrate and put the ball where I want it. I just got to block all that out.”
Brent Lillibridge is in.
That looked like a sure thing even before the latest Stewart diagnosis, because Lillibridge can play all over the infield as well as the outfield and already had a strong track record as a utility guy with the White Sox.
“Under the circumstances, it’s pretty much a no-brainer,” Sveum said. “He’s just too valuable of a commodity.”
Sveum likes to play mix-and-match in the National League. The Cubs will have to settle on a fifth outfielder (likely Dave Sappelt, Darnell McDonald or Brian Bogusevic). They’re also intrigued by the possibility of Steve Clevenger as a third catcher/left-handed pinch-hitter/extra infielder.
Lillibridge – who’s hitting .458 in the Cactus League – could find himself with an expanded role sharing time at third base with Valbuena.
“It could be a platoon situation,” Sveum said. “We’ll see how things are going that way. He’s swinging the bat really well. He’s killing left-handers right now. He’s playing well everywhere.”
The Cubs have four locks for their bullpen: Carlos Marmol, Kyuji Fujikawa, James Russell and Shawn Camp, with Michael Bowden (out of options) and Hector Rondon (Rule 5 pick) good bets to make the team. That would leave one open spot for another reliever.
It should be noted that the Seattle Mariners released Camp in late March last year and wound up being one of Sveum’s first-half MVPs (with the disclaimer that a middle reliever shouldn’t be labeled that way).
As team president Theo Epstein and general Jed Hoyer might say, they wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they weren’t exploring all options.
“There’s no question about it, you’re always looking to better your team,” Sveum said. “(Whether it’s) a position or a left-hander out of the bullpen – whatever it might be – you’re always looking to do things like that. So whatever comes up on the waiver wire or releases, Theo and Jed are always looking at those kind of things. (We do the same thing): ‘Oh, man, that guy came available. He might fit in here good.’ That’s always going on. That’s just the nature of the game.”