PHOENIX – On paper, the Cubs look much better than the 101-loss team that finished last season, though no one outside the Mesa bubble really thinks they’ll be contenders this season.
Carlos Villanueva talked trash with some of his old Milwaukee Brewers teammates leading up to Friday’s 4-1 win at Maryvale Baseball Park. He signed on here for the next two years, when the Cubs view 2015 as the potential breakthrough season.
Beyond the $10 million reasons to come to the North Side, there was the interim manager (Dale Sveum) that Villanueva played for during Milwaukee’s 2008 playoff run and a front office with World Series rings.
With Camp Sveum almost over, Villanueva sees blue skies, sunshine and a wide-open division.
“We’re ready to compete,” Villanueva said after tossing six shutout innings. “It’s easy to say. You’re going to ask me the question: ‘Are you going to compete?’ I’m not going to say: ‘No, we’re going to be in last place.’ But it’s one thing saying it and another thing believing it.
“I really think we do have a chance. There’s been a lot said about if we get to the All-Star break and we’re not winning, there’s going to be a fire sale. We hear that. I don’t want to hear that.”
That morning, players said their goodbyes and gave each other man-hugs inside the quiet HoHoKam Stadium clubhouse. Bench coach Jamie Quirk walked through the room with a notepad in hand. It was time to pack duffel bags and clean out lockers.
The Cubs saw their Opening Day roster coming into focus, with spring camp cut down to 35 players. Four will open the season on the disabled list – pitchers Matt Garza, Scott Baker and Arodys Vizcaino and third baseman Ian Stewart – and good health had to be factored into any best-case scenarios for this season.
The fallout left Dave Sappelt as a virtual lock to be the fifth outfielder, with Brian Bogusevic, Darnell McDonald and Johermyn Chavez being assigned to minor-league camp.
“The writing on the wall is that Sapp is going to be on the team,” Sveum said. “There are still things that can happen through guys getting released and waiver wires and all that with those extra spots. But he’s proven to me and the organization he can swing the bat and he’s done a really nice job in center field.”
With that in mind, there are now four relievers competing for the final bullpen spot: Cory Wade; Zach Putnam; Rafael Dolis (who’s on the 40-man roster and has an option remaining); and Hisanori Takahashi (the only lefty in the group).
The Cubs optioned left-hander Chris Rusin to Triple-A Iowa, where he will be stretched out as the emergency sixth starter in case another injury hits the big-league rotation. (Pitchers Drew Carpenter, Jaye Chapman, Casey Coleman, Jensen Lewis and Blake Parker were assigned to minor-league camp, along with infielders Edwin Maysonet and Brad Nelson.)
The final bench spot is down to the versatile Steve Clevenger or infielder Alberto Gonzalez or perhaps a mystery player. The Cubs are high on Clevenger – as a third catcher/extra infielder/left-handed pinch-hitter – but that won’t stop them from scanning for outside solutions.
“We’re definitely going to look at options,” Sveum said. “That’s just part of the game. There will be some names in this next week where we’ll probably have to sit down and think about if it’s a good fit. There won’t be an abundance of them, because we’re looking for certain things, but there’s definitely going to be talk about a few guys, I’m sure.”
The Cubs are now 14-15 in the Cactus League after Darwin Barney and Dioner Navarro snapped a tie game in the ninth inning by hitting back-to-back homers. The clubhouse certainly understands the importance of a fast start.
Sveum is looking forward to Barney and Starlin Castro taking their games to the next level, a full season of Anthony Rizzo, a lineup that will roll out four or five left-handers each game and a bullpen that will throw strikes.
“Everything stacks up a lot better than it did a year ago,” Sveum said. “Obviously, the performance still has to happen.”
The Cubs have their fingers crossed about Garza (strained lat muscle) and Baker, who should know more about his Tommy John recovery after Saturday’s physical examination. But they’ll have to tread water through at least April without two of their projected starters.
Or else, as Villanueva pointed out. The 29-year-old member of the players’ union executive board did his homework.
“I don’t want that to happen,” Villanueva said. “I’m not old, but I’m not younger anymore. I’ve already come to that experience of playing just to play. I’m a veteran guy now and I want to win. I had a couple other choices where I could have been – and I chose here because I believe in what they’re doing. Hopefully, I’m right about that and we can surprise a lot of people.”