Thursday, March 23, 2006

spring training overview

with just eleven days left before the opener, much of what is going to be learned this spring about the 2006 cubs has already been revealed. some of it is good, some of it bad, and what follows is a recap of both.

- ronny cedeno looks lost: the kid to whom the starting shortstop job has been ostensibly handed in the wake of the furcal fiasco has done almost nothing to prove that he really deserves it. dusty baker in the bright one summed up cedeno's spring thusly:

"They're not getting Ronny out," Baker said. "Ronny is getting Ronny out. The whole thing is pitch selection. He's been over-aggressive swinging at low-percentage pitches."

get used to it, cub fans, because this page sees no evidence that the kid has another gear. as if to evidence everything that this page has previously said about him, cedeno has used his team-high 18 appearances to slap the ball weakly all spring, mericlessly chasing pitches early in the count that he can do nothing with. while striking out only thrice in 43 plate appearances, he has also walked only twice and is hitting a paltry .220 with a .256 obp and .622 ops. he's been one (along with neifi and juan pierre) of the least patient batters in camp. worse, he is too often hitting the ball in the air -- 16 flyball outs against 12 groundball outs -- which is quick death for a player with as little power as he has. his continuing emulation of neifi in all these characteristics is stunning.

cedeno's two errors this spring are indicative less of his hands than the inaccuracy of his arm, which has been on display all spring long even when it hasn't resulted in misplays. again, for better or worse, expect neifi to quickly displace cedeno when the team comes north on the strength of his defense if nothing else. the kid simply isn't showing the tools that could keep a veteran with six 500-ab seasons in the last eight and gold glove hardware on the bench.

- matt murton looks to be for real: the only player putting up a more impressive spring for the club is aramis ramirez -- and while it's way too soon to put him in that catagory, murton has clearly put grissom and surprising angel pagan in reserve roles well behind him, helping to defuse a concern of this writer. his 484/556/710 line is almost cartoonish and of course unsustainable -- but particularly heartening is the five walks against just two strikeouts that puts an exclamation point on his remarkable eye. it would take a shocking regression now to unseat him in left, one imagines. despite some relatively poor defense, when compounded with his remarkable run late last year, the probability is growing that murton will after all represent an upgrade in left from what the cubs pathetically managed last season.

- second base remains a close-run thing: if todd walker needed to prove his offensive prowess again, he has. walker's 286/357/543 with a second-best 11 rbi, taken with a flawless performace in the field, seems to this page to have put hairston in the backseat. but hairston will surely see time at second -- his five double plays, two stolen bases and wider range in the field guarantee it -- along with a 321/417/419 line. senseless walker trade rumors regarding luis matos finally seem to be evaporating, so some kind of time-share appears to be in order.

- the bullpen lacks depth: this is an area that seems largely to be holding to predicted form thusfar. while free agents howry (9 ip, 11 h, 4 k/1 bb) and eyre (7 ip, 3 h, 6 k/0 bb), holdover ohman (8 ip, 9 h, 11 k/2 bb) and a rehabilitated williamson (8 ip, 7 h, 8 k/3 bb) have looked solid, the story beyond them has been a depressing one. closer ryan dempster has spent much of his time in side sessions, but has been unimpressive in game action, displaying the control troubles (6 ip, 6 h, 4 k/5 bb) that have plagued him his entire terrible career. and the deeper pen has been an outright disaster -- wellemeyer (10 ip, 19 h, 3 k/4 bb), wuertz (5.1 ip, 13 h, 1 k/5 bb) and novoa (3 ip, 3 h, 2 k/2 bb and having contracted valley fever and likely to miss the start of the year) are a nightmare vision, even by their own standards, for a team with the starting pitching troubles facing this club. the trib briefly mentioned that double-a prospect jae-kuk ryu (8 ip, 7 h, 9 k/2 bb) might make the club in the pen as a result -- but this writer would submit that such a desperate reliance bodes ill for the bullpen as a whole.

- the rotation is in serious trouble: beyond the stalwarts zambrano and maddux, it is increasingly clear that the cubs have very little in the cupboard at the open of 2006. with prior down indefinitely with rotator cuff problems and wood and miller at least six weeks off even in the best case scenario, a load of early-season innings are likely going to fall upon the shoulders of glendon rusch, jerome williams, rich hill and angel guzman. that lot is a combined 4-5 this spring with a 8.78 era, having allowed 56 hits in 40 innings, having walked 21 and struck out 18. rusch and williams, particularly, whose starting spots are theoretically assured, have pitched apocalyptically. one can pooh-pooh their performances as the typical experimentation and strength-building of march baseball, but very few other national league starters have suffered as profoundly as these two this spring -- and that cannot instill confidence. such has the nervousness been even in mesa that sean marshall has been hopefully offered as a possible sacrifice to the cruel baseball gods; here's hoping his nascent career isn't tossed to the wolves for this.

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