As I prepare to fly to Arizona for a week of Cubs’ spring training games, I am excited to see the team’s new Mesa facility — along with the sun that last appeared above Chicago about five months ago. The significantly warmer weather will be a pleasant change, but my fear is that other changes will be few and far between in the near future. The Cubs’ roster looks more and more likely to resemble the team that took the field to start last season.
The Cubs’ many heralded prospects almost all have returned to minor league camp. The primary exception, Javier Baez, has clobbered five home runs this spring, but left Friday’s game with a right heel contusion. Barring bizarrely unforeseen circumstances, the Cubs already had planed on having Baez open the season at AAA Iowa. Meanwhile, Cubs’ starting shortstop Starlin Castro has not played in several weeks due to a right hand string pull. The possibility that Darwin Barney will start at shortstop on opening day in place of an injured Castro shows just how certain the Cubs are that Baez is not ready for the “show.”
Friday’s game also saw Luis Valbuena crank two home runs in his effort to solidify a starting third base job. The young promising prospect, Mike Olt, continues to hit well in spring training as the team’s designated hitter. After recovering from vision issues that cut short his 2013 season, Olt now suffers from a sore shoulder that limits his ability to throw — a fairly necessary skill for any major league third baseman. Valbuena looks likely to open the year as the Cubs’ starting third baseman unless Olt makes an unexpectedly quick recovery.
With Jake Arieta out this spring with a sore arm, the Cubs appear prepared to start the season with Chris Rusin in the fifth spot in the rotation. Many fans had hoped that the Cubs would allow Kyle Hendricks to vie for a spot in the rotation. The Cubs, however, sent Hendricks down to minor league camp a week ago. On the other hand, Rusin threw five scoreless innings Friday to make his case for a starting spot. With few, if any, other viable alternatives, Rusin seems poised to break camp with the major league club.
Cubs’ fans realize that the club is at least another year away from playing competitive baseball on a regular basis. Resigned to the team’s fate, fans want to see Baez, Olt, Hendricks, Kris Bryant, and other prospects cut their teeth at the major league level. This season will highlight the tension between impatient fans who want to see the team’s better prospects play for the parent club versus the team’s insistence on patience in the player development process. So far, it looks like the front office is prepared to play the long game. With any luck, the Cubs’ young guns will play well enough in the minors to force the issue. If so, August and September at Wrigley Field could prove interesting for a change. For now though, change is a scarce commodity.