3 intriguing players fighting to make Cubs’ roster
Third in a 5-part series looking at the Cubs’ key offseason acquisitions and how they will fit into the team’s 2016 picture
By Randy Richardson
On a team that last year won 97 games and is predicted by many to this year win it all, roster spots are hard to come by. Barring injuries, the starting position players and pitching rotation are pretty much set. Most of the bullpen and bench slots are decided. What’s left are those few openings for role players, be it a pinch-hitting specialist or a late-inning defensive replacement.
A handful of players vie for those last coveted spots on the 25-man roster. Here Wrigleyville Nation highlights three of the more intriguing ones: the lesser-known players that might crack the Opening Day roster or be called up later in the season when an opening becomes available.
Matt Murton? Why does that name sound familiar? Oh, wait, didn’t he play for the Cubs once before?
Yes. Yes, he did. It’s the same Matt Murton. Only he’s eight years older than the one you last saw wearing a Cubs uniform.
In perhaps one of the most improbable reunions, the Cubs signed the red-headed outfielder to a minor league deal, after he spent the last five years playing in Japan for the Hanshin Tigers of the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), where he became a bit of a cult hero when in 2010, his first season there, he had 214 hits, setting an NPB single-season hits record, which had been held by Ichiro Suzuki. Murton’s hits record was broken last year by Shogo Akiyama of the Saitama Seibu Lions, who collected 216 hits.
In his five seasons in Japan, Murton proved he could hit, batting .310 with 1020 hits, 77 home runs and 417 runs batted in.
If he is able to make it back this season as a Cub, it would make for a remarkable comeback for Murton, now 34. Nicknamed “Thunder Matt,” the right-handed outfielder had shown great promise in his first turn as a Cub. Acquired in a trade from the Red Sox in 2004 along with Nomar Garciaparra, Murton was called up to the big league club mid-season the following year along with Adam Greenberg, replacing the struggling Corey Patterson, and Jason Dubois. On the same day, he went 2-for-2 with a walk and a sacrifice fly against the Florida Marlins in his major league debut. He continued his success in the majors over the rest of the season, hitting .321 with seven home runs, and an on-base percentage of .386 in 51 games in 2005.
The Cubs’ rewarded Murton’s rookie-season success by making him their starting left fielder in 2006. He continued his hot hitting, finishing the year with the second-highest mark on the team in batting average, at .297, with 13 home runs and 62 runs batted in.
But from there, Murton’s MLB career turned south. He saw his playing time reduced in 2007, following the Cubs’ signing of outfielder Cliff Floyd, and he couldn’t seem to adjust to not playing every day. By mid-June, he’d been sent down to the minors. Although he was called up again in late July, his season batting average dipped to .281. In 2008, his playing time diminished even further. In the first three months of the season, he played in just 19 games, recording only 2 hits in 42 plate appearances. The handwriting was on the wall. In early July, Murton was traded along with three other Cubs prospects – including future star Josh Donaldson – to the Oakland Athletics for pitchers Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin. His MLB career never recovered. With the A’s that season he played in just 9 games, recording only 3 hits in 31 plate appearances. He was unceremoniously traded away to the Rockies in the offseason, but only played in 29 games in 2009, batting just .250 with 1 home run. After 2009, the Rockies released him.
Now, after five successful seasons in Japan, Murton is trying to resurrect his MLB career with the team where it had such a promising beginning. His return to action this spring has been slowed after he underwent emergency appendectomy on Feb. 27.
Aloha, Shane Victorino!
The two-time All-Star (2009 and 2011) and two-time World Series champion (with the Phillies in 2008 and Red Sox in 2013) nicknamed “The Flyin’ Hawaiian” is looking to ride the Cubs’ wave in 2016.
The 12-year veteran outfielder signed a minor league deal with the Cubs in February, a day after the team brought back centerfielder Dexter Fowler, joining an already crowded outfield.
At 35, Victorino brings a career .275 batting average, .340 on-base-percentage, 108 home runs, 489 runs batted in, 231 stolen bases, and 108 triples (league leader in 2009 and 2011). Plagued by various hamstring, back and knee injuries, he has only compiled 301 at-bats the past two seasons and only a .245 average.
But he feels he is fully healed from the back surgery that forced him to stop switch-hitting during the 2013 season, and is back to swinging from both sides again.
“I’m very excited to go back to something that I wish I never got rid of,” Victorino told reporters upon his arrival at spring training. “The thing that I found out going back to it is my body’s back to being dynamic from both sides.”
That raises Victorino’s stock in the battle for bench spots on the Cubs’ roster. He also gives the team defensive versatility. A four-time Gold Glove winner (2008-2010 and 2013), Victorino has spent the majority of his career in center field, but has moved to the corner spots in recent years.
But perhaps his greatest value for the young Cubs’ team could be his veteran experience and reputation as a clubhouse leader.
If he cracks the lineup, listen for the reggae music to start playing out the loudspeakers at Wrigley. Red Sox fans used to sing along to his walk up song, Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” So, yes, Cubs fans, don’t worry. Every little thing gonna be alright.
Could Munenori “Muni” Kawasaki be for the Cubs in 2016 what Jonathan Herrera was in 2015? The light-hitting but dependable utility infielder? Based on the YouTube videos of him alone, let’s hope so.
The former All-Star infielder with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), Kawasaki has played in the MLB mostly as a utility infielder since 2012. The Cubs signed him to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training, after he played the last three seasons for the Toronto Blue Jays.
In four seasons in the MLB, Kawasaki, 34, has batted .234 with a .314 OBP. He brings an above-average glove and versatility in the field. He’s played second, third and shortstop, which would seem to make him a good fit for a manager like the Cubs’ Joe Maddon, who likes to move players around to fit the situation.
But perhaps his greatest strength is one that can’t be measured, and that’s his personality. Barstool Sports dubbed Kawasaki the “funniest man in MLB.”
Kawasaki, who once told a reporter he ate three bananas every day to avoid cramps because “a monkey never cramps,” and boasted that his muscles got a boost from eating Japanese noodles, could quickly become a fan favorite in Chicago.
“Don’t let the stats fool you,” Dan Cahill wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times. “’Muni’ will be with the Cubs in Spring Training, and if the utility infielder ever does make it to Wrigley Field, fans will go crazy over his unbridled enthusiasm.”
MLB.com’s Mike Bertha agrees that “most of what Kawasaki brings to the table can’t be taught by a hitting instructor or a fielding coach. Muni’s skillset features the kind of intangibles that fans drool over.”
Blue Jay’s writer Hal Hilden seems to be already mourning Kawasaki’s loss, stating that “Cubs fans will embrace him and take him for what he is, whether it be a farm hand call-up or the 25th player. He can play the infield, pinch hit and run, or even lay down a sac bunt. And when not playing, he will be right there cheering on his team…the Chicago Cubs.”
It didn’t take him long to hit all the right notes with his new teammates in spring training. At a recent morning stretch, Kawasaki broke out his vocal chords, singing karaoke to Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” and he inspired players to wear headbands with Japanese sayings such as “Must Win” and “Fighting Spirit.”
To get the true flavor of what Kawasaki might bring to the Cubs look him up on YouTube. You’ll be an instant fan.
Randy Richardson is the author of the Wrigleyville murder mystery, Lost in the Ivy, and a regular contributor to Wrigleyville Nation.