Spring Training Meanderings

By JCB on Thursday, April 2, 2009

Consensus among the faithful in Arizona last weekend is that the Cubs will win the National League Central. This is because the Cubs have gotten a little bit better, while the rest of the division got worse. Of course, like every season, this one will be 162 games long - and we all know what that means: No one knows.

But putting analysis aside, one thing I noticed is that the fans seemed to feel much less urgency about this season. Last year, among the fans I talked with, there was the sense that the Cubs had to win in 2008. But the 101st season apparently brings less pressure than the one before. To me, this is a good thing. If there's one thing the collective mindset can use, it's less pressure.

Anyway, I've never been one for predictions. I enjoyed reading The Sporting News'a take (Yankees over Cubs in the World Series), but it's too easy to jump on a million contingencies. So I'll stick with what I saw this spring.

  • Soriano and Bradley were both squaring up on the ball just fine. For that matter, so were Ramirez, Lee, and Soto. And Theriot. In fact, I didn't see a single leak in the starting lineup, plus there's depth. I haven't felt as confident about the lineup in years.

  • In descending order, best to worst, the best spring training parks we saw were:

    (1)Camelback (White Sox & Dodgers); (2) HoHoKam (Cubs); Scottsdale (Giants); (4) Hi Corbett (Rockies).

    Hi Corbett gets points for having the best beers - reasonable people could disagree, since HoHoKam vendors sold Old Style cans - but on pure stadiums, it's no contest that Camelback was the best.

    Photos:

    (Camelback)

    (HoHoKam)

    (Scottsdale)

    (Hi Corbett)

  • Micah Hoffpauir can really, really hit the ball. With nothing left to prove at Triple-A, he better be in the big leagues all season. As KEJ pointed out, he's not young - he just turned 29 - so there's no point "developing" him.

  • Reed Johnson is playing with passion. Besides hitting well all weekend, he delivered a frozen rope from mid-deep right field to third base to beat a runner by three steps, easily one of the two best plays of the weekend in Arizona. The other was Milton Bradley's diving catch in right field. If our outfielders make plays like this, it's going to be a very fun season.

  • Zambrano is just awesome. He looked the sharpest out of the starting pitchers, by far. I'm expecting a positive start on Opening Day.

  • Jeff Samardzija looked great. I don't know whether it's best to use him in relief, or send him down to Triple-A to try developing him as a starter, but I'm thinking about Wainwright on the Cardinals, and how it worked out fine for him to transition back to starting after helping in the bullpen. And I'm thinking I trust Samardzija a lot more than Gaudin right now.

  • Fukudome looked lost. But I'm not giving up on him just yet. He looked lost last spring, too, and then opened April on a tear. But did I mention how Reed Johnson was playing? If Johnson continues, contracts mean nothing. Play the hot hand.

  • We're going to miss Mark DeRosa. Ted Lilly might have thrown him a couple of batting practice fastballs - which he clocked for a HR and a double adding up to nearly 900 feet - but more than that, he's a ballplayer in the best sense of the word. This was easily what had everyone most upset about the offseason. (Although to be fair, Aaron Miles showed surprising pop in his bat.)

  • We're going to miss Wood, too. He looked as healthy as ever. (Okay, maybe that's not the best description for him, but he looked strong.)

  • It was strange, watching Wood & DeRosa meet with the Cubs players before the game. Those were easily two of the most prominent faces of the team - Wood for a decade.

  • Oddly, in four games we never saw the Cubs late-relief corps pitch. So I've got nothing on Marmol or Gregg. Although I'm personally glad they're not pushing Marmol. It's tough to put my finger on, but I don't trust him in the biggest pressure spots yet.

  • I'm not hearing much about him, but Joey Gathright looked like what we hoped Felix Pie could be. He's very fast, he hits, and he plays with enthusiasm (which is a lot more than I can say for Pie at a game in Round Rock last summer, where Pie carried himself like he was too good to be there and couldn't be bothered to give 100 percent). It looks like Gathright's gonna make the Opening Day roster, and I think he earned it. As a situational player who can enter in a pinch (hit or run) and stay in the outfield for defense, you couldn't think of someone better.

  • I thought I was going to be in the minority who's taking a wait-and-see approach with Dempster's success, but I heard a lot of similar chatter. We want another year like last year before we think of him as one of our aces.

    So that leaves us with the following: A very solid lineup, enough youth & speed, enough depth, and plenty of starting pitching. The only question, then, is the bullpen. I guess we can only hope that it sorts itself out correctly, soon. I will say that if it's between Patton and Gaudin, Patton's stuff looked much better. And if it's between Samardzija and Guzman, Samardzija's stuff looked much better.

    I can't wait for Monday. This season feels good. Really good. Cautious-but-optimistic good.

    Cubs-Baseball-good.

    Posted Thursday, April 2, 2009 by JCB
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