Welcome to "On the Mesa," what I think is a spiffy title (though it does require knowing a little Spanish to fully appreciate) for my reflection on Spring Training and the pre-season questions the Cubs need to answer. I'll offer my thoughts on positional battles, who makes the bench, who makes the bullpen and of course the fight for that coveted fifth starter spot in the rotation.
Today will highlight some of those obvious stories heading into Cactus League play, which begins Feb. 25.
- The Fifth Starter: As just mentioned, the trade that sent Jason Marquis to the Rockies left the Cubs with an opening at the back end of the rotation. Since Jake Peavy is still not an option for that spot, we must look elsewhere. Leading that race on Day 1 has got to be Sean Marshall, the young lefty that spent most of his time in the bullpen last season in long relief but did make 7 starts. He's been with the team the longest, he'd balance out the rotation by adding a second left arm and he's still young. Newcomer Aaron Heilman that came from deal that sent Ronny Cedeno and Garrett Olsen to the M's would be the next best candidate, having had some measure of success as a starter though he hasn't done it since 2005.
- New-look lineup: With a lot of team concern being place on having a balanced lineup, Mark DeRosa in Cleveland, Milton Bradley in and both Lou Piniella and Alfonso Soriano saying that moving Fonzie from the lead-off spot is a definite possibility, there could be a new offensive formula for 2009. Bradley looks like a candidate likely to fit in the 3,4 or 5 spot with Lee and Ramirez, but with Soriano also an option there and guys like Kosuke Fukudome, Mike Fontenot and Aaron Miles top-of-the-order options, some restructuring is probably in order. It's hard to argue with the Cubs 69-36 record with Soriano in the lead-off spot and that he didn't do too well in October in RBI situations, but simply put, his speed has been the biggest discrepancy in his 2006 free agent price tag.
- Kosuke Fukudome: Once identified as the key to the Cubs' World Series puzzle early last season, the leading center field candidate becomes an item of much interest this spring. Will he be the Fukudome of last spring or of last September? Will he be hitting early in the order? Late? At all? Reed Johnson? Piniella will give him the benefit of the doubt this spring, but will hesitate very little to take it right back.
- Chain of relief: With Carlos Marmol inheriting the closer role, who will emerge in his place as the late inning bridge? New reliever Kevin Gregg looks to be the most likely candidate but fan-favorite Jeff Samardzija will be a fierce competitor. If Heilman doesn't make the rotation he could be an option too. Guys like Chad Gaudin and embattled veteran Luis Vizcaino (from the Rockie for Marquis) will likely not threaten for that spot. Other interesting relief situations will be which young players acquired in the Cubs many small transactions might step up. There are many left handers, which means if Marshall starts, Neal Cotts will likely have some company.