It’s been a great spring for filling scarce roster spots, not so great for showcasing legitimate major-league prospects.
This is going to be an excellent Cub team, the best I’ve seen, good to the last roster spot. All of the battles for positions and roster spots have broken the right way. Fontenot has replaced DeRosa at second. Miles has replaced Cedeno as backup at second, short and third. Hoffpauir has replaced Ward and will push Lee rather harder than most people anticipate. When Lee struggled last season, his backup was having his own problems hitting and also just staying off the DL. Hoffpauir will challenge Lee for starts and ultimately for his job. We’ll see how Lee reacts. If Lee fights back, Lou may want to shuffle outfielders so that Hoffpauir subs for Fukudome, though not in center field, obviously.
The backup catcher will get about a hundred at bats. That takes some of the suspense away from the fight between Bako and Hill. Still, I’m glad Hill is winning. I like Hill, and not only because he’s likable, but because he is a pitcher-oriented backstop. He replaced Michael Barrett for a month in 2007 and the Cubs were 17-8 in games he started. There is more to catching than blocking balls in the dirt and throwing out runners. The catcher calls the pitches, after all, and though the pitcher can shake off the sign and ultimately throw what he wants, the catcher at least makes the calls when the pitcher doesn’t feel like arguing. From what I’ve seen of Hill, he coaxes pitchers to establish their fastballs, something they don’t necessarily learn to do from the current pitching coach.
Hill recently gave a glimpse of his pitching philosophy while explaining why he likes Mitch Atkins:
“Anybody who commands the strike zone can do well, and I think that’s what he does. I’m not saying he’ll go up there and be Cy Young. That part develops. The adjustment he made last year was command of the strike zone with his fastball, which to me is the most important thing in the world. I’d go out there with him any day. . . .”
“When he came to Iowa, he had some Double-A tendencies where you get to where you’re 2-1, and you throw, not a trick pitch, but pitch backwards to get back into the count. By the end of the season, he was dominating the strike zone and getting ahead, so he didn’t have to do all that. It made him predictable.
One thing I told him was, ‘When you climb the ladder up, which you will, that stuff fizzles out because those guys are onto it or they take it. Then you’re 3-1, and what are you going to throw? That fastball you can’t control?’”
Pitchers throwing too many breaking balls, falling behind in the count, and then not being able to command the fastball when they need a strike–does that remind anyone of Dempster in ’07 and Wuertz and Marmol every year? Hill behind the plate and in the bullpen and in the dugout is like having an extra pitching coach. I’m glad his strong season at the plate at Iowa last year (24 doubles and 17 HRs) carried over into the spring.
Gathright is in the same position that Theriot found himself in a year ago: only Lou likes him. Well, I like Gathright for his speed on the bases and out of the batter’s box. After a month or so of the Fukudome experiment, chapter 2, I expect Gathright to begin to take starts away from Fukudome, and to bat first or second in the lineup.
A couple Fridays ago against the Dodgers, Gathright led off the seventh inning with a walk. The next three batters struck out, grounded to short and popped to short right. Gathright scored on the grounder, and brought the Cubs to within a run of tying.
There are stats for everything on the offensive side of baseball except running, where only stolen bases are tallied. In the Dodger game, Gathright scored when there were no hits in the inning and no walks behind him. If Soriano “manufactures” a run by hitting a solo shot over the wall, statistically he gets a hit, a run, a home run and an RBI, which looks better on paper than Gathright’s walk, stolen base and run. But it’s the same run.
On the pitching side, the loss of Wood is offset by the addition of Gregg and Heilman; Marshall is an upgrade over Marquis; and Samardzija, Vizcaino, Hart, Wells, Patton and Waddell are better options than Wuertz, Howry and Eyre.
In terms of prospects, this should have been the year that the June ’06 draftees, Tim Wilken’s first draft class, made a splash in spring training. But that draft was thin for the Cubs, especially early. They drafted only four position players in the first twelve rounds. Of those four, Tyler Colvin is recovering from elbow surgery, Steve Clevenger is now a catcher, Josh Lansford is converting to pitcher, and Cliff Andersen was a high schooler who is still raw. In the last week, Lou has gotten a peek at a couple of ’07 players, Ty Wright and Brandon Guyer. Consistent with Wilken’s up-the-middle philosophy, these two can both play center. (The Cubs have more good shortstop prospects now than you can count on one hand.) Wright and Guyer are Reed Johnson types, at least, but maybe with a little more pop. The key is that they actually have a shot at the majors.
Before Wilken, the Cubs fell into the trap of drafting one-way players who get funneled into two positions, first base and left field. Dubois, Choi, Sing, Dopirak, Fox, Hoffpauir, Craig–these are typical Cub draftees before 2006. I think Wilken would say that these players had almost zero chance of making it, especially the righty hitters. Do you know how many right-handed-hitting regular first basemen there are in the national league? Two, Lee and Pujols.