Decisions loom for Cubs in final rush toward next week’s opener
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MESA, Ariz. — Right-hander Eddie Butler probably will get the Cubs’ last roster spot.
Unless outfielder Peter Bourjos does.
Unless the Cubs go with three catchers.
Unless Pedro Strop isn’t ready after getting such a late start because of a calf injury — in which case there are two roster decisions to make.
And what about Mike Freeman, Randy Rosario and the leadoff spot?
“This spring training seems to have blown by,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s almost been too quick, where you’re looking for maybe another couple days to figure things out. We’re just going to have to make our best call.”
After an off day Tuesday, the Cubs have six games in five days before breaking camp and heading to Fort Myers, Florida, for two exhibitions against the Red Sox ahead of the opener March 29 in Miami.
For a remarkably healthy camp that appeared to have no jobs available when it opened, the final week involves several important decisions.
“It’s been kind of as expected, except that some guys have really shown their best side,” Maddon said. “They give you more pause, more to think about.”
The biggest orders of business for Maddon and the front office in the final few days:
Strop’s calf, Ben Zobrist’s back, Javy Baez’s hamstring
Other than the occasional flu bug, these are the only ailments suffered this spring by anybody projected to make the roster. All seem fine now, so it’s just a matter of keeping them that way and making sure they have enough time on the field to be ready.
And making sure that list doesn’t grow in the final week.
The final spot and Butler
Assuming Strop is on the opening roster, one spot remains to be filled, probably with an eighth reliever. But Maddon left the door open Monday for the possibility of filling that spot with an extra bench player — and “loves” Bourjos.
Freeman, a middle infielder, and Rosario, a left-hander who debuted with Minnesota last year, also have had good springs.
“I’m not a big spring-training [results] guy, but everybody’s making it difficult,” Maddon said.
Perhaps most difficult: If Butler doesn’t make the roster, the Cubs will have to waive him because he is out of options.
The Cubs already lost one pitcher, Justin Grimm, because he was out of options and could not be sent to the minors.
And the Cubs have only one off day in the first 11 of the season, which could make the extra pitcher more valuable.
“I can’t deny that,” Maddon said. “But then again, who do you not want to lose. Can we make it work this way?”
The leadoff question
Maddon talked last month about a four-man audition for the mix-and-match leadoff rotation he plans to employ this season. And since then, switch-hitter Ian Happ has done nothing but thrive in 14 games leading off this spring.
He is 13-for-38 (.342) with five walks (.419 on-base percentage) and nine extra-base hits (.868 slugging) after the walk.
Maddon said he likes the idea of a switch hitter in that spot.
Will he lean primarily on Happ to start the season? What could go wrong, right? The last guy with fewer than 500 career plate appearances to open the season as the Cubs’ everyday leadoff man — never mind.
Happ, who also has improved his play in center field this spring, could get an especially large share of the time in that spot if he stays hot as the season opens. And he has embraced the role.
But the Cubs won’t pin the everyday job on him, especially if he struggles like Kyle Schwarber did in the role last season.
The other center fielder, Albert Almora Jr., figures to get some at-bats in the leadoff spot, especially against left-handers. And the switch-hitting Zobrist will see time there again, too. And don’t be surprised to see Schwarber share some of the job if he gets off to a good start.
In other words, the team that scored 822 runs last year without a true leadoff man is going to try to improve on that number by doing it again.
Probably not. But second-year Victor Caratini hopes to make it a tough decision in the final days — or to beat out veteran Chris Gimenez for the top backup job.
Barring injury, Gimenez has that job locked up. Caratini’s strongest case for making the club think hard about a third catcher is that he might be the Cubs’ best option for backing up Anthony Rizzo at first base — but it’s not likely a strong enough case.
“I like where we’re at,” said opening-day starter Jon Lester, who leads a rotation that collectively has had a healthy and impressive spring. “Knowing these young guys and how they operate, they’ll be amped up and ready to go for opening day.
“Guys are ready. This last week will be fun to kind of enjoy the last little bit of warmth we’ll have for a month or two and get it going.”
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