For Cubs, spring stretch signals decision time
Hoyer has small window to resolve 'pen, among lingering issues
MESA, Ariz. -- There are 14 games to go in Spring Training, and it's crunch time for the Cubs.
Some things haven't changed since pitchers and catchers first reported to Fitch Park on Feb. 18. Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza and Paul Maholm are set for the rotation. No one has bumped any of the projected starting eight position players. Carlos Marmol is the closer and Kerry Wood will be the main setup pitcher.
But there are still issues to be resolved, beginning with sorting out who else will be in the bullpen.
"That's the area we have the most decisions and most moving parts," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. "I couldn't tell you what it's going to look like."
The team needs another setup pitcher -- Rafael Dolis? James Russell? -- and a long reliever, who could be one of the rotation candidates bumped from the final five.
In 2011, the Cubs felt they had enough arms, and then they lost Andrew Cashner and Randy Wells to injuries after their first starts, and the club had to scramble. This spring, Wells, Chris Volstad, Travis Wood, Rodrigo Lopez and Jeff Samardzija have competed for the two openings, with Wood the only one struggling. Hoyer isn't eager to trade any of the pitchers or jinx the situation.
"I think last year, the Cubs felt pretty good about the rotation at this point, and Cashner was out for the year and Wells missed a good period of time," Hoyer said. "The season blew up in the first two months because of the lack of pitching depth. I think whenever you think you have pitching depth, don't talk about it out loud, because then you don't."
Samardzija has been the surprise. The right-hander pitched exclusively out of the bullpen last season, yet made it clear he wanted to start. In three Cactus League games, Samardzija has shown he can do it. He's given up three runs on six hits, struck out nine and has not walked a batter over 10 innings.
"He's been unbelievable," Hoyer said of the right-hander. "He does look like a different guy than he did last year, seeing him from the other side. He's on a mission to be a starter. Clearly, he's grabbed the competition by the throat this spring.
"It's still early, but it's hard to ignore what he's done so far and hard to ignore the attitude he's brought really from last two months of last year," Hoyer said. "He's been one of the highlights in camp for sure."
That's all good, but it complicates things. If Samardzija starts, what do the Cubs do with the other starter candidates? Volstad has not walked anyone over 10 innings, striking out seven and giving up one run on seven hits. Wells, who seems to always be fighting for a spot, pitched in a "B" game Monday in Goodyear against the Indians and walked three, the first he's issued this spring.
The Cubs hope to get the best out of Marmol. The closer has been charged with seven runs on seven hits and four walks over 5 1/3 innings over six games. In Spring Training 2011, Marmol gave up two earned runs over nine innings, and in '10, he was charged with five over 12 1/3 innings.
"He has struggled this spring and had a couple really bad outings, but his attitude has been fantastic," Hoyer said of the right-hander. "When he comes out of games, he's been upset about his performance. Even though it is Spring Training, you want guys to take pride in what they do. He's come in, done his shoulder work, he's been a good teammate. From that standpoint, there's no complaints."
Because of Arizona's dry conditions, the Cubs aren't as worried about Marmol and his trademark slider. The emphasis now is command of his fastball.
"I don't think we spend a lot of time worrying about him," Hoyer said.
Nor are they losing sleep over Starlin Castro, projected to step into the No. 3 spot in the lineup. The shortstop led the National League in hits last year and also led the Majors in errors.
"I think Starlin is one of the best young players in the game, and he's proven that at the big league level," Hoyer said. "We all think there's a lot more in there. I think there's a lot of power in there at some point. Young shortstops make errors. I know Dale [Sveum] has talked to him a lot about concentration on every single pitch. Usually young players, you watch the error totals go down."
Sveum, Hoyer said, is the perfect person to work with Castro on staying focused. The manager and shortstop were in the video room on Tuesday, going over some film of Castro's footwork on double plays.
Just having the video is a huge step for the team. The Cubs have hired two advance scouts and two people in the office to handle their reports.
"We've turned a staff of one into a staff of four," Hoyer said.
Former Cubs GM Jim Hendry had a staff of 90; there were 126 people at the team's organizational meetings in early February. The Cubs aren't just investing in the players monetarily, but also developing a support staff.
Speaking of numbers, the Cubs' payroll is projected to be less than the 2011 figure of $134 million. That gives Epstein and Hoyer some room to add, if they need to.
If there's a negative this spring, it's the Cubs' record. They're 8-12 after losing to the Rangers and the Athletics in split-squad games on Tuesday.
"Obviously, you want to win every game you play," Hoyer said. "It's hard to say you're satisfied with a record that's not outstanding. That said, it really doesn't mean anything. Last year, I thought the two teams in the Cactus League that struggled the most were Arizona and Cleveland."
The D-backs won 94 games in 2011 and won the NL West, while the Indians jumped out to an 18-8 start in April. With two weeks remaining, Hoyer said he hopes the team carries the same attitude and energy he's seen in Spring Training into the season.
"When you break camp every year, you want to win a World Series," he said. "That's your goal. I don't see any reason why we can't be incredibly competitive this year. We have a lot of talent. A good part of it starts every night. You look in the paper and the probable starters, and we have a good starting pitcher going up against the opponent. That cures a lot of ills when you know the first six innings will be quality, strike-throwing, good starting pitching."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter@CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.