The Cubs went into spring training with potential problems on the right side of the bullpen, and they're prepared to leave with those same problems. Angel Guzman, who was expected to be the top right-handed setup man to closer Carlos Marmol, recently underwent surgery on his right shoulder, and it's too early to say whether the once-promising Guzman will be able to resume his career.
Barring a last-minute trade, which is always possible with general manager Jim Hendry, the Cubs will have lefty John Grabow as their primary eighth-inning guy, but they'll go with youngsters Esmailin Caridad and Justin Berg from the right side.
The rotation also will affect the bullpen. Lefty Tom Gorzelanny and right-hander Carlos Silva won the final two spots in the rotation, which will be without left-hander Ted Lilly to start the season. Lilly is on a quick mend from arthroscopic surgery on his pitching shoulder, performed last November.
Righty Jeff Samardzija and lefty Sean Marshall were the other combatants for the rotation, but both are headed to the bullpen.
Manager Lou Piniella quickly settled on shortstop Ryan Theriot as his leadoff hitter with right fielder Kosuke Fukudome batting second after a brief "battle" over the No. 1 spot in the order.
There was no talk this spring of left fielder Alfonso Soriano batting leadoff after Piniella moved him to No. 6 in the order last July. Soriano rehabbed from offseason surgery on his left knee and caused a brief stir early in camp when he said he had pushed it at "only 85 percent." But he has looked fine in the Cactus League games. Given good health all around, the middle of the order could be potent with first baseman Derrek Lee, third baseman Aramis Ramirez, center fielder Marlon Byrd and Soriono all capable of power.
Catcher Geovany Soto reported 40 pounds lighter. He'll anchor the bottom part of the order along with the second baseman: left-handed-hitting Mike Fontenot on most days, and right-handed-hitting Jeff Baker on others.
The bench will feature at least one youngster, as former first-round draft pick Tyler Colvin made the club after a monster spring. He could beat out slick-fielding Sam Fuld for a backup outfield spot. Veterans Kevin Millar and Chad Tracy both came to camp as non-roster men. One of them could stick.
In the NL Central, there's no reason the Cubs cannot contend for first place all year. It's largely the same team that won back-to-back division titles in 2007 and '08 before slipping last year. One big key will be how a questionable rotation holds up until Lilly gets back. Off days early should allow Piniella to go with his top three of Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells as often as he can before spotting the fourth and fifth starters.
THE CUBS WILL CONTEND IF ... All of the players who had down years or injury-plagued seasons last year bounce back to reasonable levels. That includes Soriano and Ramirez, both of whom missed significant time with injuries. Soto also needs to look more like the 2008 Rookie of the Year instead of the overweight catcher who suffered through a lost 2009. Carlos Marmol, handed the closer's job last August, must overcome the control woes that plagued him from start to finish in 2009.
PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: Ramirez is the most feared and potent offensive player the Cubs have. He missed two months last year after dislocating his shoulder while diving for a ball in May. In just 82 games, he drove in 65 runs, second on the team to Lee's 111. Ramirez can opt out of his contract at the end of the year.
ON THE DECLINE: Unfortunately for the Cubs, they still have Soriano for five more years as part of the eight-year, $136 million contract Hendry and the former owner, the Tribune Co., signed him to after the 2006 season. After playing 159 games for Washington in '06, Soriano played in 135, 109 and 117 in his first three years with the Cubs. He's still capable of carrying a club for short bursts, but at 34, he's no kid anymore.
--Lee missed the March 28 game due to a sore left foot. Lee and Piniella both said the ailment was minor and that Lee would be ready for the start of the season.
--Colvin, a former first-round pick, made the Cubs' opening-day roster thanks to an effective spring. He was batting .475 through March 28. INF Chad Tracy, 1B/OF Kevin Millar, 1B/OF Micah Hoffpauir and OF Sam Fuld were competing for the team's final roster position.
--OF Xavier Nady recently played the outfield in a minor league game, but nothing was hit his way. The Cubs plan to get him some time, both in the outfield and at first base before spring training ends. Nady had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow last July while with the Yankees. As the weekend began, he had served only as a DH in Cactus League games.
--Samardzija said he has no problem with the decision to send him to the bullpen. Samardzija and Marshall lost out to Silva and Gorzelanny for the final two rotation spots.
"I'm actually excited," Samardzija said. "It'll be good to go out there and get in the game today and really start working toward making this team how we want it."
Piniella said Samardzija's improvement has been "more marginal" this spring. "I think he's a better pitcher, period," Piniella said.
--Marmol, who hit five batters last spring and 12 in the regular season, ran his total to three through March 26 with three hit batters in three straight appearances. Piniella said Marmol is "flat" with his pitches and needs to get his arm angle higher.
"His mechanics are off," Piniella said. "What he's basically doing is showing the ball to the hitter quicker, and also, he's losing that nice depth on his breaking ball."
--LHP James Russell entered the weekend with eight consecutive scoreless innings for the spring. Russell has tentatively made the opening-day roster, barring a trade for a veteran reliever.
"I'm going about my business the same way as if I wasn't even competing for a job, just trying to go out there and make a name for myself," Russell said. "I'm more than happy with the spring I've had."
--RHP Jeff Gray missed almost all of the Cactus League season before the Cubs optioned him to Class AAA Iowa on March 26. They say he's likely to pitch for the big club after getting regular work in the minors.
BY THE NUMBERS: 3 -- Rookies the Cubs plan on opening the season with in the bullpen: RHP Justin Berg, RHP Esmailin Caridad and LHP James Russell. Russell, John Grabow and Sean Marshall would give them three lefties in the pen, as well.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I like our team. I'm not really concerned about anything." -- Piniella as spring training wound down.
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