Cubs have talent, but injuries could lead to more disappointment
With Angel Guzman hurt, the Cubs have questions in the bullpen and rotation
Lou Piniella remains optimistic, but he and GM Jim Hendry could be in trouble
Russell Martin's injury is a big blow to the Dodgers; the Padres are "pitiful"
MESA, Ariz. -- When Cubs general manager Jim Hendry spotted legendary reliever Rollie Fingers standing behind the batting cage here at rickety, outdated HoHoKam Park, he good-naturedly yelled, "We might have to sign him."
Indeed, America's favorite star-crossed team is facing a serious bullpen deficit. Talented set-up man Angel Guzman suffered a complete tear in his shoulder and is contemplating surgery that could save his career, but not his season. The Cubs were looking for another right-handed reliever even before Guzman went down -- Hendry tried for Chan Ho Park before the Yankees swept in with $1.2 million guaranteed -- and are forced to increase their efforts. Those efforts will likely prove futile, though, as few teams are foolish enough to trade away proven set-up men at this point.
Meanwhile, iconic manager Lou Piniella has taken to talking up the team's "nice young arms" in a year that's critical for Hendry and perhaps even Piniella himself. It's the first year of new owner Tom Ricketts' regime, and the Ameritrade tycoon has publicly suggested that everyone in the organization will be under review at year's end.
Piniella's right when he says the Cubs have more homegrown talent than ever. And he remains eternally grateful that Milton Bradley is gone. But some of the old issues remain. The Cubs return a talented team that suffered through an injury-laden 2009 season, but that team is already showing signs of continuing a century's worth of bad luck.
The bullpen isn't the only problem area. Two spots remain open in the starting rotation. Ted Lilly will likely earn one when he returns around May 1 from less invasive shoulder surgery, and Sean Marshall, Tom Gorzellany, Jeff Samardzija and Carlos Silva -- whose 27.00 spring ERA is more bloated than he is -- will compete for the final spot.
The bench spots are also up for grabs, and the eclectic contenders range from the young, defensively strong, intellectual (Stanford econ grad) Sam Fuld to the old, energetic, perpetually joking Kevin Millar.
Fuld is a great story. The shortish (he's listed as 5-foot-10, but is closer to 5-8) scrapper is overcoming diabetes to be a major leaguer. "It's definitely a battle every day, something that's always on my mind and never quite figured out," he said. "It's like hitting in that way."
As for the bullpen, unless Hendry can pull off a miracle and land a veteran arm, Piniella will go with two kids -- he has specifically mentioned Esmailin Caridad as someone who has caught his eye.
Despite the gathering questions, Piniella remains amazingly positive -- at least publicly. So, too, does Guzman, the worst injured and least lucky of the Cubs. Only two months ago, Guzman held his dying brother in his arms after the latter was murdered in Caracas. "It's hard," Guzman said. "It's been tough. I just have to stay strong and carry on."
Hendry and the eternally energetic Piniella have told Guzman that he would be well within his rights to go back to Venezuela to be with his mother while contemplating potentially career-saving surgery. But while Guzman agreed "staying close to the people close to me" is his greatest medicine, he told SI.com, "After what happened to my brother, I think going back to Venezuela would bring back sad feelings.''
Instead, Guzman is having his MRI sent to noted surgeon James Andrews and appears to have his mind set on surgery. He understands that the procedure will require an arduous rehab and that there is no guarantee it will be a success. Piniella said he heard that Orel Hershiser once returned from a similar injury after extensive surgery but knows that many others, including Mark Mulder and Matt Clement, have thus far been unable to do so. But Guzman isn't giving up. "I know it's going to take a really hard effort on my part to come back," he said. "I'm 28 years old, not that young, but there's still time. If I stay positive, anything can happen."
The same thinking holds true for the Cubs. They have great players in Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Zambrano and Lilly and fine ones such as Ryan Dempster, import Marlon Byrd and the one Piniella enjoys calling "the Riot," (Ryan Theriot). But half of those players missed time with injuries in 2009 (the Cubs easily spent more money on disabled list days than any team save the Mets), and those predictions of a decades-overdue World Series title (my bad) ended with a mundane 83-79 record.
At season's end, Piniella said he felt compelled to tell the team how proud he was of it. But truth be told, he had worried last spring about a lack of depth. He feels a bit better this year. He's also ignoring a century of Cubs history, instead choosing to believe that the club's luck has to improve. "Last year we finished second with all those injuries," Piniella said. "We scored 148 fewer runs. I think we'll score more runs. I'm looking forward to a good year.''
Piniella acknowledged that staying healthy will be key, and to that end the Cubs are off to a troubling start. Xavier Nady, who signed an incentive-laden $3.3 million contract after his second Tommy John surgery, is still at least a couple days away from getting into a game; right-hander Jeff Gray, who came from Oakland for Jake Fox, has a groin tweak; and infielder Andres Blanco has a knee problem that could sideline him for a couple weeks.
But none of those loses compare to Guzman, who was once considered a prospect on par with Zambrano before an upsetting series of injuries and operations, including ones to his elbow and knee. This one, which is threatening his career, is patently unfair considering what he's been through.
But when it comes to unfair struggles, the Cubs have been there before.
Around the camps
Piniella said he has no intention to let hot prospect Starlin Castro compete for the shortstop job, and that barring any health concerns with starting shortstop Theriot, Castro will start the year in the minors. When a writer raised the idea of Theriot moving to second base, Piniella said with a smile, "You guys are starting trouble already."
Russell Martin's groin injury, which will keep him out an estimated four-to-six weeks, is a big blow to the Dodgers, who aren't that deep at catcher. With Martin out they'll employ A.J. Ellis, who got his first major league hit on the final day of last season, and veteran Brad Ausmus. Paul Bako might be the best remaining free agent after Rod Barajas signed with the Mets. Martin put on 20 pounds this winter, presumably in order to try to regain some lost power, but Dodgers people don't seem too thrilled that he got hurt after making radical body changes.
One scout who saw the Padres summed them up in one word: "pitiful."
Another scout said that even Adrian Gonzalez didn't look good in early at-bats, but quickly added, "I'm sure he'll wind up with the same numbers he always does, though."
On the plus side, one scout likened Kyle Blanks to Frank Thomas. High praise.
Tim Marchman's GM rankings on SI.com were very interesting, and they made for great debate. So I'll quibble for now with at least two placements: putting Phillies GM Ruben Amaro 19th and Dodgers GM Ned Colletti 26th. The two met in the NLCS last year, where Colletti's team has made it two straight years. Colletti took heat for trading great catching prospect Carlos Santana for third baseman Casey Blake. But while Santana was a great move for Cleveland, Colletti shouldn't take hits for getting Blake, who's been a pretty big part of the Dodgers making it to the NLCS. The goal is to win, after all, not collect prospects.
Brandon Webb hit what D-Backs manager A.J. Hinch called a "bump in the road'' during a light throwing session on Sunday, and now it is being said that Webb will need two more bullpen sessions and a BP session before throwing in a game. While the D-Backs aren't about to say that they'll have to pull back from the plan to start Webb in Game 3 of the season, it appears very likely that that is what's going to happen.
On Sunday, the Rays were working on some final details with Hank Blalock on a complicated deal that will enable him to opt out if he's not in the majors. The sides are still expected to come to an agreement.
Mark Reynolds and the Diamondbacks are still said to be "a ways apart," with Arizona believed to be offering $13.5 million over two years and Reynolds invoking Prince Fielder's $18 million, two-year deal. But some baseball powers believe that this deal still has a chance to get done by Opening Day.
The NFL union has been consulting the MLB players association about its CBA. People involved say this isn't unusual. I say, good idea, since the MLBPA has been a lot more successful in getting fair deals for players than the NFL union.
There's been a lot of excitement over the possibility of HGH testing, but the new HGH test still has apparently caught only one athlete. Since that rugby player failed, few details have surfaced about the case, since he didn't challenge the ruling (who knows if he could afford to?). The test needs to come under more serious scrutiny before baseball rushes into it.
One scout who has seen the A's said they need to put power-hitting Chris Carter on their big-league roster -- "this guy can hit" -- but some A's people believe that Carter still needs to refine his fielding technique at first base. Two A's people interviewed were split on which of their top young positional prospects -- Carter and outfielder Michael Taylor -- is closer to a big-league appearance. Both should be in the majors before long, though.
Hisanori Takahashi is off to a great start in his attempt to make the Mets' rotation: three innings, no runs and six strikeouts in his first appearance. Also, according to Newsday's Dave Lennone, out of 42 pitches, only eight were balls.
One scout who has seen Bryce Harper -- the presumed No. 1 pick in this year's draft -- said that while he's a tremendous talent, has great power and could become a star, "there's no way to assume he's going to be a big-league catcher ... The one thing I would do is put him on the mound," that scout said. "He has a helluva arm."
I was all set to jump on the Nats' bandwagon. But 56 runs allowed in five spring games is just a tad worrisome.
The Cubs are beloved here, drawing about 24,000 fans in back-to-back games, and showing why Mesa will never let them leave for Naples, Fla.
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