Surprise! Few jobs up for grabs at Cubs camp
The Chicago Cubs have 62 players at spring training barely four months after finishing with the franchise's worst record in almost 50 years.
Yet heading into Sunday's first full-squad workout at Fitch Park, they might have as few as three spots on their opening day roster in play, barring health setbacks over the next six weeks.
That would have been hard to predict in the days right after the Cubs completed a 101-loss season last October. The only two certainties to return from the rotation were Matt Garza, who hadn't pitched since July because of a stress reaction in his right elbow, and Jeff Samardzija, who was shut down after 174 2-3 innings in his first full season as a big league starter.
The only other candidate in the organization the front office considered a viable option for the 2013 rotation was left-hander Travis Wood, still trying to stick in the majors for a full season.
But a bustling offseason, filled mostly with mid-level and smaller acquisitions, has put the rebuilding Cubs in the unlikely position of having one of the most predictable rosters in the majors as spring training hits full stride across Florida and Arizona.
''You're probably looking at two outfield spots, or a super-utility guy and an outfield spot, and other than that, it's pretty cut and dry,'' manager Dale Sveum said about his position players.
On the pitching side, he projected just one bullpen opening.
How did that happen? Mostly because the Cubs signed nine major league free agents from outside the organization across every position area.
Granted, that includes third baseman Ian Stewart, an arbitration-eligible player who was non-tendered before re-signing for one year at $2 million.
But that still represented half of the 18 big leaguers under contract and projected on the opening roster as camp opened, including 11 pitchers.
Four more pre-arbitration level players under club control include Wood and three position players who enter camp with starting jobs: catcher Welington Castillo, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and Gold Glove second baseman Darwin Barney.
''I think we're going to be a lot better than people think,'' said right-hander Scott Feldman, the $6 million free agent Sveum said will join Garza, Samardzija and newcomer Edwin Jackson in the rotation.
That leaves just one opening, which eventually is expected to be filled by right-hander Scott Baker, who might miss the first week of the season as the team takes a slow-and-cautious approach with his spring work following a year missed because of Tommy John surgery.
Wood and Carlos Villanueva are the candidates to open in Baker's spot, with both possibly in the bullpen when Baker returns.
That leaves one bullpen spot for somebody else.
Among the non-pitchers, seven of the eight starting jobs appear set, including shortstop Starlin Castro, left fielder Alfonso Soriano, center fielder David DeJesus and a right-field platoon of Nate Shierholtz and Scott Hairston. If Stewart shows his surgically repaired wrist is healthy and he can hit, he's in.
Backup catcher Dioner Navarro and utility infielder Luis Valbuena already are assured spots.
And if minor league free agent Brent Lillibridge wins a job because of his ability to play multiple infield and outfield spots - which Sveum said gives him an edge - that would leave only one opening on the bench.
The Cubs could open the season with as few as 11 players from last year's opening-day roster.
And given the 2012 results, nobody's complaining about that possibility.
''Obviously the depth is huge that we didn't have last year,'' Sveum said. ''We don't have a whole lot of question marks. We should have a really strong bench. We should have an extreme possibility of having a really good lineup, with the ability to mix and match. In the bullpen we should have strike-throwers.
''Going into this year, I guess you could say there's a real optimism.''