Top Five: Chicago Baseball Spring Training Storylines

If you're a baseball fan then you must know that pitchers and catchers for the both the White Sox and Cubs are in Arizona. What's more, position players for both teams are already arriving to get the party started. As usual, there will be a variety of interesting storylines playing themselves out this spring at Camelback Ranch and Ho Ho Kam Field. Let's pick the Top Five, shall we?

With pitchers and catchers for the Chicago White Sox moseying onto Camelback Ranch yesterday, and many players for the Chicago Cubs already in Mesa, it's the perfect time to get up to speed on the reality-show-style dramas set to unfold this spring. The good news is neither of our two teams has had a player busted on a DUI, was recently duped by Bernie Madoff or is hoping Rich Harden will be healthy enough to pitch this season.

Rather, we appear to have a couple of relatively healthy (fingers crossed), "good chemistry" teams. The Sox have Paul Konerko, A.J. Pierzynski and Mark Buehrle still in tow -- along with that big left-handed slugger, Adam Dunn, they've missed since Jim Thome took his taters to Minneapolis. The Cubs have Kerry Wood back, one of baseball's great diplomats in Carlos Pena and a renewed, re-improved, all-business Carlos Zambrano.

But that doesn't mean there aren't some percolating plotlines to keep an eye over the next five-plus weeks. In fact, both teams face a number of similar dilemmas before Opening Day: Friday, April 1. Here are our Top Five Chicago baseball spring training storylines for your perusal and prospective pleasure:

1. The Young and The Restless

Perhaps the most interesting parallel between the Cubs and Sox right now is the decision they both face regarding a certain young, fire-balling pitcher. On the South Side, we find southpaw Chris Sale, who will be a mere 22 years old on that aforementioned Opening Day. A rare player who was both drafted and made his MLB debut in the same year (2010), Sale has been the focus of intense scrutiny throughout the off-season. Namely, should he become a starting pitcher in 2011?

Although Sale pitched out of the bullpen in 2010, the lefty could join the Sox starting rotation this season -- if only while Jake Peavy completes his recovery from shoulder surgery. Indeed, according to reports, Sale is currently working out with the team's other starters. But further reports indicate that's only to keep him in his routine and many observers expect the young hurler to wind up in the bullpen, potentially even sticking in the closer's role he filled toward the end of last season.

On the North Side, right-hander Andrew Cashner stands at a similar crossroads. A first-round draft pick in 2008, the 24-year-old right-hander, who can hit the upper 90s with his fastball, also served in the bullpen last season. He ended 2010 with mixed results at best but showed plenty of potential. More important, he'd been demonstrating some promise as a starter in the minors before his 2010 call-up in May.

Encouragingly, Cubs management has indicated that Cashner will get a long look as a potential candidate for the 2011 starting rotation this spring. With Kerry Wood back in the fold to serve as the primary right-handed set-up man for closer Carlos Marmol, the Cubs don't necessarily need Cashner's power arm in the pen.

The problem? Highly paid veteran Carlos Silva and a number of other pitchers also want the solitary opening in the team's five-man rotation with Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Big Z and Randy Wells claiming the other four. (Some say Wells' spot could be in jeopardy. It really shouldn't be given the fact that the right-hander endured a typical sophomore regression quite handily in 2010. So please allow me to perhaps live in denial and assume Wells will stay a starting pitcher in 2011.)

The best reason to keep an eye on Sale and Cashner's predicament is to see whether either team (or both) will seize the opportunity to give these youngsters a rotation spot. The decision is important because, simply put, a highly talented pitcher's biggest value to a baseball team is in the starting rotation. It's there that he'll have the opportunity to throw the greatest number of innings and, thus, truly impact the team's success.

Naturally, there are always certain pitchers who, while being highly talented, don't have the stamina to throw multiple innings in a game or the 150 to 200 innings a season that most starters do. But that drawback isn't yet evident for either Sale or Cashner.

Of course, there are additional complications. Even if Sale does start, he's not going to have a rotation spot once Jake Peavy gets back. (The White Sox rotation is projected to be: Peavy, Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Gavin Floyd and Edwin Jackson.) Plus, the back end of the South Sider's bullpen could certainly use a closer to keep Matt Thornton in the set-up role that's earned him accolades. Or, if Thornton gets the job, the Sox will still use a left-handed set-up guy to take his place.

Bold prediction: Chris Sale follows in the footsteps of Bobby Jenks, becoming the White Sox closer despite his relative youth and inexperience.

If the Cubs decide not to give Cashner a rotation spot, their best move may be one that upsets many fans: Send him down to Triple A. There he could get regular starts and build up his stamina to serve as a starter later in the season or, certainly, in 2012.

Bold prediction: Carlos Silva puts together another solid spring and, as he predicted, lays claim to the last rotation spot. Cashner starts the season in the minors, giving Cubs manager Mike Quade one of his first big PR challenges.

2.  The Pushers

God damn ... the pusher man. ~ Steppenwolf, 1969

Position battles are one of the things -- perhaps the only thing -- that make spring training truly interesting. Let's be honest, the games mean next to nothing. They have little to no predictive value that I'm aware of. A player can hit .350 in March only to have a miserable April, May, etc. But a player can't do anything at all in the big leagues if he doesn't even make the 25-man roster because someone else pushed him back to the minors or out of a job completely.

Enter the Pushers. O'er at Camelback Ranch, we have Lastings Milledge. A first-round draft pick of the New York Mets back in 2003, Milledge was a highly touted prospect who, like so many such players, has gone on to struggle and mostly disappoint. Disciplinary issues and an inconsistent bat have sent him from the Mets to the Washington Nationals to the Pittsburgh Pirates just last season. Milledge wasn't tendered a contract by the Buccos this off-season, and the White Sox signed him to a free agent deal on Feb. 3.

Milledge's job is now to force the Sox to make a decision on a couple of guys. First, there's 26-year-old outfielder Alejandro De Aza. He's shown great promise as a versatile fourth outfielder with some speed and an adequate bat, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy enough to prove anything one way or the other. Second, there's Brent Lillibridge -- a 27-year-old player who puts the "you" in "utility." As in, "You tell me what position to play and I'll go there." Problem is, his offensive numbers are, indeed, offensive. His shown little ability to get on base or hit for power, though he's gotten only 298 plate appearances scattered over three seasons.

What De Aza and Lillibridge have notably in common is that it appears they're both out of options. That means, if they don't make the team, the Sox can't send them to the minors without exposing them to the waivers process, whereby another team can claim them. So if Milledge does beat one out for a bench spot, we may have to bid farewell to De Aza or "Bridge."

Bold prediction: De Aza finally stays healthy enough to win over Ozzie and get a bench spot. Lillibridge is exposed to waivers and lost. Milledge, who still does have an option left, goes to Triple A.

For the Cubs, the Pusher Man is a familiar face who brings good (regular season) memories to the minds of many fans. He is Reed Johnson, a guy the team signed to a free agent deal during spring training '08 and went on to play in one of the most productive center field platoons in Cubs history with Jim Edmonds. RJ, as he is affectionately known, is back with the team this year on a minor league deal.

And who is his intended victim? None other than Fernando Perez, the speedy, eloquent 27-year-old outfielder who the Cubs picked up in the Matt Garza trade with the Tampa Bay Rays. Perez got a handful of major league at-bats in 2008 and 2009 with the Rays, but he spent all of 2010 in the minors, battling injuries and not hitting particularly well. Nonetheless, Perez reportedly plays great defense and brings great speed to the basepaths, which is something the Cubs (as usual) sorely need. Plus, his bat may not be a lost cause, as he put up some solid numbers in earlier minor league seasons.

Meanwhile, RJ brings a pedigree as an all-out, leave-it-all-on-the-(out)field player who hits left-handed pitching well (career .836 OPS, .364 wOBA). On the downside, he may be a bit overrated defensively because of his penchant for diving (and sometimes catching) balls that should've been out of his reach. Defensive measures rate him highly only in left field. In addition, he's 34 years old with a history of back problems that tend to put him on the disabled list.

Bold prediction: The great speed and beautiful mind of Fernando Perez inspires Cubs manager Mike Quade to award him a roster spot and, for a second time, Cubs fans must bid a sad adieu to Reed Johnson.

3. The Walking Wounded

We've already mentioned these two guys above, so I'll try to keep this section a little shorter than the previous two. I refer, of course, to Jake Peavy and Carlos Silva.

Peavy is and will remain a huge question mark for the White Sox. Reports from Arizona indicate that he's already completed an MRI (which came back clean), a physical (which at least one beat writer described as "stellar") and a throwing session (which triggered no immediate new causes for concerns). But GM Kenny Williams appears cautious in his comments regarding Peavy's return. Although Williams did say that he expects the Cy Young Award winner to head north to Cleveland with the team when spring training is over, that doesn't necessarily mean he'll be in the rotation right away.

And seeing as how Peavy is recovering from a unprecedented shoulder injury (seriously, it's apparently never happened to any other pitcher ... ever), no one can say for sure what he'll look like when he returns. Cynics say the right-hander could lose so much velocity on his fastball that he'll become a facsimile of latter-day Freddy Garcia. Optimists see a guy more than capable of leading an already-strong starting staff to glory this season.

Interestingly, manager Ozzie Guillen has hinted that he may try and sneak his way into or even through April using a four-man rotation. That's not a bad idea considering the team's other four starters are all seasoned pros capable of handling the workload. Otherwise, the team could turn to a Lucas Harrell (25-year-old prospect who got three starts last season) or a Phillip Humber (28-year-old journeyman type claimed off waivers by the Sox last month) to make some spot starts.

Bold prediction: The headstrong, ultracompetitive Peavy will shoulder his way back into the rotation by mid-April. Boo ya!

Turning back to the Cubs, it's probably and admittedly not fair to refer to Carlos Silva as "walking wounded." There have been no reports out of camp so far that he's either injured or grossly overweight. (The guy's never going to be skinny.) But, well, he's a man encumbered by a variety of hefty burdens.

For starters, there's his contract. Silva will earn $11.5 million this season, $5.5 of which is helpfully covered by the Seattle Mariners. (Enjoy the final year of that Milton Bradley contract, guys.) Even $6 million dollars is a little too much to be paying a long reliever, however, which is what Silva would presumably become if he doesn't make the rotation. So it's hard to imagine that the Cubs won't do everything in their power to give him a starting spot.

Then there are Silva's career numbers. He's never been a great pitcher, just a decent ground-ball guy who can eat up innings when healthy. From that perspective, making him the No. 5 starter isn't all that bad of an idea -- especially if he can find his way back to anywhere near the shocking success he had during the first half of the 2010 season. But Carlos has a number of young bucks hot on his trail, including the aforementioned Cashner, Casey Coleman and Jeff Samardzija. Braden Looper and Todd Wellemeyer are also doggin' him. (They ain't so young.)

All that said, Silva does bring some health concerns. The cardiac issues he ran into last season have been reportedly resolved, but the elbow tendinitis that shut him down in September could easily return. So, in many ways, Silva is as much a question mark for the Cubs as Jake Peavy is for the Sox. The difference is we don't know when Jake will start his season while we don't know whether or how Carlos will finish his.

Bold prediction: See "1. The Young and The Restless" above.

4. The Young Defenders

Defense. Who needs it? Well, major league baseball teams do, and they're increasingly recognizing its value. For this reason, another interesting storyline to watch this spring is how good fortune and the bouncing ball treat a couple of young players on either side of town.

Brent Morel was rated the Sox No. 2 prospect for 2011 behind Chris Sale by SB Nation's very own John Sickels. Although it remains questionable whether the 23-year-old will ever develop the power that one typically associates with a third baseman, his defensive abilities are very strong and there's nothing wrong with a whole lotta doubles when a lineup already has multiple guys capable of putting the ball in the seats.

Morel is expected to get a long look at third base this spring, with his chief competition being Mark Teahen. I named the 29-year-old Teahen one of Chicago's most maligned players last week, which should tell you a lot about who many (most?) fans will be rooting for in this matchup. Teahen obviously has more MLB experience, and he can even boast a couple of decent full seasons at the plate, but he's generally rated poorly on his defense at third base.

Bold prediction: Morel wins the third base job going away in spring training. Teahen has to take a wait-and-see approach to snagging the job during the regular season while Brent's bat takes its hacks.

Across the desert at Ho Ho Kam, there's a young player who's also pretty handy with the glove. And he has an awesome name: Darwin Barney. This 25-year-old was picked by the Cubs in the fourth round of the 2007 amateur draft and, though his bat has never exactly lit up the scoreboards in the minors, his velvety smooth defensive skills got plenty of attention. He made his major league debut on Aug. 12 of last year as, appropriately enough, a defensive replacement.

By and large, Barney is projected to be a career utility player. And that's OK. In my humble opinion, every team needs a sound defender who can help lock down the middle infield late in games or give a starter a breather every now and then.

But there's an interesting wrinkle to this particular story in that Barney has reportedly added about 18 pounds of muscle over the off-season by attending the now-famous "Camp Colvin" conditioning program led by team strength and conditioning coach Tim Buss. The program got its name by virtue of the fact that rookie outfield Tyler Colvin put on about 25 pounds of muscle last off-season before absolutely crushing Cactus League pitching and then smoking 20 home runs in the regular season.

Could Darwin Barney "pull a Colvin" and rock the team's spring training game schedule with his bat as well as his glove? Probably not to the extent Tyler did -- at least not in terms of raw power. But Barney is reportedly a good contact hitter. So if he can keep hitting the ball and hit it harder, maybe a few more singles turn to doubles or triples. Combine that with a strong glove and Barney could be the breakout star of the spring after all.

As of right now, he's competing with the likes of Augie Ojeda (36-year-old utility infielder who played with the Cubs in the early oughts and killed them in the 2007 NLDS with the Arizona Diamondbacks) and Bobby Scales (the Keith Richards of the team's minor league system) for a middle infield backup role.

Bold Prediction: Aw, heck, let's do this -- Darwin Barney wows Mike Quade to the extent that he lays claim to a platoon role at second base with Blake DeWitt. Cubs fans go into the season screaming that Barney should just be given the job outright much as they pleaded Tyler Colvin's case in right field last season.

5. The Sweet Swingin' Lefties

I'm certainly not the first one to say it, and I won't be the last, but here goes: There's something about a left-handed hitter crushing a baseball. It just looks so cool, so smooth, so ... well, anyway. Both Chicago teams will, I hope, have many, many opportunities to ooh and ahh this season as the Sox and Cubs have both signed left-handed sluggers to put runs on the board.

Adam Dunn was one of the biggest names on the free agent market, and Kenny Williams went out and got him. Although some of his numbers dipped a bit last season in Washington (he struck out more and walked less), he still did what Dunn does (say that five times fast). Put roughly 40 baseballs in the gracious hands of bleacher residents, drove in over 100 runs as fate and his hard knocks allowed and didn't play particularly good defense (though that was less of an issue at first base).

And that's where things will get interesting this spring, because the White Sox are, wisely, not counting on him to play all that much defense at first base or (the stars be thanked) in the outfield. He's expected to be mostly a DH, though Ozzie is leaving his options open about giving Dunn some time at the less-hot corner. As our own George Castle pointed out, that means Adam will have to figure out what to do with himself when the Sox are on the field defensively.

Come to think of it, the fact that Dunn will likely be getting less defensive reps in the spring doesn't bode well for the times he will need (or be asked ... or beg ...) to play first base during the regular season. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. For the time being, Sox fans should look forward to a month of meaningless games that will give the Big Donkey plenty of opportunities to launch the baseball up, up and away into the high sky of Arizona.

Bold Prediction: You'll forgive me, I hope, of being a little less than bold at this point in this lengthy feature. Although one noted projection system (Marcel) sees Dunn as having a down year, I think he'll be pretty happy hitting at the Cell and better rested in the DH role. I'll say he gets back to 40 home runs. Why not.

The other big lefty bat coming to Chicago this summer is, of course, Carlos Pena. Like Dunn, he'll be adjusting to a new team and new facilities. He'll also be facing some pressure to match the smooth glove and formidable bat of Derrek Lee, whom the team traded to the Atlanta Braves last August and will now reside in that place where so many former Cubs go to die play: Baltimore.

And, last but certainly least in my humble opinion, Pena will hopefull do something this spring to help fans forget about the .196 batting average that's already becoming an old, tired and markedly lame joke. Of course, I know they won't forget and it'll probably be all we hear about in April if he gets off to a cold start. (Grumble, grumble.) Work hard this spring, Carlos, work hard.

Bold Prediction: Carlos Pena hit 28 home runs last season -- while injured. And 18 of those 28 landed in the largely unoccupied seats of Tropicana Field, the worst ballpark for scoring runs in the big leagues. I predict he'll hit 33 in 2011, leading the team.

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