By Mick Gillispie / Smokies Radio Network
We’re now turning the corner into the back stretch of spring training here in Arizona. The Cubs front office led by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have some tough decisions to make as more roster cuts have been made and will continue to be made as we get closer to the end of big league camp.
What’s been really interesting for me has been the battle for the backup catcher job between two former Smokies, Welington Castillo and Steve Clevenger. Those two guys have been just as good at their position as anyone else in camp. Welington has really improved since I last saw him, especially behind the plate. Steve has grown over the past three years in the way he calls a game and he handles a pitching staff so well. Cubs manager Dale Sveum says that these guys could start with a lot of other clubs in the big leagues, making his decision that much tougher.
When you think about the job that Welington, Steve, and 2010 Smokies catcher Robinson Chirinos have done, it hits you how much talent has been behind the plate at Smokies Park the last several years. Robinson was a big piece in the deal that brought Matt Garza to the Cubs before the 2011 season and made his big league debut for the Rays last season.
If I had to handicap the race, I’d probably give Clevenger the edge because he is a left-handed batter. This will make the matchups easier for Sveum, and it’s always good to have a good lefty bat on the bench.
There is also a lot of competition for spots in the starting rotation. Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster have really solidified their roles as the top two in the rotation, and we should know who will start on Opening Day soon. The surprise out of camp has been how well Jeff Samardzija has pitched. Jeff is a guy we saw in Tennessee in 2007-08, and is really starting to blossom on the mound. He of course was an outstanding wide receiver at Notre Dame and when the Cubs drafted him they signed him to a big league contract to prevent him from going to the NFL. This sport is different than football, you just don’t have a guy get drafted and make an impact immediately at the top level. It takes time and Jeff is starting to figure things out. I could tell last year that everything was starting to click for him as a solid bullpen guy, and now he looks to be right in line for a spot in the Cubs rotation.
Also in the rotation, Paul Maholm and Chris Volstad have been great in their starts, and so has Randy Wells. I really like watching Randy Wells and I love his changeup, it’s one of the best I’ve seen from anybody this spring. Volstad is a familiar name to Smokies fans because he was with the Carolina Mudcats when they were a Marlins affiliate in 2008 and was dominant. Former Smokies Casey Coleman, James Russell, and Rafael Dolis have all looked good on the mound. It’s hard not to give Dolis a spot, he was strong as Tennessee’s closer a year ago. He can reach 100 mph with that fastball that has a good sinking movement. It’s really tough to hit and he’s been fooling good big league hitters with it thise spring. There are lots of openings in the bullpen, and some of the guys who don’t make it to the starting rotation will get a shot there.
Everywhere else on the Cubs roster is pretty much set. Two of the guys that have done the best this spring won’t make the team in Brett Jackson and Anthony Rizzo, two of the top Cubs prospects. Rizzo has been impressive, he was the key cog in the deal between the Cubs and Padres earlier this year when former Smokies pitcher Andrew Cashner went from Chicago to San Diego. He is impressive defensively and is a solid left-handed bat. He’s start the season at Iowa most likely but he’s a top prospect for a reason. For Jackson, he homered yesterday but will also probably start the year at Triple-A. He has all kinds of talent, and will get an opportunity one day but just not right now. There will come a day when he’s in the outfield everyday at Wrigley Field. He’s proven himself of being capable of playing at a high level.
The Cubs front office will tell these guys what to work on to get back to the big leagues, and I know they’ll work hard. Like I said before, this is a tough part of spring for the front office because they have to keep trimming the roster, and we are less than two weeks away from Opening Day at Wrigley Field.
Yesterday for me was fun because I ran into my first color analyst partner, Shane Kelley, who is now a coach with the Texas Rangers. Shane was a team chaplain for the Alabama Crimson Tide baseball team when I called games as a student on WVUA radio. It was really fun to catch up with him and I’m excited he’s got this great opportunity with the Rangers as a strength coach. He’ll be working a lot with slugger Josh Hamilton, a guy I met yesterday. He’s a terrific person and very humble when you consider he’s one of the best in baseball. He’s been in the news a lot because of his off-field struggles in his life, but I enjoyed meeting him and wish him nothing but the best this season. Really good to see Shane, first time I’ve seen him in about 12 years.
We’re only a few hours away from today’s broadcast of the Cubs vs. Rockies game at Talking Stick, and you can find all the listening information in the post below. I really want to thank all the guys that worked hard to make this broadcast a success, without them it wouldn’t be possible. Thanks to: Barry Allen, Roger Hoover, Justin Shackil, Darren Headrick, Cody Chrusciel, Jon Laaser, J.P. Shadrick, Allen Faul, Chris Harris, Kyle Tait, Ben Ingram, Joe Davis, Wayne Randazzo, as well as everyone with the Chicago Cubs and Major League Baseball.