Can Pitching Trump Offensive Uncertainty?

Matt Garza (GETTY)

Even as the Cubs whittled their roster down to a manageable size by the middle of March, uncertainty hung over several areas of the team.

What would the lineup look like? Who would be the fifth starter? Who would be the fifth outfielder? How would the bullpen shake out?

Manager Mike Quade was taking a wait-and-see attitude toward all of those questions, saying the final two weeks of spring training would provide plenty of time to make the final roster decisions.

What the lineup lacks is a true leadoff hitter (again). The best on-base percentage guy for the job is Kosuke Fukudome. He may start a lot of games in the top spot against right-handed pitchers, but he's also battling Tyler Colvin for playing time in right field. When a lefty goes against the Cubs, second baseman Jeff Baker likely will bat first.

The real strength of the club is in the pitching, both in the top three of the rotation and the back end of the bullpen. Right-handers Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Garza are as formidable as any 1-2-3 in the NL Central, if not the entire National League, aside from the Phillies. Right-hander Randy Wells looks to have nailed down the fourth spot, and the Cubs will wait to see who wins the fifth spot between young fireballer Andrew Cashner and veteran Carlos Silva.

Carlos Marmol has electric stuff as the closer. His only bugaboo has been walks and hit batters, but he struck out nearly 16 per nine innings last year. Cubs general manager Jim Hendry called setup man Sean Marshall the best left-handed reliever in the game who is not a starter. Kerry Wood is back "home" to set up from the right side and provide leadership in the clubhouse.

One area gnawing at Quade this spring has been the team's tendency to commit errors and mental mistakes in the field. That has prompted him to address the club several times. The Cubs were a poor defensive team last year, and Quade is trying to nip that in spring training. However, he might have to live with the fact that the Cubs aren't as gifted in the field or don't have as much range as other clubs.

In the NL Central, the Cubs can contend, even if they are not an elite club. Much will depend on how new first baseman Carlos Pena hits. If he can improve his batting average from the .196 mark of last year to the .240 range and continue to hit home runs, the Cubs can score runs. A good start also would get the increasingly critical Wrigley Field fans behind Pena.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Wells looks to have solidified once and for all his spot as the No. 4 starter in the rotation behind Dempster, Zambrano and Garza. Wells came to camp not guaranteed a job after slipping to 8-14 with a 4.26 ERA last year after being a pleasant surprise his rookie season.

"I didn't produce last year," Wells said. "The only thing I did consistently was make every start and get innings. Other than that, I didn't produce."

--OFs Reed Johnson and Fernando Perez are the final combatants for the fifth outfielder spot. The Cubs sent OF Lou Montanez back to minor league camp. Johnson is a management favorite who played for the Cubs in 2008-09. Perez has the Cubs intrigued with his speed. Neither player has hit particularly well. The final determination may favor Johnson because Perez has minor league options. Johnson is in camp as a non-roster invitee.

--LHP John Grabow pitched an inning of relief on St. Patrick's Day, marking his first appearance since the spring opener on Feb. 27. Grabow, who battled knee problems during an ineffective 2010 season, has experienced left shoulder tightness this spring.

"Everything felt real good," Grabow said of his comeback inning. He added that the final two weeks of spring training should be enough time to have him ready for the start of the season.

--CF Brett Jackson was one of the players sent back to minor league camp in the most recent round of roster cuts. Jackson, 22, was a longshot candidate to make a crowded outfield, but he could find himself up sometime this season. It's expected Jackson will start the season at Class AA (Kodak) Tennessee. Last season, he played at Class A Daytona and Tennessee before joining Team USA in the fall.

--INF Augie Ojeda, trying to make the team as a non-roster player, has been battling back spasms that have kept him out of action and was scheduled to get an epidural on March 21. He hoped to be back on the field within 2-3 days after that. Quade agreed time is running short on Ojeda, especially as Darwin Barney is making a push to crack the Opening Day roster.

"It's been longer than we thought," Quade said of Ojeda's absence. "I'm hoping he can get healthy and it doesn't morph into something that lasts for weeks and weeks."

Barney, who is on the 40-man roster, made a good impression late last year. He can play second, third and short.

BY THE NUMBERS: 1.29 -- Wells' ERA (two earned runs over 14 innings) in his first four spring games, virtually assuring him of keeping the No. 4 spot in the rotation.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "He hasn't earned the right to figure he's going to hit anywhere, although he hit .300 in the No. 2 hole. I'm smart enough to say 'I'll take .300 in the two-hole again.'" -- Quade, on where second-year SS Starlin Castro will hit.

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