Chicago Cubs: Players to Watch in Spring Training

David Banks - Getty Images North America

David Banks – Getty Images North America

Infield:

The Cubs infield is very strong, and unlikely to change. With Kris Bryant at third, Addison Russell at short stop, Ben Zobrist at second, Anthony Rizzo at first, and Javier Baez ready to fill in at nearly any position, spring training for infielders is going to be more of a clinic for meshing and building chemistry. Along with the starters, already on the 40-man roster, are Tommy La Stella, Arismendy Alcantara, Jeimer Candelario, Christian Villanueva, and Dan Vogelbach. Whether or not this group holds, shifts, or is augmented by players kept ready in Triple-A will depend on how things go in camp, and on the other three who have been invited, Jesus Guzman, Munenori Kawasaki and Kristopher Negron.

La Stella saw some action last year, after returning from the DL, but the face of the Cubs infield is very different than it was, with Ben Zobrist on board and Javier Baez shifting about as utility man. It’s unclear what La Stella’s role might be, assuming a healthy starting lineup. He was a starter going into 2015, but is well down the list now and might end up as a good trade piece at some point.

Arismendy Alcantara is on the roster, but is going to need a serious bounce-back to contend for a slot. Early in 2015, General Manager Joe Maddon was calling him the Cubs Ben Zobrist, but that mantle has apparently been passed to Javier Baez, leaving a question mark that only performance can erase.

Included on the 40-man roster to avoid the Rule 5 Draft is Dan Vogelbach . Vogelbach is a power-hitting left-handed first baseman. With Anthony Rizzo solidly in place, and the Cubs organization claiming no plans of moving Vogelbach to another position, he seems destined to return around opening day to Triple-A until needed. At one point scouts said he was not athletic enough to play first, but he’s trimmed down and is determined to prove them wrong.

Also added prior to the Rule 5 draft is third baseman Jeimer Candelario, who put up great numbers in Double-A in 2015. He’s likely destined for Triple-A. He is still young, and developing, but he has a quality bat and tight fielding skills. It’s possible he might be ready for a first taste of the major leagues by late in the year, but his presence in camp is largely a protection move for the future.

Christian Villanueva is a third baseman whose 2015 showing in Triple-A and Winter League was impressive. The problem is, his options are up. He came to the club on the trade that sent Ryan Dempster to the Texas Rangers, and included the acquisition of right-handed pitcher Kyle Hendricks. The best hope for Villanueva as a Cub is if the team opts to keep five infielders and four outfielders going into the 2016 season, but he seems more likely to be headed back to Triple-A or to become a trade piece at some point. The Cubs are deep in the infield, with more powerful bats, and Villanueva is at the point in his career where he needs to get a chance to play at the major league level and assert himself, and that seems unlikely to happen given a healthy Chicago Cubs lineup.

The non-roster invitees include Jesus Guzman, who played last year in the Japanese leagues. He’s had good success at the major league level at the plate, but had a less than stellar 2014 and is due for a bounce-back season. He’s got the skills to be a good backup at first, and has played in the outfield, making him versatile in the manner Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon love. A very good spring training could win him serious consideration for a roster spot, but he has some things to prove.

Kristopher Negron comes over from the Cincinnati organization with a plus defense at almost every position. The only position he has not played professionally is catcher, and he did that before being drafted. Though he is already 31, he’s managed to improve his batting skills and is a great defensive option throughout the infield and outfield, making him another of those special do-everything players the Cubs love.

The infielders are rounded out by a guy who can bring a morale boost to any team, Munenori Kawasaki. Kawasaki is a good, but not great short stop and second baseman, and not great with the bat, but he is steady, and unlikely to disappoint when filling in. Along with his abilities on the field, he brings a great personality and dugout presence and hopefully will at least be placed in Triple-A with the chance to come up later in the season.

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