Two of the most intriguing position battles are taking shape at Cubs camp. The team entered spring training with five candidates to take the fifth starters job and three options to fill the fifth outfielder roll. One candidate in each battle has clearly stepped up and grabbed the lead.
Sometimes the best move a front office can make, is the move it doesn’t make. So far, that’s been the case with Travis Wood. The Cubs were said to be shopping him all offseason but didn’t find a deal they wanted. It was thought that the competition for the rotation position would be deep enough that Wood was expendable. And after his disastrous 2014 season, it seemed to make sense. Wood came to camp in great shape looking to turn things around after he followed his all-star 2013 with a career worst campaign. So far in the hitter friendly Cactus League, Wood has looked more like his 2013 version than the one who put up a 5.03 ERA, 1.53 WHIP and 4.38 FIP. In 10 innings he has a 1.80 ERA and 1.10 WHIP while striking out eight and walking just one.
Injuries have played a part of this battle as young, talented and frustratingly inconsistent Jacob Turner will miss time with an elbow injury and Tsuyoshi Wada is nursing a bad hamstring. Had Wada been healthy and able to perform relatively well in March, then he likely could have been the favorite with the Cubs still looking for a taker for Wood. But as it stands, Wood has performed well and gives the Cubs that second lefty they need in the rotation.
As for Edwin Jackson, his right-handedness is making this an easier decision for the Cubs. Jackson has been predictably inconsistent this spring. He has a 0.00 ERA in 5 innings, but has allowed four unearned runs which can be pointed directly back at his own defensive lapses. The Cubs have three options with Jackson. Keep him in the pen to eat the occasional meaningless innings that pop up, release him and eat the money or they can try to find a taker. The latter is easier said than done.
As for the fifth outfield spot, Matt Szczur has stepped up big. The speedy defensive specialist has been hitting the ball with reckless abandon this spring, compiling a .348/.423/.870 slashline with 3 home runs over 11 games. Those numbers of coarse are nowhere near what can be expected once the season begins, but his ability to play all three outfield positions at an extremely high level makes him a far more valuable candidate than Ryan Sweeny or Junior Lake. Both Sczcur and Junior Lake have one minor league option remaining and Lake has yet to show he is over the contact issues that have plagued him in the early part of his career.
Ryan Sweeney is the other option for the spot, but at 30-years old you pretty much know what Sweeney is. At 25-years-old, Szczur has more upside and offers more tools than the veteran Sweeney and so far has been the surprise of Cubs camp.
There’s still a while to go before the Cubs Easter night opener against the Cardinals at the construction site known as Wrigley Field. That means two and a half weeks of injury risk or wheeling and dealing as the team still has to decide what to do with catcher Wellington Castillo. But barring a move or a pull, look for Wood and Szczur to break camp on the 25-man-roster.