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Cubs camp opens with a look at the issues

Dave Sappelt has the inside track on the fourth outfielder's job in 2013. Troy Taormina/US Presswire

MESA, Ariz. -- The Chicago Cubs opened spring training on Sunday with a state of the ballclub address to the media by team president Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and second-year manager Dale Sveum. Here are some of the issues discussed, followed by a quick analysis of each.

Sappelt over Campana

The Cubs elected to designate Tony Campana for assignment after announcing the official addition of Scott Hairston to the 40-man roster. It probably means Dave Sappelt will make the team as an extra outfielder. The Cubs have 10 days to trade Campana, or send him through waivers and then to the minors if he clears.

“It was a difficult call for us,” Epstein said. “We preferred not to take a pitcher off. Looking at the position player group it seemed to make sense to us. … We’d like to keep him in the organization. He’s one of the best baserunners in the league and could be a weapon on a contending team.”

Analysis: Campana’s as good as gone considering what Epstein said about his value to a contending team. It might seem like a curious move, considering that Sappelt and Hairston are similar players while Campana has a unique set of skills (30 steals in 33 attempts), but Campana’s inability to get on base consistently (.308 OBP) made the decision for the Cubs. As Epstein said, it’s a tough call and one they may regret when they’re looking for that extra base.

Opening Day starter

Sveum said mid-camp is when he’ll make a decision on who goes first among Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija and Edwin Jackson.

“You don’t let that cat out of the bag,” he said. “We have three candidates. We’ll play all that out as far as matchups. Opening day in Pittsburgh, opening day in Chicago. A lot of things go into that.”

Analysis: This is a two-horse race between Garza and Samardzija. IF there is meaning behind who the starter is, then it will be interesting which one they choose. Garza is probably the favorite, but if Samardzija gets the ball it could be a strong statement about his future as the top arm on the team. And the opposite might be true for Garza if he’s not the man. Then again, it could have little meaning and simply be about logistics and the schedule. Look for Garza to get the nod if healthy.

Starlin Castro

Believe it or not, a year ago at this time the Cubs brass wasn’t sure what it had in the All-Star shortstop.

“As we sat here last year there was a bit of an open question in the organization whether he could stay at shortstop long-term,” Epstein said. “Now we feel like he definitely can.... I look for him this year or a year in the near future to have that breakout (offensive) season.”

Analysis: Epstein mentioned Castro’s recent improvement on defense, but he also indicated there was more room for it. And if Castro can increase his walk totals he’ll undoubtedly start to see better pitches, which will make all his numbers look better. Bottom line: in some ways he’s still raw but at only 22 -- as Epstein indicated -- he’s younger than many prospects who haven’t reached the majors yet. Look for a big year from him all around.

Javier Baez

Don’t look for Baez to make the big league club. He’s not even close. And, yes, he’ll stay at shortstop in camp -- for the most part.

“He’s a shortstop and he’s going to play shortstop,” Sveum said. “If he happens to get into a spring game at third or second it’s because of flat numbers. It’s not that we need to take a look at him anywhere else.”

Analysis: Cubs brass stressed several times that none of their A-ball players of a year ago are close to the majors. In fact, they want nearly a year of Triple-A ball from them before being called up. That’s the right attitude to take. Players will tell the baseball world when they are ready and even then proceeding with caution is the right way to go. Young psyches are at stake and though the Cubs are anxious to end their 104-year championship drought, it doesn’t change the timetable for development. Expect Baez to start in Daytona at high-A ball.

Pitching Rotation

The top three spots are set but the final two are up in the air. Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, Travis Wood and Carlos Villanueva are the candidates.

“You have some competition for those spots,” Sveum said. “Baker will be a little bit slower than the others."

Analysis: Baker is coming back from Tommy John surgery, and because he’s no sure thing even when he’s healthy we’ll assume he doesn’t get a rotation spot out of spring training .The guess here is Villanueva is best suited in the spot starter/reliever role, so starting the season, Feldman and Wood could be 4 and 5. Wood deserves a chance after showing flashes last season. All four will more than likely start games for the Cubs this year, according to Hoyer.

Who’s on third?

With a healthy Ian Stewart and a productive Luis Valbuena back, the Cubs might have some competition at third base.

“We have to give (Stewart) every opportunity,” Sveum said. “He’s got the capabilities of being a two-way player. It’s going to come down to production. Ian has to prove it to us and swing the bat.”

Analysis: This is Stewart’s job to lose and he probably knows it. And Sveum sent a not-so-subtle message to him: Produce or Valbuena will be in there. It’s unknown if Stewart will repeat some good numbers he put up in Colorado a few years ago but if he’s healthy he’ll produce a lot more than last year -- and that’s a start. If he’s not playing on opening day then the Cubs have issues at third base.

Bunting tournament

Yes, it’s back for a second straight year. The Cubs will do a March Madness-type bunting tournament with 64 entrants.

“For that 64th spot we have 16 front office people vying for it,” Sveum joked.

Analysis: As last year’s winner, David DeJesus enters as the favorite. Newcomer Scott Hairston has one bunt hit in his career and poses little threat to win, and the same goes for Nate Schierholtz or anyone else that’s new, save for Alberto Gonzalez, who could be a sleeper.