PITTSBURGH -- The Chicago Cubs' 25-man roster includes seven new position players compared to Opening Day a year ago, as well as eight new pitchers, including the injured Jake Arrieta and James McDonald. Both were placed on the disabled list to start the season, along with Kyuji Fujikawa.
Olt and Junior Lake will get a shot to play themselves into the core of the team; but don’t count out Bonifacio or Kalish, either, considering they’re only 28 and 26, respectively. Their age and abilities give them a chance to stick around, even if they aren’t every-day starters.
As for this particular season, the roster is much more balanced and athletic than the one then-manager Dale Sveum utilized in April last year. The Cubs were too left-handed in the outfield and without any speed to speak of as last season started.
Bonifacio changes all of that by himself, while Kalish can disturb on the basepath, as well. The Cubs will have some late-inning options they didn’t have a year ago and more flexibility on the bench and in the outfield.
On the mound the Cubs feature newcomers in Jason Hammel, Wesley Wright, Jose Veras, Pedro Strop and Brian Schiltter. In other words, it’s nearly a whole new bullpen from opening day last year, and two-fifths of the starting staff will be new when Arrieta returns from a pre-camp injury.
On paper the bullpen should be better -- it couldn’t be much worse -- but there are still question marks. The Cubs needed all the way up until the last days of spring to decide on the final spot. Veteran Alberto Cabrera blew up near the end of camp and it may have cost him a job, as Schiltter came out of nowhere to take it. Hector Rondon and Veras struggled in the spring, while holdover James Russell and newcomer Wright were heavily used over the last two years.
Simply put, the bullpen could go either way. But pitching coach Chris Bosio has done less with more in his tenure, so maybe they max out.
Veras is a key as the Cubs do have the ability to keep things tight with a decent starting rotation. Last year the Cubs set records with all sorts of close games early in the season. Veras will get the opportunities to save and win games at the back end -- something Carlos Marmol and Fujikawa were unable to do early in 2013.
Six weeks ago this would have been an easy call: The Cubs would lose close to 100 games. But Olt, Bonifacio, Kalish and a few pitchers at Triple-A Iowa give more hope than first thought. It might look more respectable from Game 1 to Game 162. If Javier Baez makes his debut, along with pitcher Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs could have a decent second half.
The big question is this: Can the Cubs get on base enough starting Monday to give their offense some hope? If Bonifacio and Castro are hovering around .300 or .310 for an on-base percentage, then the Cubs are in trouble. If it’s closer to .340 or .350, they’ll have something with which to work.
Olt and Lake are somewhat of X factors in the starting lineup. What will their first full year look like? And can Kalish recapture what he had going back several years? This is assuming Anthony Rizzo hits better with men in scoring position and Castro returns to his old self. There are no sure things. And then there is the Jeff Samardzija saga, certain to make headlines until the day he’s traded. Or signs. The former is still more likely.
But what was a stale lineup at the beginning of spring training now has some life, and the starting staff should be about the same as last season. How much noise this team can make is yet to be determined, but at least some intriguing pieces are in place. That’s more than you can say for a Theo Epstein run Cubs team in the past.
Predicted final record: 71-91