Season preview: Infield

April, 4, 2012
4/04/12
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Padilla By Doug Padilla
ESPNChicago.com
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Ian StewartAllan Henry/US PresswireIan Stewart hopes to fill a big production gap at third base created by the departure of Aramis Ramirez.
»2012 Cubs Fantasy Projections: Starters | Relievers | Infielders | Catchers | Outfielders

MESA, Ariz. -- Welcome to a full season in Chicago, Bryan LaHair and Ian Stewart. The chances of a consistent offense have somehow been put in your hands.

OK, that might be a bit too much expectation on a pair of newcomers, but none other than manager Dale Sveum has said that if LaHair and Stewart can produce, the offense will be better off for it.

It won’t be easy, of course, as the 29-year-old LaHair will be in his first full major league season and Stewart, while posting impressive run-production numbers from his days in Colorado, is coming off a lost season when he was plagued by a pair of injuries (hamstring, wrist).

The one thing that does seem certain is that Stewart will provide better defense at third base when compared to Aramis Ramirez. LaHair, though, will be hard pressed to equal what Carlos Pena did with the glove at first base last season.

[+] EnlargeBryan LaHair
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonBryan LaHair can't match the defensive prowess of Carlos Pena at first base, but he can make up for it with his power.
Starlin Castro is the real star of the infield, of course. He has already had plenty of one-on-one sessions with Sveum, who was also a middle infielder in his playing days. Sveum has not only offered tips at the plate, positioning around the bag has been a big topic of discussion between the two.

Castro was an All-Star last season, but Sveum’s work seems to suggest that there is enough talent in there to pull out an MVP-type season in the very near future. Castro’s biggest area of development could come on defense where he hasn’t necessarily looked spectacular this spring but has been steady.

While not a prototypical No. 3 hitter, Castro handles the bat well enough to get a shot there. It isn’t hard to argue that he is the best hitter on the team. Until he establishes himself in one particular spot, Castro could find himself drifting all around the top spots in the order.

Darwin Barney is the one that has made huge strides this spring. The second baseman continues to grow at his new position (he grew up a shortstop) and has looked stronger and more aggressive at the plate. Barney is going to need to avoid hitting a physical wall like he did in the second half last season when he batted .238 after the All-Star break.

Nobody expects Barney to start 162 games at second base, but he can show progress if he starts more than the 128 games he started there last year. A new workout program and an emphasis on proper calorie intake could help avoid the weight loss he went through in 2011.

The fact that Barney is also the backup shortstop is a bit awkward, but the Cubs have solid backup options at all other infield positions with bench guys Jeff Baker, Blake DeWitt and Joe Mather.

Catcher Geovany Soto seems to be on his game every other season. Guess what? He’s due to produce again after batting .228 with a .721 OPS last season. Steve Clevenger is that rare backup catcher who is also young. He might get more playing time than the average catching sub in order to not completely stunt his development.

3 KEYS TO SUCCESS


• With all apologies to Sveum’s focus on Stewart and LaHair, Castro can lead this crew with his talent. He might not be outspoken, but his ability already inspires awe from teammates and reaching a new level this season will do wonders.

• Barney is no longer trying to flip balls to the opposite field but is now driving them into the gaps. Batting second, in front of Castro should help him to get even more pitches to hit.

• LaHair underwent an unexpected power outage this spring but nobody expects him to stray from the 38-homer formula he showed last season at Triple-A Iowa. If he doesn’t force it, the power will come, but that seemed to be the idea in the spring too and the long balls were hard to come by.

Doug Padilla

Chicago White Sox beat reporter
Doug joined ESPN Chicago in July 2010 and covers the Chicago White Sox for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN Radio 1000.

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TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Starlin Castro
BA HR RBI R
.290 14 65 57
OTHER LEADERS
HRA. Rizzo 30
RBIA. Rizzo 71
RA. Rizzo 81
OPSA. Rizzo .889
WJ. Hammel 8
ERAT. Wood 4.81
SOJ. Arrieta 135