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Friday, February 11, 2011
Cubs spring training preview: Infield

By Bruce Levine

Carlos Pena
Carlos Pena gives the Cubs a left-handed power bat they have been looking for.

Looking back at Opening Day 2010, the Chicago Cubs’ infield consisted of Derrek Lee at first base, Mike Fontenot at second base, Ryan Theriot at shortstop and Aramis Ramirez at third base. Going into the 2011 season, only Ramirez remains.

Lee, who was traded to the Atlanta Braves in August, will be replaced this season by 33-year-old left-handed power hitter Carlos Pena. The Cubs signed Pena to a unique one-year contract during the Winter Meetings in December. Pena will be paid $10 million for his service -- $3 million from the 2010 budget, $3 million from the 2011 budget and the final $4 million in January 2012. The former Tampa Ray hit a major-league low .196 last season. However, his power numbers were better than those of any Cub in 2010; Pena hit 28 home runs and drove in 84 runs.

The Cubs have been looking for a left-handed run-producer for what seemed like decades. Pena will either hit third, fourth or fifth in Mike Quade’s lineup. Defensively, the Cubs are getting a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman with better range than the sure-handed Lee. Offensively, Pena’s main problem is swinging and missing -- he struck out 158 times last season. Hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, Pena’s first big-league batting instructor, should be a big asset for him.

Second base could be manned by up to four different players. During spring training, Blake DeWitt, Jeff Baker, Darwin Barney and Augie Ojeda will all get time at the position. The Cubs would love for DeWitt, acquired in late July as part of a deal that sent Theriot and Ted Lilly to the Los Angeles Dodgers, to win the job outright. The 25-year-old lefty showed improvement working with Jaramillo. Baker will challenge DeWitt for playing time especially against left-handed pitchers. Late in the 2010 season, Baker became Quade’s leadoff man against left-handers. He hit .350 against lefties but only .106 against right-handers.

Starlin Castro
Starlin Castro batted .300 last season but committed 27 errors at shortstop.
Barney will challenge Ojeda for the backup role at second base and shortstop. Barney, 25, played well defensively in a 30-game audition late in the season. Ojeda, returning for his second tour of duty with the Cubs, signed a non-guaranteed deal in February. Defensively, he can still get the job done. In 59 games with the Diamondbacks in 2010, Ojeda didn’t make an error.

Shortstop Starlin Castro made everybody’s all-rookie team in 2010, hitting .300 at age 20. Castro, called up on May 7, had his best day in his first big-league game, hitting two homers and driving in six runs in his debut against the Reds. Castro must improve defensively in 2011. He committed 27 errors last season, but most baseball observers feel he will improve dramatically this season. When many scouts look at Castro, they believe he will hit more homers and be a run producer as he matures.

Third baseman Aramis Ramirez hopes to put two solid halves together this season. Ramirez, who has been a Cub since 2003, is entering an option year after which the team can either chose to pay him $15 million for 2012 or buy the deal out. He struggled through the worst three months of his career in the first half of 2010. He hit under .200 and drove in just 23 runs through June. Ramirez rebounded in July and August and led the Cubs with 25 homers and 83 RBIs. Still, those are unsatisfactory numbers for Ramirez. Defensively, 2010 was a rough season for Ramirez. He began to play a little deeper in the second half and looked more like his former self.

Ojeda, Barney or Baker will backup Ramirez. The Cubs also plan to use Tyler Colvin as a backup to Pena. Colvin, an outfielder, last played first base as a sophomore in college.

Catcher Geovany Soto rebounded in 2010 with a solid, if not spectacular, season. The 2008 National League Rookie of the Year hit .280 with 17 homers and 53 RBIs. Soto also led the Cubs with a .393 on-base percentage. The Cubs and Soto hope he can drive in more runs this season. Koyie Hill will backup Soto.

Although not much of a hitter, Hill is a solid defender and is trusted by Cubs pitchers as much as Soto.
Run production from the Cubs’ infield will be a key factor in determining the fate of the 2011 offense.