The Chicago Cubs will face the Chicago White Sox in their final 2014 spring training game Thursday at Cubs Park in Mesa, Arizona, and the familiar opponent gives Cubs fans a moment to size up their own team’s concerns going into the 2014, hoping to at least outdistance themselves from their crosstown competitors.
The Cubs defeated the White Sox 7-0 on Friday in their previous matchup and have had a slightly stronger record in Spring Training that the White Sox. But Spring Training wins don’t count toward any playoff spots so Cubs fans know there are at least five key questions that have no clear answer going into the this historic season, the 100th at Wrigley Field:.
1. Is Starlin Castro healthy?
The starting shortstop injured his hamstring on March 2, his second day of spring training, and hasn’t played a game since. Castro led the Cubs in at-bats (666) and hits (163) and was second on the team in runs (59; Rizzo 71) and stolen bases (9; Sorian 10). His speed and offense are vital for a maturing squad. While nursing his injury, Castro told reporters that he wanted to play 10 minor-league games before taking the field in the regular season. On Saturday, Castro appeared had six at-bats in minor-league action against the Cincinnati Reds, hitting two doubles and drawing a walk. Castro cannot fit nine more games into the schedule before the Cubs’ final spring-training game Saturday leaving Castro apparently destined to start the season on the disabled list. An even larger question is: will Casto’s entire 2014 season be tainted by his early-season injury?
2. Will Mike Olt make roster?
The questions surrounding Castro’s return factors into the future of infield prospect Mike Olt, is battling Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy for the starting third base spot. The 25-year-old Olt was Baseball America’s No. 22 prospect going into the 2012 season and is three years younger than Valbuena and five years younger Murphy. Ever since Olt was acquired in the Matt Garza trade last year, Cubs fans have wondered what the prospect would look like manning the hot corner for Chicago. A starter has not emerged at third yet and Rick Renteria’s staff may well want to platoon the three players on the field. With questions at shortstop thanks to Casto’s injury and no lock for the starting third base job, Olt has a very good chance of making the opening day roster. The only question left is: does the Cubs coaching staff agree?
3. How long with Jeff Samardzija be with team?
It appears to only be a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’ the Cubs and pitcher Jeff Samardzija part ways. Rumors of trades involving righty have circulated for months. Samardzija signed a one-year, $5.345 million contract for the 2014 season after the 29-year-old recorded 200 innings pitched and 200 strikeouts for the first time in his career in 2013. Samardzija appears destined to sign a $100 million contract with some team, but will it be the Cubs? Will the team trade its best pitcher for a slew of draft picks or sign the best pitcher the team has cultivated in years?
Rick Renteria needs everything the Cubs can provide him to help the team achieve in its 100th season at the same ballpark what it hasn’t seen in a great many years: success. After all, one of the biggest questions of the 2014 season is if Renteria can handle the pressure of guiding the Cubs to the playoffs in his first season as a big-league manager. But the questions about Renteria’s abilities can only be answered after near-term answers are revealed about Castro, Olt, Valbuena, Murphy and Samardzija.