Commentary

Six Cactus League position battles

Originally Published: March 3, 2008
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Now that Ryan Dempster has moved from the end of the bullpen to the starting rotation, the race is on to see which pitcher the Wrigley Field faithful will boo in his absence.

I don't mean to sound like a defeatist, but it's a tough gig closing out leads for Major League Baseball's most tormented franchise. Dempster converted 28 of 31 save opportunities last season, and Cubs fans were more galled by his flair for finding trouble than dazzled by his ability to tap dance out of it.

Carlos Marmol

Marmol

Kerry Wood

Wood

Bob Howry

Howry

So who will pick up the baton from Dempster? Cubs manager Lou Piniella's choice will come down to Bob Howry, Kerry Wood or Carlos Marmol this spring. And Piniella's adamant that once he makes a decision, he'll stick with it.

Until, of course, he changes his mind.

The respective strengths of the three candidates give Piniella reason to believe he can't go wrong regardless of his choice.

Howry, 34, is the unflappable, reliable, "safe'' pick of the three. He notched 28 saves for the White Sox in 1999 in his second big league season and has 65 saves overall, so he's not going to melt upon exposure to the ninth inning.

Wood, who's gone through hell to resurrect his career at age 30, is the sentimental favorite. He still has swing-and-miss stuff -- as evidenced by his 24 strikeouts in 24 1/3 innings last season -- and he's mentally prepared to handle the ups and downs of the job after all that time on the disabled list.

And Marmol? He has youthful exuberance and the nastiest repertoire on his side. Marmol whiffed 96 batters in 69 1/3 innings last season, and the National League batted .169 against him. With his mid-90s fastball and traction-inducing breaking ball, Marmol will elicit the obligatory groans in opposing dugouts once he begins warming up in the pen.

On the other hand ... each pitcher also has a red flag or two that could give Piniella pause.

Howry has allowed 67 homers in 618 1/3 career innings, so he might be prone to some walk-off misadventures. He also has a track record for slow starts, as evidenced by his 11-20 record and 4.18 ERA in April and May.

Wood issues too many bases on balls, and his durability is a concern. Last year Wood worked both ends of a doubleheader against St. Louis on Sept. 15. Other than that, want to know how many times he pitched back-to-back days? Try zero. Can anyone see Piniella running him out there for three straight games when it's parka-and-earmuff weather in April?

Marmol has the inevitable "lack of experience" knock against him. But the big reason to avoid anointing him the Cubs' closer is that he's more valuable when he does the heavy lifting in the seventh and eighth. He stranded 36 of 41 inherited runners last year and pitched more than an inning a whopping 27 times. If he assumes the closer's job, it's going to seem like a vacation.

So who's it going to be? In the early stages of camp, Piniella has twice mentioned Howry as the front-runner. We'll take Sweet Lou at his word.

The favorite: Howry

MORE CACTUS LEAGUE BATTLES
LOS ANGELES ANGELS
Position: Shortstop Contenders: Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis
Who's the man to replace Orlando Cabrera in Anaheim? It's basically a dead heat. "Erick Aybar has the tools to be an elite shortstop,'' said Angels manager Mike Scioscia. "He has a chance to be a really dynamic player." Aybar is rangier and more athletic than Izturis, with a bigger arm and more power. But he also made 118 errors in his first four minor league seasons. Izturis, 27, is the more consistent, dependable commodity at this stage of his career. While one of these guys might wind up starting in the neighborhood of 140 games to the other's 20, don't rule out the possibility of an 80-80 split. -- Jerry Crasnick
THE FAVORITE: Aybar
COLORADO ROCKIES
Position: Second base Contenders: Jayson Nix, Marcus Giles, Jeff Baker, Clint Barmes,
Omar Quintanilla
It's a wide-open race to replace Kaz Matsui, who left for Houston through free agency. Nix, the 44th overall pick in the 2001 draft, is known for his defense. Last year he made offensive strides with the help of Triple-A hitting coach Carney Lansford and hit .292 for Colorado Springs, then won the Most Outstanding Player award at the World Cup in Japan. Giles has shown a lot of energy as a non-roster invitee, and Baker has made a surprisingly smooth transition to second. But Barmes and Baker are both versatile players who could make the roster as utility players. -- Jerry Crasnick
THE FAVORITE: Nix
CHICAGO WHITE SOX
Position: Second base Contenders: Juan Uribe vs. Danny Richar/Pablo Ozuna/Alexei Ramirez
Uribe, who snagged the final out in Chicago's 2005 World Series triumph, has made 764 of his 888 major league starts at shortstop. Now he has been squeezed out with the arrival of Orlando Cabrera from the Angels. Uribe's .295 career on-base percentage won't help his cause, but he has looked comfortable defensively in his shift to second. Richar has some pop and -- judging from his minor league resume -- a more discerning eye at the plate. He has had to hustle to catch up this spring after arriving a week late because of visa problems. If Chicago general manager Kenny Williams can trade Uribe by opening day, manager Ozzie Guillen might go with a Richar-Ozuna platoon at second. -- Jerry Crasnick
THE FAVORITE: Uribe
TEXAS RANGERS
Position: Catcher Contenders: Gerald Laird vs. Jarrod Saltalamacchia
Laird was a big disappointment after taking over for Rod Barajas as Texas' top catcher last season. His on-base percentage dipped from .332 to .278, and his slugging percentage declined from .473 to .349. Saltalamacchia is known primarily for his bat, but he has a strong arm, and the Rangers think he can be an adequate catcher if he improves his footwork. Saltalamacchia and shortstop Elvis Andrus were Texas' principal acquisitions in the Mark Teixeira trade with Atlanta, so the Rangers are anxious to see what they've got. If Laird wins the job in camp, the Rangers might send Saltalamacchia to Triple-A to catch every day rather than keep him around to play twice a week in Arlington. -- Jerry Crasnick
THE FAVORITE: Saltalamacchia
OAKLAND ATHLETICS
Position: Backup 1B/DH Contenders: Dan Johnson vs. Mike Sweeney
Starting first baseman Daric Barton, designated hitter Jack Cust and Johnson are all left-handed hitters. That's a point in Sweeney's favor. He also brings the requisite solid citizen/mentor reputation to the job. Sweeney had a double and a walk in a Cactus League game Friday, and A's manager Bob Geren seemed more impressed over the way he busted it down the line on a pop fly. But if Sweeney's transition to Oakland is going to work, he has to show that he's still healthy and productive at age 34. It also would help if Oakland GM Billy Beane could find a trade partner for Johnson. At the moment, neither proposition is a sure thing. -- Jerry Crasnick
THE FAVORITE: Johnson

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer