With a month to go before the start of Spring Training, the Chicago Cubs are set to enter the 2012 season with new corner infielders. While Cubs fans have been generally pleased with the progression of shortstop Starlin Castro and second baseman Darwin Barney, the team will now have to find a way to replace the production of two offensive leaders from last season. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez and first baseman Carlos Pena combined for 53 homeruns and 173 RBI in 2011, leaving big shoes for the team to fill.
Castro is the star and the offense will mostly be built around him. Finishing the season with 207 hits, 66 RBI and a .307 average, Castro could improve on his 10 homeruns and his .341 on-base percentage to bring his game to yet another level. It will be interesting to see how he handles being the centerpiece of the team.
Barney, on the other hand, was a huge surprise in 2011. Third on the Cubs with 146 hits, Barney finished with a .276 average and showed great potential. If he can avoid a sophomore slump and increase his .313 on-base percentage, his lineup flexibility and steady defense can be a big boost.
The Cubs are taking a huge risk at third base, seemingly heading into the season with new acquisition Ian Stewart penciled in as the starter after allowing Ramirez to leave as a free agent. Stewart had a terrible season for the Colorado Rockies in 2011, batting .156 with zero homeruns in 48 games. Expecting Ramirez's statistics would be quite a stretch, but Stewart has shown power when healthy, hitting 43 homeruns in 2009-10. Also, the Cubs have been seeking left-handed power for a while and Stewart could be an answer there.
First base is sort of the wild card right now. Inexperienced Bryan LaHair currently looks to be the starter after hitting .288 in 59 at-bats late last season. Another left-handed hitter, LaHair dominated at AAA Iowa last year with 38 homeruns and 109 RBI. LaHair's OPS through six seasons at the AAA level is .897, showing clear production potential.
A recent trade for top first base prospect Anthony Rizzo implies the team is likely to begin the season with LaHair and/or Rizzo at first base and will avoid signing an expensive free agent. There is still a possibility though for management to change course and bring in a player like Prince Fielder or even have Pena return. While fans liked Pena's production and defensive presence, any long-term contract would block Rizzo's path to Chicago and would be a surprise at this point.
The Cubs have solid infield backups in Jeff Baker and Blake DeWitt. Both play multiple positions, have started for other teams in the past and have provided key hits off of the bench for the Cubs. Prospect Josh Vitters may also be given a chance to earn a bench spot or even the starting third base job in Spring Training.
The infield is rounded out by veteran catcher Geovany Soto. Although Soto has not yet repeated the offensive success of his rookie campaign, he has hit 17 homeruns and topped 50 RBI in each of the last two seasons. At .228 his average was low last season, but Soto has shown in the past that he is capable of bouncing back. At his worst, Soto is still an average catcher, but he has some upside and could be a key leader for the 2012 Cubs.
Mike Patton is a sports fan who grew up in New Orleans cheering for the New Orleans Saints, Chicago Cubs, and LSU Tigers. As a kid in 1987, he made his first trip to Wrigley Field and also slept outside of the Louisiana Superdome to purchase playoff tickets for the Saints' first postseason appearance. Follow Mike on twitter @MikePattonGBS.