Even in a game as unpredictable as baseball, there are constants.  The Yankees will always be able to afford the biggest free agent names.  White Sox fans’ pride in their team will always be disproportionate to the product on the field.  Tommy LaSorda will always make himself the hero of every story.  And every year, no-name players will surprise their teams in Spring Training and play their way into unexpected roster spots.

This year, the Cubs’ Spring Training surprise is Joe Mather.

Mather is a 29 year old journeyman who spent most of his career in the Cardinals’ organization.  He’s also logged some time with the Braves and Rockies.  Altogether he’s appeared in 126 games, and his stats are about what you’d expect from a guy who could never consistently crack a big league lineup.

That’s what makes the .412/.455/.745 (roughly) he’s posted this spring as a non-roster invitee such a surprise.  In limited playing time, he’s had good success at the plate against righties and lefties, he’s shown some power, and he runs pretty well, too, swiping three bases so far.

But what makes him really valuable to this Cubs team is his versatility in the field–he can play all three outfield spots along with first and third.  And manager Dale even hinted he’d consider playing him in the middle infield if need be. He’s got the ability to backup as many as five positions, and depending on how Ian Stewart, Bryan LaHair, and David DeJesus start off their seasons, he could see some significant playing time early in the year.

He’s essentially like a Blake DeWitt who isn’t an embarrassment in the outfield or at the plate.  He’s a Jeff Baker who can hit righties, and hit ’em well.  Dare I say it–he might even be a poor man’s Mark DeRosa.

And here’s where it gets interesting Cubs fans.  If he can bring the hot bat with him to Chicago next week–and that’s a big if–then the trade rumors swirling around Marlon Byrd, Jeff Baker, and Blake DeWitt take on an instant credibility.  I like Byrd, but none of those guys are vital to this Cubs team, especially if they can bring back anything of value in a trade.  And when you figure there’s got to be a market for Randy Wells–who appears to be to the odd man out of our rotation–you might be able to package him with Byrd or one of our utility guys for something more than spare parts.  It’s clear Theo and Jed have the long view in mind even as the season is about to start, and if Mather can keep it going he gives them plenty of flexibility.

We’ll see next week–next week!–whether he can be more than just a Spring Training surprise.  In the meantime, expect an announcement from the Cubs–possibly as soon as today–that he’ll be on the 25-man roster.  He’s earned it.


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