Wednesday, April 4, 2012

2012 Chicago Cubs Preview: The Rebuilding Begins

We've heard and been through all of this before. We've heard all the positives of countless previous general managers and managers. All of those previous managers were "the guy" who was going to institute a culture change on the North Side. All of those managers were curse-breakers, i.e., guys who can actually end the long, embarrassing drought from World Series titles that encompasses every fabric of the Cubs organization and Cubs history. And even more than that, we've been through it all. As Cubs fans we've lived through generations of characters who come to Clark and Addison with every intention of changing the way its done and bringing home a championship. And time and time again, we're left empty handed.

Can Epstein make it happen?
So what makes the heralded arrival of Theo Epstein so much different? Is it so serious that owner Tom Ricketts should have created a new position, Director of Baseball Operations, for Theo to inhabit? Well, yes and no. Epstein, to be sure, is as accomplished as they come in the business, and he's only 38. He inherited almost the same role in Boston when he was only 29 years old. The parallels are striking. A tortured, rabid fanbase who had suffered through years of anguish. Previous managers who had assembled ball clubs in seemingly every way possible, only to see all of it come up short. A classic ball park for a historic franchise. And a chief rival that dwarfed them in levels of success. As a result, Theo's challenge with the Cubs is very similar to what he faced in Boston, and he ended up winning two World Series there. The only problem is, he inherits a Cubs team, and franchise, that is even worse, in every way, than their Boston counterparts.

That's where the no comes in. In all reality, we only have Theo's reputation and track record to go off of. Not a single game has been played - yet. So no, we can't say that Theo has deserved his sparkling new position until the Cubs win games - lots of them - which almost certainly will not come this year. Still, let's not forget we're Cubs fans. We're a patient bunch. If it takes a few years, it takes a few years, as long as the culture actually changes and a winner comes to Wrigleyville. And you can't help but feel that itch, the one that comes every year, in the form of optimism. This couldn't be the year, right? They played great in Spring Training! Alfonso Soriano looks like he's trying! Carlos Zambrano is finally someone else's problem! We have Starlin Castro!

Sveum has brought a fresh change of pace to the Cubs
In all seriousness, though, this Cubs season, more than anything else, is going to be under the microscope as Year 1 of the rebuilding process. This is where we get to see if the organization is moving in the right direction. Theo and his second command, GM Jed Hoyer, made some good moves in the offseason. They jettisoned Zambrano and his childish, petulant behavior to Miami, where he can play for a childish, petulant manager. They didn't renew Aramis Ramirez's contract, hopefully due in no small part to attempting to impart good habits, not a lackadaisical attitude, on the impressionable young superstar-in-waiting Castro. They flipped a stud prospect with arm trouble (Andrew Cashner) for a stud prospect (Anthony Rizzo) who has gone through Hodkin's lymphona and knows a thing or two about overcoming adversity, not to mention his .331/.404/.652 batting, on base, and slugging percentages last year in the minors. They started investing heavily in the international market. And finally, they brought in a manager in Dale Sveum who knows the game and can relate it to the players under Epstein's "Cubs Way" lens. But today, on the eve of the season opener, this is all fluff. It's time to start seeing how the rebuilding project is going on the field. That, and that alone, will help us determine Epstein's present success and project towards the future. Let's take a look at the roster.


A team only goes as far as its starting rotation. Look no further for proof than last year's Cubs, who although abysmal in nearly every category, were just awful in starting pitching. The rotation starts off with Ryan Dempster, who surprisingly got the opening day nod from Sveum after his uncharacteristically bad 2011 campaign. He finished last year with a 4.80 ERA, about a run higher than any of his other 3 years as a starter for the Cubs. He started to get it together halfway through the season and finished strong, and at the end of the year the rest of his numbers, aside from the ERA, more closely resembled his career starter's numbers. But more than the numbers, Dempster's horrible start last year had a negative impact on the rest of the rotation. Usually looked at as one of the more reliable starters on the team, his struggles compounded with the weaknesses throughout the rest of the rotation, helping to render much of the rotation largely ineffective. More than that, though, is Dempter's leadership. He's an extremely personable and funny guy, with an infectious personality that rubs off on the rest of the team. Yet during his struggles last year, he seemed to lose that a little. Clearly, getting Dempster off on the right foot this year is going to be key not only for his season, but the Cubs.

He may not be starting opening day, but Garza is the best on the staff
Matt Garza slots in nicely at the second spot in the rotation. I feel personally that he is best destined as a high end number 2 starter for his career, a role that he can exceed in. Yet last year he was the de facto number 1 starter for the Cubs, a role more burdensome than many can imagine. Still, Garza performed remarkably well given the circumstances (no run support, no rotation support, no support whatsoever. Man, the Cubs were a mess last year). While he was only able to register 10 years last year, due in no small part to a woeful offense, he still ended up with a very good 3.32 ERA and 197 strikeouts. With Garza, you know what you're going to get every start. The issue this year is going to be his mental state. Throughout the entire winter Garza faced trade rumors. It's a process that's expected to continue into the season until the All Star break. If Garza can shoulder that load, look for him to have another good year.

The back end of the rotation is completely different. All three of these guys came into Spring Training and won a spot in the rotation. At the three spot you have Jeff Samardzija, the former Notre Dame football and baseball star who converted from one of the more effective relievers on the team last year to make the starting rotation. Jeff is a kid you want to see succeed; his work ethic showed when he showed up in Arizona in November to start working on winning a spot in the rotation. Samardzija has always been an intriguing prospect. He routinely pops off fastballs in the 95 MPH range, but the concern with him has always been his off speed stuff. We saw that this spring, where he would dominate starts where he effectively mixed in his off speed pitches, and get shelled where he panicked and fell back exclusively on his fastball. Maintaining a healthy balance there will be key to his success.

At the 4th spot, you have Chris Volstad, acquired from Miami in the Zambrano trade. The 6'8 Volstad is an imposing figure, yet one who struggled mightily last year. Let's hope a change of scenery works out for Volstad, who besides a rough start to end his spring training tenure looked fantastic all spring. And finally, the 5th spot belongs to Paul Maholm. Forget Maholm's bad record from last year (forgive him, he was on Pittsburgh) and focus on his ERA (3.66) and the fact that he's a ground ball pitcher. This should work well in the early part of the season, when the wind blows in and the weather is cold at Wrigley. But when it warms up, and the wind starts blowing up, we're going to see how he can compete. He developed a new changeup last year that led to some success, so let's hope Maholm is up to the challenge of being a groundball pitcher in a hitter's park.


Keeping with the theme of change, the infield, like the starting rotation, shows a stark change from the 2011 Cubs. Gone are Ramirez and Carlos Pena at the corner positions, replaced by Ian Stewart and minor league slugger extraordinaire Bryan LaHair. Stewart, acquired from Colorado in the off season, will be counted on to attempt to replace the numbers that Ramirez put up at third for years. He needs to recover from a horrible, lost season in 2011 where he was hurt all year and offered little production. He's been a decent player in his career, putting up okay run production numbers, but perhaps most importantly, he's only 26 and plays good defense. A former first round pick, he represents just one of the reclamation projects that Epstein hopes to have this season. As for LaHair, he absolutely tore the ball apart in the minors last year, hitting 38 homers. Being the opening day first baseman is a great accomplishment for the career minor leaguer, but he has to know that his seat is warm. If he struggles, or really, if the Cubs feel that Anthony Rizzo is ready, LaHair will be relegated to the bench or the outfield. Here's to hoping that LaHair puts up something similar to his minor league numbers and doesn't even let those thoughts creep into the Epstein braintrust's heads.

Up through the middle, you have the familiar faces of Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro. Barney again won the starting role at second and will look to improve on his season last year, where he got off to a great start but tailed off hard at the end. Sveum has him hitting in the third spot in the lineup, perhaps a testament to Barney's old school, dirty uniform style. I like the move, though. In a lineup severely lacking in power, why not put someone in the third hole who can try to produce offense and get on base? Barney has looked great all spring, but he knows that if he struggles, Sveum won't hesitate to go with a combination of Jeff Baker, Blake DeWitt, or the surprising Joe Mather. Either one of those guys could step in and contribute, with Baker and DeWitt proven to be at least adequate in the majors.

Castro is on the verge of superstardom
At short, we have Castro. Castro is one of the youngest players in baseball, let alone the entire Cubs team, but he will be counted on as the team's best player. Sveum, who comes from a middle infield background, worked extensively with Castro in the spring to improve Castro's defense. We all know, though, that the focus is going to be on his bat. Can Castro, in only his third season, make the leap to the type of hitter that can carry a team? Keep in mind, it was in his third year that another shortstop prodigy, Alex Rodriguez, exploded on the major league scene. Unlike Rodriguez, however, Castro has the benefit of playing nearly two full seasons instead of minor chunks of the season. I look for Castro to continue to develop his power and turn into a more consistent stolen base threat. Regardless, it will be an interesting season for him. The sky is the limit with this kid.

At catcher, we have the familiar Geovany Soto and his new backup, Steve Clevenger. The mini-surprise here was Clevenger, who beat out fellow prospect Wellington Castillo for the backup role. It remains to be seen what Clevenger, only 25, can contribute. I think the Cubs made the move for Clevenger over Castillo for a few reasons. First, Castillo is the highly rated prospect and is better suited getting playing time every day in the minors rather than merely serving as a backup. And with Clevenger, the Cubs have a decently hitting backup catcher who should be a serviceable fill in for Geo's off days. As for Soto, he joins the endless list of Cubs who needs a bounce back year. In previous seasons, the Cubs were a team that had the luxury of a good hitting catcher. Last year, Soto tanked, hitting only .228 with a horrid .310 OBP. Soto knows he needs to have a good season or the Cubs will go into the next offseason with every intention of letting Castillo fight him for the starting job.


Ah, the Cubs outfield, the bastion of consistency from the 2011 Cubs. Back are Alfonso Soriano in left and Marlon Byrd in center. The two are joined by newcomer David DeJesus in right. With Soriano, it's the same old song and dance every year: a few stints on the DL, underwhelming power numbers, too many hops and errors in left, a lack of hustle, and the looming albatross of his outrageous contract. Yet, there he was, playing like his old self this spring with a new found enthusiasm for the game. I'm not expecting much, but if Soriano can at least contribute a .270, 25 hr, 80 RBI season, that would be a major accomplishment. That and getting one more year off his contract.

Can the Cubs hold off calling up Jackson?
Byrd is another player, like Garza, who will be included in trade rumors for the better part of the season. He's a favorite of the bleacher bums for his hard nosed, defensive excellence. Byrd didn't have an off year last season per se, but missed a lot of games due to injury. If he goes down again this year, he has another fan favorite, Reed Johnson, ready to step in and contribute right away. Regardless, both of them, even if they end up both getting time, are just keeping the seat warm until super prospect Brett Jackson is ready to come up. Jackson had a good spring, but the Cubs sent him to the minors anyways to postpone his arbitration eligibility another year. Still, I would expect him to be called up at some point this year, particularly if someone in the thin outfield ranks goes down.

DeJesus is a great example of the Epstein reclamation project model. He had a bad season last year, but a look at his previous season shows a good hitter who more importantly in the sabermetric context, GETS ON BASE. I would figure his power numbers to take a little jump playing in a hitter's park like Wrigley, but he's going to be a prominent role in the offense anyways just by getting on base. With the way that the offense is looking to shake out, on base percentage could be the most important statistic all season (if it wasn't already).


Without a doubt, the bullpen is the biggest question mark on the team. To say that the bullpen, aside from Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol, is unproven is a vast understatement. The relievers joining those two on opening day? James Russell, Rafael Dolis, Lendy Castillo, and Shawn Camp. Uh, who?! This area might represent one of the big blunders for Theo thus far. He traded one of the best relievers in baseball, Sean Marshall, to the Reds this offseason for Spring Training bomb Travis Wood. Wood flamed out in epic proportions in the spring, getting shelled on a regular basis. Wood, needless to say, will open the season in Triple A. And Marshall wasn't the only loss. Potential reliever Andrew Cashner was traded for Anthony Rizzo, while stud reliever from last year Samardzija starts the season in the starting rotation.

Marmol must have a bounce back year
So what to do about this area? The bullpen is often the most undervalued part of the entire team. Here, it's obvious that the youngsters in the pen, most of whom have never pitched in the majors, are going to have to look up to Kerry Wood to get things done. For Wood, he's going to have to be a leader, pitch extremely well, and stay healthy. It remains to be seen if he can do the latter, as it's been a problem of his for his entire career. As for Marmol, last year was a real struggle for him, as he led the majors in blown saves. He even lost his closer role to Marshall at one point. If there was one guy who needed to come out and have a great spring, it was Marmol, and at best he was inconsistent. For a guy with all the talent in the world, the Cubs need him to have a great season.

Regardless, barring some unforeseen circumstance where the pen pitches wonderfully, the Cubs are going to have to make a move to bolster this area. Rumors are that the Cubs are looking to move Marlon Byrd but will only do so if they get a good bullpen arm to begin with. Or they might be forced to call upon Randy Wells, who didn't make the team out of Spring Training, to come and fill in with some long relief. We should be able to tell how this is all going to shake out within a couple weeks into the season.


Year 1 of this massive rebuilding project is going to be, in its simplest form, a transition year. I hope Theo realizes what he's gotten himself into, because he inherits an absolutely terrible baseball team, and franchise at that. At the same time, I hope the eternally patient Cubs fans give him time, because it's going to be a couple of years. You win championships in baseball with pitching, and that just so happens to represent the biggest question mark on the team. Not to say that hitting is a strength, but there are at least more proven performers on that end of things.

And really, that's the perfect way to label this season - a giant question mark. How are we going to score? How are we going to stop other teams from scoring? How will Dale Sveum do in his first managerial role? What moves will Theo make in season? How long does the media, and the masses at Wrigley, give it before the honeymoon is over? Are there any answers to all of these questions?

All we know is that the answers start coming tomorrow. How it unfolds over the course of the season is, at least we hope so, supposed to be the fun part. Here's hoping that all the patience, all the great things we've heard in the past that just led to more bad times to live through pay off. After 104 years, Cubs fans deserve it.