Monday, April 1, 2013

Chicago Cubs 2013 Preview: One Step Closer to Relevancy

In case you hadn't noticed amidst the Bulls/Derrick Rose storyline, the Bears moving on from Brian Urlacher, the Blackhawks getting past the halfway point in the NHL season without a regulation loss, and a thrilling NCAA Tournament, the Chicago Cubs begin the 2013 MLB season tomorrow. This is Year 2 in the Theo Epstein era, one where the Cubs supposedly take that leap forward closer to relevancy. After all, we were told from the beginning that 2014 is the year, the season that the Cubs can actually plan for and head into the season planning to compete. If that storyline holds, that would make 2013 really the final full-on rebuilding season before we can be a real MLB contender. I don't know how much of that is actually true, but the Cubs do have an opportunity to climb out of the MLB cellar this season and start moving, ever so slightly, towards being a consistently good franchise.

Rebuilding seems to be the theme with these Cubs, if not for the past century than certainly for the length of both Tom Rickett's tenure as owner and Theo Epstein's tenure as president of baseball operations. Nearly the entire offseason was dedicated to laborious discussions over the future of Wrigley Field and subsequent renovations and development of both the park and the area around it. To be sure, that storyline (sadly) will not go away until it finally gets resolved, but with the start of real baseball games tomorrow perhaps we can all shift away from the negotiations over renovating a baseball landmark and more towards the renovations of the actual team on the field.

Just what can we expect from this team? Generally speaking, on paper it looks like an average baseball team, so there's at least an improvement over last year. The rotation is top heavy and could have decent 1-3 depth if Matt Garza comes back healthy. After the 5 hole in the lineup, where run production will come from is anyone's guess. Let's give it a quick rundown to see what we can expect this season.

Starting Rotation:

Samardzija gets his chance as the ace
This rotation is Jeff Samardzija's to lose. Since convincing Cubs' brass to give him a shot at the rotation before last season, he's shown himself to be an intense competitor with a supreme work ethic. He worked like a madman before last season and it showed, as he came out and had as consistent a season as a Cubs starter could have. Nearly every report has him working just as hard this offseason, so combined with his top of the line starter stuff Jeff could have a season that cements him in the top half of the rotation for the foreseeable future. I love having a guy like him in a prominent position on the team because his attitude and work habits trickle down through to the rest of the team.

Newly acquired Edwin Jackson occupies the second spot in the rotation as the Cubs wait for Matt Garza to finally get healthy. Jackson's tale is one that you see constantly in baseball; a player with tremendous talent who struggles to put it together consistently. There's a reason he's bounced around from team to team, but I hope, like the Cubs do, that he can put together a good season and provide some stability after Samardzija in the rotation. Once Garza gets back, he'll likely slide down to the third spot in the rotation and be productive in that role as well.

After those two, the situation gets murky. Pitching is what wins championships in modern baseball (just ask Detroit after their high-priced and high-profile offense was dismantled by the San Francisco pitching staff en route to a World Series sweep). When Epstein and his general manager Jed Hoyer arrived, they immediately set out making acquiring pitching talent a priority for the organization. The model for the organization now is to do so through the draft, trades, and the international market, so high-priced acquisitions won't happen until the Cubs are otherwise in the position to compete. So, for now, we have players filling in at the back end of the rotation until the Cubs's farm system can develop homegrown pitching talent. The hope is that Travis Wood, Scott Feldman, and Carlos Villanueva can adequately hold down their spots until that happens.

I really do feel that the success (or lack thereof) of the season will come down to how this rotation performs. If Samardzija keeps his confidence up and continues his progression as a potential top line starter, Garza comes back healthy and productive, and Jackson performs similarly to how he has throughout his career, the Cubs could potentially steal a 76-86 type season or something similar. If the top guys falter or show their inconsistency, another 100 loss season isn't out of the question.


Could Marmol be auditioning for other teams?
The storyline for the Cubs here is at closer. Does Carlos Marmol, the up and down, incredibly talented pitcher come out strong or does he slump into his walk-filled 9th inning nightmares? It might not matter. Marmol was the subject of trade rumors the entire offseason, with a swap for Dan Haren seemingly in the bag before the Cubs pulled out. At this point, I'd say the only way Marmol is on the Cubs roster by the time the All Star break rolls around is if he really struggles. If he comes out strong, the Cubs will be looking to dump him for prospects as soon as possible.

I wouldn't say the Cubs have the "luxury," per se, of getting rid of Marmol because they have his replacement already lined up. But with Kyuji Fujikawa, they certainly have a decent fill in. The Japanese import is known for his power pitching prowess and brings the archetype fastball that most closers seem to have. When he was brought on I initially thought that the Cubs were doing so to bolster the back end of the bullpen, but with all the subsequent Marmol rumors I do feel they plan to dump Marmol and replace him with the (thus far) serviceable Fujikawa.

The rest of the bullpen could actually turn into a strength for the team. The Cubs get a lot of work out of James Russell and Shawn Camp. The lefty and righty stalwarts, respectively, carry the burden for a Cubs rotation that seems to struggle to make it past the 5th inning at times. Their workload is concerning considering the lack of top talent in the bullpen, but one of the luxuries the Cubs obtained by going after so much starting pitching in the offseason is the ability to plug a starter in at long relief. It sure sounds like a less than foolproof plan, but hey, it worked with Sean Marshall (part of one trade that really backfired on the Epstein regime).


The lineup, much like the rotation and bullpen, have a few bright stars followed by a lot of question marks. Each group of the team seems to represent the overall lack of depth that the organization has, underlying the actual rebuilding effort Epstein & Co. have to deal with.

The 1-5 spots in the lineup seem set, with David DeJesus in CF, Starlin Castro at SS, Anthony Rizzo at 1B, Alfonso Soriano in LF, and newcomer Nate Schierholtz out in RF. DeJesus is coming off a good first season with the Cubs and bats first by default as he is the closest thing the Cubs have to fulfilling the OBP requirements under new Cubs' leadership.

Castro has all the tools to be a star
It gets interesting in the 2-4 spots. Castro seems to be the one Cub on the verge of superstardom. He has all of the tools, and looks like such a natural at the plate that a season of 25-30 HRs, 90 RBIs, .300-.315 isn't out of the question, both for this year and continuing into the future. We tend to forget how talented this kid is because he's already entering his 4th season in the club, even though he's only a freshly-turned 23 years old. He's improved a lot on defense but still has a ways to go. Regardless though, both him and Anthony Rizzo are talents that you can build your team around and also help draw other players to want to play for your team.

Rizzo had a strong rookie season. We saw a lot of the natural hitting ability that he was known for, as well as a slick glove at first. This season will be a test for him though, as he becomes a 162 game, everyday player. I think we need to see a consistent, balanced, disciplined approach at the plate. If he does that, his low walk numbers should go up, he'll get a better pitch selection, and he'll be on base more. These are all things that seem to come with time for young players, and with the Cubs still in rebuilding mode he'll have every opportunity to make it happen.

With Soriano in the 4 hole, the Cubs have their last truly reliable hitter in the lineup. I thought that Alfonso had an excellent season last year, perhaps his best with the club. He's had a rough go of it with the fans, but I feel that is more a result of his bloated contract than his actual production. He's had good seasons nearly every year he's been in Chicago, but the fact that he makes $18 million a year clouds that reality. I'm just glad that he's still productive in the latter years of his career and this year especially will be crucial to the success of the Cubs offense and the continued development of some of the younger guys on the team.

New addition Nate Schierholtz is a contact hitter who, if the top of the order performs like it can, should  have the opportunity to produce some runs. He's definitely not the long-term solution at the position, and with the way top prospect Jorge Soler has performed at the lower levels thus far, could potentially be keeping the RF seat warm until his arrival. For the 6-8 spots in the lineup, expect some semblance of a Luis Valbuena/Ian Stewart (when Stewart is healthy), Welington Castillo, and Darwin Barney combination. Valbuena has some pop but none of these guys scares you with the bat. Castillo was touted as an offensive catcher in the mold of Geovany Soto, and he did have 5 HRs in only 52 games last year. It'll be interesting to see what he can do over a full season. Barney is a kid you root for because of his underdog nature and his great work ethic. He deservedly won a Gold Glove last year for spectacular defense at 2B, which also helped bring along Castro's abilities as a shortstop. But he seems destined for a permanent spot in 8th because of his deficiencies at the plate. Every team needs a guy like Barney, but here's hoping he steps up at the plate this year and takes his game to another level.


To put it bluntly, a lack of depth is a major problem for the organization. The Cubs did their best to shore up this area of the active roster by bringing in some quality veterans to spell guys and challenge them for playing time. Scott Hairston is a decent major league player who hit 20 HRs for the Mets last year and can fill in for most of the outfield positions. Brent Lillibridge is a below-average hitter but makes the roster because of his versatility filling in positions across the field. When you don't have a true backup at a couple of the infield spots, a guy like him helps if a player goes down or needs a day off along the way.

The Cubs kept three catchers on the roster, with Dioner Navarro and Steve Clevenger making the team after good springs. Navarro figures to be the true backup with the opportunity to challenge Castillo for playing time if he continues to hit as well as he did in the spring. Clevenger's strength is also in his bat but I figure he made the team more as a utility backup at C/1B than anything else. The versatile Dave Sappelt joins Hairston as one of the only true outfielder backups on the team. Sappelt figures to be the primary pinch hitter against left handed pitchers and the second outfielder in after Hairston. Again, lack of depth is a problem, and the Cubs' bench, depending on how the season goes (and really it might anyways), could turn into a prospect's playground later in the season.


If you buy into the company line, this should be the final "true" rebuilding season before the Cubs suddenly lurch forward into competition in 2014. I say "true" because I don't know if it's possible to turn this roster, prospects or not, into a competitive ball club by the time 2014 rolls around. But this is baseball, where strange things happen all the time. Prospects hit huge spurts and accelerated developments, unheralded players come out of nowhere, and teams that had no shot compete their butts off.

Top prospects like Soler are key to future success
It may be a rebuilding year, but no matter which way you cut it this season is crucial to the future of the franchise. Guys the front office are molding as future cornerstones, like Samardzija, Castro, and Rizzo, need to come out and establish that they can be the proper foundation for a future successful team. The Cubs also need to see proper progression from their top prospects, guys like Javier Baez, Brett Jackson, Jorge Soler, Albert Almora, Josh Vitters, and Junior Lake. The team needs to come out and have another strong showing in the 2013 draft like they did last year. If the right guys progress as they should, and some pitching prospects get Major League ready, the Cubs could have a better than expected season.

I feel that getting off to a good start is key for the confidence of this group. I think this team will improve drastically over last year, even if it doesn't necessarily show in the standings. A win total in the mid 70s isn't out of reach and would seem to position the Cubs heading into the 2013-14 offseason to add the right pieces to truly start a new era of Cubs baseball. Like the negotiations over Wrigley renovations, the process has been excruciatingly slow, going back to the years before the park was even built. But for now, with the right steps in both areas, the Cubs could finally see the organizational makeover that's been a century in the making. The next step of that process starts tomorrow.