It's Year One of the Jed Hoyer-Theo Epstein regime, and the two baseball masterminds have already begun shaping the Chicago Cubs in their images. Sure, they've let some big-name guys head to other teams (Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena, to name two), but they've also kept intact a solid foundation of youthful talent (Jeff Samardzija, Starlin Castro, Matt Garza, et al.)who should provide a solid base to build a championship team around.
Chicago brought in some depth at the catcher position to help Geovany Soto push his game to the next level. He fell off the map a bit last season, batting only .228 and making an uncharacteristic number of errors. Should he falter too much at any point this season, Jason Jaramillo, Wellington Castillo or Steve Clevenger are each capable of taking his position behind the dish.
The Cubs also added some quality arms to the starting rotation. None of them are "big-name guys," to be sure, and they haven't dominated hitters in the past. But Epstein and Hoyer have a history of judging players based on their future potential and not on their past statistics.
It will be interesting to see how all of the newly installed pieces fit together this season and beyond.
That said, here are four players that Cubs fans should be excited about watching this season.
Jeff Samardzija is one of the most promising young pitchers in the Cubs organization coming into the 2012 campaign.
He had a highly successful 2011 season, posting a 2.97 ERA and striking out 87 batters in 88 innings of work. Needless to say, he was one of the most reliable arms coming out of the pen.
His consistency has not gone unnoticed by Cubs management, as he will have the opportunity to battle Randy Wells, Rodrigo Lopez and Casey Coleman for a coveted spot in the starting rotation. Samardzija may very well have the best stuff out of that bunch—his fastball is consistently clocked in the mid- to upper-90s, and he mixes in a hard-dipping slider and a changeup to keep opposing hitters off balance.
If he fails to earn a spot in the top five, Samardzija will likely be the Cubs most valuable arm coming out of the bullpen. And, if closer Marmol continues to serve up lazy cement-mixer sliders, Samardzija would be a prime candidate to take his spot at the end of the bullpen.
The decision to bring Anthony Rizzo to Chicago via a trade with San Diego was one of the signature moves of the Theo Epstein-Jed Hoyer regime this offseason. Both men have a history with power-hitting first baseman (Epstein in Boston and Hoyer in San Diego), so they know exactly how talented this kid really is. Let's just say this: Although his big league numbers from last season may be less than flattering, Rizzo has the potential to be a very good, possibly great, first baseman.
His minor league numbers, for what they're worth, are eye-catching. In 2010, while in the Red Sox minor league system (Single-A and Double-A), he hit .260 with 25 home runs and 100 RBI. In 2011, while playing for the Tuscon Padres (the team's Triple-A affiliate), he put up even bigger numbers (.331, 26 HR, 101 RBI). He was dealt to the Cubs this offseason in exchange for one of the Cubs most promising pitching prospects, Andrew Cashner.
Rizzo will likely battle Bryan Lahair for the first base job during spring training. If he wins out, he could be poised for a breakout year. Methinks the 22-year old first baseman will find Wrigley Field to be a much more pleasant place to swing the lumber than the spacious, desert-like Petco Park.
Last month, Melissa Isaacson wrote a great piece on Anthony Rizzo for ESPN.com. You can check it out here.
Thankfully for Cubs Nation, Theo Epstein decided to keep Matt Garza in the stable for at least one more season. If Garza had left town, the Cubbies would have been without a true No. 1 starter heading into the 2012 campaign. Veteran Ryan Dempster could have filled the void, but he's definitely not a prototypical top-of-the-rotation starter.
Garza was the lone bright spot on a rotation full of black holes during the 2011 season. In many ways, he had his best statistical season to date. He posted career lows in ERA and earned runs, and a career high in strikeouts with 197. Also, he allowed half as many home runs as he did with the Rays the previous season.
He was the only Cubs starter to post an ERA below 4.00. Rodrigo Lopez was second on the staff, finishing the year at 4.42. Yeesh.
If the Cubs want to have any success this season their starting pitching will have to step their game up and take some pressure off of the bullpen.
Yes, yes. Off-field controversies aside, Starlin Castro is still the best thing the Cubs have going for them this season.
After finishing the 2010 season fifth in Rookie of the Year ballot, his sophomore campaign was the furthest thing from a slump. We were all witnesses to the hype that swirled around Mr. Castro last season. He led the league in at-bats and hits, swiped 22 bases and finished with a double-digit home run total. He also made his first appearance in the Midsummer Classic.
But the highly-touted shortstop has had his fair share of problems. He was reprimanded by former manager Mike Quade on several occasions for lack of focus. One of the most memorable incidents involved a pop-up that Castro let fall to the turf behind second base after losing the ball in the sun. Quade claimed that "the sun's been in the same spot for however long Wrigley Field's been here," and that there was no excuse for Castro to let the ball fall.
Then, after a night of drinking during the offseason, Castro was accused of sexual assault. The details of the incident are somewhat hazy, but it was reported that the woman willing followed Castro to a friend's apartment, where she blacked out, fell asleep, then woke up with Castro on top of her, in the middle of the assault. As of January 6th, no charges had been filed.
Castro will look to build on the foundation of success that he laid down last season, while hopefully ironing out some of his lapses in concentration and questionable off-field antics.
Also, if Castro can add some pop to his picturesque swing, as some people think he'll be able to do, he'll have a very real chance of becoming the first Cub to enter the 30-30 club since Sammy Sosa (maybe not this season, but sometime down the line).