While expectations are relatively low for the North Siders this season, there is still reason to believe they will be competitive in a wide-open National League Central.
First off, the very presence of Theo Epstein gives Cubs fans the sense that anything is possible. While a playoff run certainly isn't expected, it's not out of the question. And even if the Cubbies fail to reach the postseason, I think most Cubs fans would be satisfied as long as there is hard evidence of improvement—whether that be in the win/loss column, individual player performances, or simply the effort that the players give day in and day out.
If the Cubbies find a way to make it to the playoffs, first-year manager Dale Sveum will surely be one of the top candidates for Manager of the Year honors in the National League.
So, without further delay, here are four reasons why Cubs fans should be optimistic heading into the 2012 season.
Wood was good in 2009. Wood was very, very bad in 2010.
He suffered from the fabled sophomore slump, posting an ERA over 5.00 and regressing in almost every major statistical category.
But there is reason to believe that Wood's dominant, first-year form will return this season. Consider the follow home/away split from last season. At Great American Ballpark, Wood was really, really bad. He posted a 5.86 ERA and gave up eight home runs in eight starts. On the road, however, he seemed much more at home. He tallied a cool 3.90 ERA and gave up only two round trippers.
Wood will also benefit from a NL Central devoid of sluggers such as Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder (as cliche as that sounds).
Wood's stats against NL Central opponents last season are another promising omen. His ERA was under 3.65 against the Cardinals, Brewers, and Astros. The one NL Central team that Wood struggled against, however, was the Pirates. Actually, "struggled" is probably an understatement. Wood posted a 13.50 ERA against the Buccos, and lasted only 6.2 innings over two starts. But he'll have a chance to make up for those lackluster numbers many times this season.
Matt Garza is the Cubs' top starter heading into the 2012 campaign. His 10-10 record from last season may not be what one would expect for a top of the line starter, but, as we all know, win/loss totals can be very deceiving. In truth, Garza was a very good pitcher in 2011. He posted a 3.22 ERA, a career low, and ranked in the NL top 10 in strikeouts, complete games, and strikeouts per nine innings. He will look to build on that success and cement his position as ace of the Cubs starting rotation.
As Cubs fans, we are all aware of the expectations that have been placed on the shoulders of the young Starlin Castro. He's been dubbed, among other things, the face of the franchise and the next North Side Great. We were all witnesses to the buzz surrounding the young shortstop—buzz that flowed out of Cubbie Land and into a wider national consciousness when Castro was named the All-Star team at the ripe young age of 21.
There's much to recommend Mr. Castro's popularity. He led the National League in hits, batted over .300, and reached double-digits in home runs in his first full season in the majors. It's scary to think how good Castro may become if he irons out the wrinkles in his game (occasional lack of focus, defensive flakiness) and actualizes his full potential.
2011 was a turning point in Jeff Samardzija's career. Up until last season, he had been somewhat of a disappointment in the eyes of many Cubs fans. High walk totals plagued his ERA in 2009 and 2010, and some began to wonder if Samardzija may have been rushed to the major league level.
But the former Notre Dame football star put those rumblings to rest with a breakout season in 2011. He threw a career high 88 innings, posted an ERA below 3.00, and struck out an eye-catching 8.9 batters per nine innings. Samardzija will have a chance to compete for a spot in the starting rotation during spring training. If he fails to secure a spot in the top five, he will be a key member of the Chicago bullpen.
Of course, just because these three guys made a big impact during the 2011 season doesn't guarantee successful campaigns in 2012. But it does give you an idea of which way they are trending.
The success of the bullpen hinges on several factors.
First of all, Kerry Wood has to stay off of the DL—something he hasn't been able to do for the majority of his career. When he's healthy, he gives the Cubs a very valuable arm coming out of the bullpen. According to Bruce Levine on ESPN.com, Wood will assume the setup role to start the 2012 campaign. However, due to to Wood's almost magnetic attraction to the disabled list, the Cubs will likely limit him to around 50 innings this season.
Second of all, the lefties—John Gaub and James Russell—have to be effective when called upon. The Cubs are lucky to have two southpaws coming out of the pen, but that advantage means nil if Gaub and Russell fail to get hitters out with any sort of consistency. Gaub, who came to Chicago in the DeRosa deal with Cleveland, has minimal major league experience (2.2 innings last year), but loads of potential. During his time with the Minnesota Gophers, his fastball was apparently consistently clocked in the upper nineties. A shoulder injury during his sophomore year knocked a few MPH off of his heater, but hits the mid-90s on the gun with regularity.
Russell has been decent at best for the Cubs over the last two seasons. However, there is reason to feel optimistic about the young lefty in 2012; he improved in four major statistical categories last season, including ERA, WHIP, HR/9, and BB/9. And, at age 26, he still has time to improve his game and find his niche in the Cubs bullpen—whether that be as a setup man or a middle reliever.
Most importantly, however, Carlos Marmol has to rebound from an absolutely horrendous end to the 2011 campaign. He posted a National League worst 10 blown saves and looked nothing like the confident, nearly untouchable flame thrower that Cubs fans had come to trust during the 2009 and 2010 seasons.
But still, there is hope for Mr. Marmol. Before last season's meltdown, he was one of the most reliable relief men in the game. In 2010 he tallied 38 saves and a 2.55 ERA. He's not as young as some may think (29), but he still has time to turn his game around.
With Hoyer, Epstein, and Sveum revamping the lackadaisical culture that has surrounded Cubbie Land for the past few seasons, Marmol may very well return to his old, respectable form.
Theo Epstein is in the process of changing the losing culture that has hovered over the Cubs organization like a dark, brooding stormcloud for as long as this writer can remember. What better way to start than by firing Mike Quade—a soft spoken nice guy, so to speak, who rarely held veterans (like Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez) responsible for sluggish play in the field—and hiring Dale Sveum, a no-nonsense dugout general who isn't afraid to voice his opinion and hold every player on the roster to equal standards?
“You don’t want to have the other team looking into your dugout saying, ‘They’re dogs. Nobody plays hard,’ ” he said in an interview with the New York Times. “You want to make them respect you.”
To be clear, Quade wasn't a bad baseball guy (whatever that really means), but he wasn't a good fit for the Theo Epstein regime. He was too tentative. He beat around the bush a little too much. He dodged the tough questions instead of directly addressing the problems in the clubhouse and on the field. Sveum, on the other hand, is a poker-faced straight shooter with old-school roots who demands respect from every player in the dugout and answers questions bluntly and as truthfully as possible.