The majority opinion (by a rather large majority, I might add) is that the 2012 Chicago Cubs could possibly be more inept than the 2011 Mike Quade-led edition.
As the first year of the Theo Epstein Cubs work out in Arizona, some themes are common among both fans and media:
This team won't be competitive until 2014.
Well, I suggest that those in the doom-and-gloom camp get themselves a Happy Meal because this Cubs season will surprise you.
No, I'm not going to predict a Cubs World Series this year. But this season won't be nearly as bad as the majority thinks it will be.
In fact, I have four bold predictions to make about this year's team.
Before you laugh, consider this:
The world champion St. Louis Cardinals lost future Hall-of-Famer Albert Pujols, future Hall-of-Fame manager Tony LaRussa and legendary pitching coach Dave Duncan.
Just to reiterate: those were three of the most crucial people in the Cardinals' success.
In their place, the Cardinals hired Mike Matheny as their LaRussa replacement.
The most important thing to know about Matheny is that he has not been a manager or coach at any level whatsoever, just like fellow newcomer Robin Ventura over on the South Side.
Not a third base coach. Not a bench coach. Nothing.
Not at the major league level. Not at the minor league level. Not even for a youth baseball team.
So St. Louis went from one of the most savvy managers in baseball to one of the most inexperienced.
That's not to say Matheny can't eventually learn and become a winner. But this first year—and likely several more—will absolutely be a learning experience for Matheny as he learns on-the-fly how to deal with things as a manager that he never had to consider as a player.
What's more, the Chicago Tribune's Phil Rogers points out that the average drop in wins the year after a team wins the World Series is 5.5 wins, making their predicted 2012 win total around 84.5.
If Matheny's absolute inexperience as a coach is also factored in, the win total could drop to around 80 games.
Sure, the Cardinals picked up Carlos Beltran to plug the void left by Pujols' departure, but Beltran is going to be 35 years old this season. The Redbirds are counting on him and other aging veterans like 36-year-old Lance Berkman and 34-year-old oft-injured Rafael Furcal to continue to produce in their post-prime years.
The Brewers, meanwhile, lost their own slugger in Prince Fielder, replacing his offense with that of Aramis Ramirez, who has a history of coming up small in games of significance. Furthermore, Ramirez's sub-standard defense neutralizes any defensive benefit provided by newcomer Alex Gonzalez in the Brewers' already porous infield defense.
And with Ryan Braun being careful not to get caught again with PEDs following his successful appeal of a failed drug test, it will be interesting to see whether his offense output will drop.
The Reds look to be the best of the class in the NL Central.
But despite their offense, even they are no lock.
They lost pitcher Edinson Volquez. And there are questions surrounding Aroldis Chapman's ability to become a legit starter and whether Mat Latos can adjust from pitcher-friendly Petco Park to hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park.
The Cubs have quietly improved their team defense and especially their starting pitching, two key reasons for their abysmal 2011 record.
Cubs fans won't have to endure seeing Doug Davis and Rodrigo Lopez take the bump on a regular basis.
Expect the Cubs to jump from their 71-win season last year to an 84-win season in 2012. That would be good enough to compete with the weakened Cardinals and Brewers for second place in the vulnerable NL Central.
At the time of the Zambrano-Volstad trade, I wrote an extensive article detailing why the deal wasn't as lopsided as it appeared on the surface in terms of the quality of the pitchers exchanged.
And now that spring training is here, I'm officially moving from a "they-look-like-similar-pitchers" stance to a pro-Volstad stance.
Volstad will be the better pitcher in 2012.
That may not necessarily be in win totals or ERA stats, which are both misleading stats that do not include other factors that impact wins (such as Zambrano likely having significantly better run support than Volstad) and earned runs (such as reliever performance).
The best stat to use will be FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching) and xFIP (Expected Fielder Independent Pitching).
Between Zambrano's increasing "tired arm" problems and his expected coddling by fellow Venezuelan buddy Ozzie Guillen, Zambrano's best days are likely behind him.
Volstad, on the other hand, is just 25 years old. The 6' 8" right-hander's best days are ahead of him.
The Cardinals' Chris Carpenter has lost 22 games the past three seasons. In that time, he has never had double-digit losses.
The Cubs' Paul Maholm, on the other hand, has lost 38 games in that same span, losing 15 games in 2010 and 14 games in 2011.
However, Maholm played with the Pirates during that time, who were one of the 10 least efficient defenses in the league.
I broke down his games in 2011 and collected the data of how many runs he gave up at the time he was pulled from the game. It is slightly simplified since it doesn't include the run expectancy of any baserunners left behind. However, for our purposes, and since the vast majority of these games did not leave runners behind, this is a good starting point.
In doing this analysis, 50 percent of Maholm's starts (13/26) were quality starts, even though his W-L record was 6-14.
He also had seven additional "decent starts"—which I would loosely define as three runs allowed in five innings or four runs allowed in six innings.
His bad starts amounted to just 6 starts (23.1 percent).
That means 76.9 percent of Maholm's starts were games where he gave his team a fighting chance.
Carpenter, meanwhile, will be 37 years old this year. His winning percentage has dropped each of the past three years.
And with a new manager and pitching coach, along with a less potent offense, Carpenter's numbers aren't likely to reverse the trend this year.
Stewart hit .156 last season in just 48 injury-marred games, bouncing back and forth between the bigs and the minors. He also didn't hit a single home run.
He's been the joke of many White Sox fans on internet boards.
And in fact, he has not hit .260 in any MLB season so far.
So why do I think he will hit .260 now?
When signed, Stewart said being the full-time third baseman will be all he needs to bounce back.
And he was just 22 when he first played for the Rockies. This year, Stewart will be 27—just entering his prime.
Stewart won't make anyone forget Josh Vitters. But with his
excellent plus defense and renewed offense, he won't be anyone's punching bag either.