The Chicago Cubs spent this past offseason pointing the franchise in a new direction.
Former Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein is in to run the show, with former San Diego Padres GM Jed Hoyer serving as the Cubs' new GM. Now that the Cubbies have an All-Star front office, the future is bright.
The present, on the other hand...
It takes time to build a winning ballclub, and the simple truth is that the Cubs' new regime hasn't had enough of it. They have the Cubs headed in the right direction, but championship contention is still a few years away.
In the meantime, here's a look at how things are shaping up for the Cubs in 2012.
2011 Record: 71-91
Key Arrivals (courtesy of BaseballProspectus.com): OF David DeJesus (FA), 3B Ian Stewart (from Colorado), RHP Casey Weathers (from Colorado), RHP Lendy Castillo (waivers), LHP Travis Wood (from Cincinnati), OF Dave Sappelt (from Cincinnati), RHP Andy Sonnanstine (FA), RHP Manuel Corpas (FA), RHP Chris Volstad (from Miami), 1B Anthony Rizzo (from San Diego), RHP Zach Cates (from San Diego), LHP Paul Maholm (FA), LHP Trever Miller (FA), 2B Adrian Cardenas (waivers)
Key Departures: 2B DJ LeMahieu (to Colorado), OF Tyler Colvin (to Colorado), C Koyie Hill (FA), LHP Sean Marshall (to Cincinnati), RHP Carlos Zambrano (to Miami), RHP Andrew Cashner (to San Diego), OF Kyung-Min Na (to San Diego), RHP Chris Carpenter (to Boston), 3B Aramis Ramirez (FA), 1B Carlos Pena (FA), LHP John Grabow (FA)
Projected Rotation (per official site)
- Ryan Dempster (10-14, 4.80 ERA, 1.45 WHIP)
- Matt Garza (10-10, 3.32, 1.26)
- Paul Maholm (6-14, 3.66, 1.29)
- Travis Wood (6-6, 4.84, 1.49)
- Randy Wells (7-6, 4.99, 1.39)
- Chris Volstad (5-13, 4.89, 1.42)
- Casey Coleman (3-9, 6.40, 1.75)
C: Geovany Soto (.228/.310/.411)
1B: Bryan LaHair (.288/.377/.508)
2B: Darwin Barney (.276/.313/.353)
3B: Ian Stewart (.156/.243/.221)
SS: Starlin Castro (.307/.341/.432)
LF: Alfonso Soriano (.244/.289/.469)
CF: Marlon Byrd (.276/.324/.395)
RF: David DeJesus (.240/.323/.376)
Closer: Carlos Marmol (R) (2-6, 34 SV, 2 HLD, 10 BLSV, 4.01 ERA, 1.38 WHIP)
Kerry Wood (R) (3-5, 1 SV, 21 HLD, 6 BLSV, 3.35, 1.29)
Jeff Samardzija (R) (8-4, 13 HLD, 2 BLSV, 2.97, 1.30)
James Russell (L) (1-6, 6 HLD, 2 BLSV, 4.12, 1.33)
Marcos Mateo (R) (1-2, 2 HLD, 4.30, 1.48)
John Gaub (L) (0-0, 6.75, 1.50)
Rafael Dolis (R) (0-0, 0.00, 0.75)
Scott Maine (L) (0-0, 1 HLD, 10.29, 2.29)
Scouting the Starting Pitching
So how did the Cubs lose 91 games last season?
Bad starting pitching was a big reason why.
All told, Cubs starters logged just 931.2 innings last season, third fewest in the National League. They had just 76 quality starts all season, and they ended the year with a 4.79 ERA. That was the worst rotation ERA in the NL.
The good news is that this rotation did get a shakeup over the offseason. Most notably, Carlos Zambrano is out of the picture (though, still partially on the team's payroll). That should be just fine with Cubs fans, and the team itself isn't going to miss Zambrano and his ticking-time-bomb nature.
The Cubs have two guys they can rely on to log innings and generally give the team a chance to win every time they take the mound. Ryan Dempster is one of them. He's riding a streak of four straight seasons with at least 200 innings pitched, though, his ERA has climbed in each one of them.
Dempster isn't fooling anybody at this point in his career. His K/BB fell to 2.33 last season, and hitters batted .271 and slugged .445 against him. When he went 17-6 back in 2008, hitters hit just .227 and slugged .341 off him. Dempster has been on the decline ever since then, and he bottomed out in 2011.
On the bright side, Dempster's poor showing in 2011 had a lot to do with bad luck. His BABIP of .324 was a little too high, and his FIP of 3.91 was nearly a full run lower than his 4.80 ERA. Had Dempster gotten a few lucky bounces, he could have finished with an ERA in the high 3.00s.
Matt Garza, meanwhile, finished with an ERA in the low 3.00s, and in fact, it could have been even better. I'll explain more on that front in just a minute.
There's not a whole lot to like about this rotation beyond the two guys at the top, but the Cubs could do a lot worse than Paul Maholm. He has the ability to pitch 200 innings, and let's not forget that he was pretty good before the All-Star break in 2011, pitching over 120 innings with an ERA under 3.00. He's not going to miss any bats when he's off, but he'll do a good job of keeping hitters off balance when he's on.
I don't have a whole lot of faith in either Travis Wood or Randy Wells. Wood walked way too many guys last season, and all those extra runners made life pretty tough for him. The Cubs are obviously hoping he recaptures the form he showed in 2010, when he had a K/BB of 3.31 and held opponents to a .222 average.
The key for Wells will be merely keeping the ball in the ballpark. He gave up 23 homers in just 135.1 innings last season, a ridiculously high total. It's not exactly surprising, in retrospect, as Wells' ground-ball percentage has been declining since 2009.
On paper, this is not a great rotation. Some improvement over last season's performance is in the cards, but not much.
Scouting the Bullpen
Bad starting pitching played a part in the Cubs losing 91 games, and so did bad work from the bullpen.
Some of the bullpen's numbers from last season are respectable. A bullpen ERA of 3.51 ain't bad, nor is an 8.49 K/9.
Numbers that are bad: a 4.06 BB/9 and 24 blown saves.
Carlos Marmol was responsible for the bulk of those blown saves. He tied for the major league lead with 10 of them, and that's what happens when you're walking the ballpark and leaving too many pitches up in the zone. Marmol has never had pinpoint control, but he's been able to get by in the past by being effectively wild. He was not effectively wild last season, as hitters dug in and slugged .299 off him.
That's not a ridiculously high number, mind you, but it was a career worst for Marmol. He just didn't pitch well, plain and simple.
The Cubs have no choice but to hope Marmol levels out again in 2012. If he doesn't, his days as this team's closer will probably be over.
On the bright side, the Cubs have some pretty good arms to set up for Marmol. Kerry Wood is as steady as they come, and Jeff Samardzija is coming off a very strong season. He still walks too many guys, but last season he was striking hitters out and getting ground balls at an impressive rate. If he can do that again, he'll be good again.
On the not-so-bright side, the Cubs are going to miss Sean Marshall, who they traded to Cincinnati for Travis Wood. Marshall was one of the top setup men in baseball last season, piling up 34 holds with a minuscule 2.26 ERA. He was death on lefties, holding them to a .206 average.
With Marshall gone, somebody will have to step up and be the go-to lefty in this bullpen. The Cubs have a couple candidates for the job, but no real good ones.
The big picture for this bullpen is pretty simple. The bridge to Marmol is decent, but things are going to be just as bad as they were in 2011 if he doesn't get back to being himself.
If he does, this bullpen will be alright.
Scouting the Hitting
The Cubs were a decent run-scoring team in 2011, finishing eighth in the National League with a total of 654 runs. Their collective slugging percentage of .401 ranked sixth, just behind the Cincinnati Reds.
However, that lineup had Aramis Ramirez and his .871 OPS. He's gone now, leaving the rest of the lineup to pick up the slack.
Ideally, new third baseman Ian Stewart will pick up the majority of the slack. He hit 25 home runs and had an OPS near .800 in 2009, and the Cubs are hoping he can get somewhere close to that kind of production in 2012.
The trouble is that Stewart has had trouble staying healthy over the last two seasons. Last season in particular was a huge struggle, as Stewart played in just 48 games and didn't hit a lick. He managed just 19 hits in 122 at-bats, 12 of them singles.
The Cubs don't have any assurances when it comes to Geovany Soto, either. He's battled injuries each of the last three seasons and has been streaky at the plate when he has played. He's going to hit for power, but asking him to hit for average may be asking too much. He has it in him to hit consistently, but he needs consistent at-bats to do so.
Alfonso Soriano is another guy the Cubs can't rely on. His career has gone into a full-on tailspin, and the Cubs can more or less take it for granted that a sudden and impressive career revival is not in the cards. Soriano still hasn't learned to take his walks, he strikes out too much and he's not making solid contact when he does hit the ball. You don't want to put too much stock in BABIP when it comes to hitters, but Soriano's BABIP has been under .300 each of the last three seasons. That's alarming.
Since the Cubs have no way of knowing what they're going to get out of their power bats, theirs will have to be a classic "keep the line moving" lineup. Getting 'em on, getting 'em over and getting 'em in will have to be this team's forte.
The good news is that the top of the lineup is constructed to put guys on base. The Chicago Tribune has reported that David DeJesus is likely to bat leadoff, and he's a good choice given his ability to post an OBP in the mid-to-high .300s.
Batting Darwin Barney in the No. 2 hole makes the most sense. He hit over .300 before the All-Star break last season, and he was productive batting second overall. He won't take his walks, but he's hard to strike out, too. He'll do nicely in the two hole.
In this lineup, Starlin Castro would bat third, a spot he did not excel in last season. He was much better batting leadoff and second than he was batting third, as he posted a .225/.251/.320 line batting No. 3.
Nevertheless, the Cubs know that Castro is a hitter on the rise. Assuming he's going to keep getting better, his bat will be needed in the middle of the lineup.
Despite all of this, the truth is that Dale Sveum has plenty of options in terms of how he wants to arrange things. To compensate for the weakness of his pitching staff, he'll have to find an order that works and stick with it.
Expect him to be experimenting with different lineups early on in the season.
There aren't too many guys to choose from here, but Matt Garza is the easy choice.
Garza's first season in the National League after coming over from the Tampa Bay Rays went pretty well. His record was nothing special, but you really can't complain too much about Garza's 3.32 ERA and 1.26 WHIP.
Garza achieved a pretty good balance with the Cubs last season. He posted a career-high K/9 of 8.95 while keeping his BB/9 to a reasonable 2.86. He also piled up ground balls, as his ground-ball rate was 46.3 percent. It was under 40 in both 2009 and 2010.
Naturally, this resulted in fewer home runs. Garza gave up 25 homers in 2009, 28 in 2010, but just 14 all of last season. A mere 7.7 percent of the fly balls he induced went over the fence.
If Garza repeats this performance, there's no reason to think he won't keep his ERA in the low 3.00s again. If he gets enough run support, he'll win 12 to 15 games.
No matter what kind of record he ends up with, Garza is easily the best starter the Cubs have. It would be nice of them to reward him with a few wins.
I'd like to talk more about Starlin Castro, who is easily the best young player the Cubs have on their roster.
Castro gave a glimpse of what he was capable of when the Cubs called him up in 2010, and he proved in 2011 that it wasn't a fluke. The Cubs were awful, but Castro just kept on hitting.
Castro had his ups and downs, but he was remarkably consistent throughout the 2011 season. He hit .307 before the All-Star break, and .307 after the All-Star break. Better yet, he started hitting for power after the break, blasting eight home runs.
Like all young hitters, Castro could stand to learn some patience. He doesn't wait around for his pitch, and that's going to cost him as pitchers continue to adjust to him. Castro has managed to maintain a low strikeout rate in his first two seasons, but that's likely to change.
On the bright side, Castro generally finds the holes in the defense when he does make contact. His BABIP was .346 in 2010 and .344 in 2011. The fact that those two numbers practically mirror each other is a sign that Castro isn't getting hits because he's lucky.
This is a big year for Castro. He's shown the world that he can hit, but now the pressure is on him to improve other assets of his game (i.e., fielding) while adjusting to the league's adjustments to him.
We'll either see what else he's capable of, or we'll find out that he's just as human as the next guy.
A lot of Cubs fans are pining for Anthony Rizzo to take over as the team's everyday first baseman, but Sveum has already committed to Bryan LaHair.
LaHair has done enough to earn his shot. He owns a career .897 OPS at the Triple-A level, and he hit a whopping 38 home runs at Triple-A last season. When he got called up late in the season, he responded by hitting .288 with a solid .885 OPS in the month of September.
But you have to think LaHair will be on a short leash. If he struggles, it's going to be too tempting for Sveum and the Cubs' brass to come to the conclusion that they're better off giving Rizzo a shot.
If LaHair hits, however, the Cubs will suddenly have themselves a legit power threat in their lineup, one that Sveum can use in the middle of the order if he so pleases. If that's how things end up playing out, the lineup will be more solid than it looks now and the Cubs will be able to keep Rizzo at Triple-A for more seasoning.
In the long run, that will be the best thing for everyone.
Prospect to Watch
Regardless of what happens with LaHair, Rizzo is definitely the prospect to watch when it comes to the Cubs.
According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Sveum says it's a "concrete plan" for Rizzo to spend another season in the minors, as the Cubs don't want to mess with his development by moving him up and down all season long.
There's really not a whole lot left for Rizzo to prove in the minors, as he hit .331 with a ridiculous 1.056 OPS with the San Diego Padres' Triple-A affiliate last season. Nevertheless, another season at Triple-A won't hurt Rizzo.
Whenever the Cubs decide to commit to him at first base, they'll be committing to one of the best power-hitting prospects in the majors. That's something worth waiting for.
What the Cubs Will Do Well
The Cubs were a decent offensive team last season, and I expect them to be decent once again. Despite the fact there are some question marks in their order, there is some upside, too.
Specifically, Cubs fans should be excited about the three key guys in particular: Barney, Castro and LaHair. Castro is one of the best young players in the game, Barney made impressive strides last season before wearing down and LaHair is a first baseman with tons of pop who will be looking to make the most of a long overdue chance.
Though the Cubs don't know what they're going to get out of Stewart, Soto, Soriano and Marlon Byrd, it's not like these guys are going to be awful to the point where they're going to kill the lineup. None of them will be particularly great (with the exception of maybe Soto), but they'll at least pitch in a few homers and RBI here and there.
What the Cubs Won’t Do Well
Pitching is going to be a problem with this Cubs team.
I like Garza, but the rest of the Cubs' rotation leaves a lot to be desired. They have too many guys who throw too many hittable pitches, and that's going to result in a lot of long afternoons and a lot of tough work for the bullpen.
The bullpen will stabilize if Marmol stabilizes, but that's anybody guess given his infamous control problems. Even if Marmol does get the job done, he's not going to do so without making it interesting first.
The other problem that plagued the Cubs last season was poor fielding, as they made too many errors and posted a collective UZR of -9.5.
Just from looking at this team on paper, I doubt they'll be much better.
Where will the Cubs finish in the NL Central this season?
The Cubs are in good hands, and you get the sense there's some optimism within the organization, but I don't see this team achieving great things this season. Too much would have to go right for them, and too much would have to go wrong for other teams in the NL Central.
The NL Central, by the way, is one of the deepest divisions in Major League Baseball. The St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers are legit, and the Cincinnati Reds are retooled and ready to make a run at the division crown. Even the Pittsburgh Pirates aren't all that bad.
The Cubs are. This season will be a forgettable first step towards better days.
Projected Record: 73-89, fifth in NL Central.
National League Central
American League Central
National League West
American League West
Zachary D. Rymer is a lifelong baseball junkie with an impressive collection of Nomar Garciaparra rookie cards and a knuckleball that is coming along. He loves the Red Sox and hates the Yankees, but he has a huge man-crush on Derek Jeter and would like nothing more than to have a few beers with Nick Swisher. He's always down to talk some baseball, so feel free to hit him up on Twitter: