Chicago Cubs: Crucial Storylines for the 2012 Season
This is about the time of the year when baseball fans are budding with anticipation for the upcoming season. Spring training is nearly here, and with MLB's decision to add even more playoff teams to the mix, franchises on the cusp of contention have even more to be excited about.
The Cubs are coming off a more-than-forgettable 71-win campaign, and their offseason of small acquisitions while dumping as many contracts as possible is well-documented. We can skip over the loss of Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Pena and Sean Marshall, all of whom were above-average to great players on a team that still couldn't buy wins. With those pieces leaving, the Cubs and their fanbase may have to dig deep to find the silver lining in what is shaping up to be quite the long year.
They have made savvy moves, that are long-awaited earnest steps towards creating a new and lasting way of contention. This still doesn't change the struggles that 2012 will bring.
While hope appears justifiably dim, there are a few stories that will certainly bear watching. Some of these tales have enough merit to make a serious impact this season. If everything falls just right, things could certainly fall into place for the team.
It's a heck of a lot of dice rolls to go in the favor of the team, as it's clear that the management is building for 2013 and beyond. It remains my duty as a fan to at least stay optimistic before game one, so, here goes nothing.
The Budding Starlin Castro
Starlin Castro is 22 years old. Lets all take a deep breath, think about all that he has accomplished in his two seasons in the major leagues and then take a mental step back for a moment.
He was the youngest player to ever lead the National League in hits. Ever.
He plays a premium offensive position while owning a career .304 batting average and a .766 OPS.
He has amazing speed, which translated to quality base-stealing ability in his sophomore season. The arrow is only pointed up in this regard.
He has budding power, as he posted 55 extra-base hits last season. Ten of those were home runs, and this is a rising total, as his physical abilities only continue to grow.
The reason I had to remark on the well-known accomplishments of this young man is because some fans seem to get extremely caught up on his defensive struggles. The same defensive struggles that, well, virtually every single quality defensive shortstop also went through at his age.
Look into Ozzie Smith, Edgar Renteria, Rafael Furcal and many, many more if any proof is needed.
The facts show that infielders that get called up at such an extremely young age need two-plus seasons of adjustments before knowing what they are truly capable of. Castro already has unbelievable range paired with an astronomically powerful arm.
With the right coaching and effort, he can easily become a passable, if not exceptional, fielder.
At the end of the day, I don't need to sell anyone on Castro. He is the reason many Cubs fans will watch next year in the first place. I just want the fandom to give the young star just the slightest break when it comes to the criticisms, as so much of this franchise's future hinges on his development.
This is a storyline that in all likelihood, will give the Cubs fans the most solace, as Castro can only go up from here.
Don't Call It a Comeback, Featuring Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart clearly doesn't believe in the "change of scenery" myth that apparently every media outlet has propagated against him.
The former first-round pick and exceptional Colorado prospect has had plenty of ups and downs thus far. The Cubs are hoping that the talent will shine through in his Chicago tenure more than it did in Coors Field.
Replacing Aramis Ramirez may be a tough pill to swallow for the 27-year-old. Defensively, that won't be a problem, as he's replacing the league's worst defensive third baseman. Stewart himself is no crown jewel in the field, but even an adequate fielder is leaps and bounds ahead of Ramirez. The runs saved in this department will be many and noticeable.
Offense is the side of the game where fans will notice a serious depreciation in skills. Although Stewart should certainly be a lock for 20 home runs if he gets a full season in, his contact skills are paltry in comparison to Aramis. While Ramirez notched a stellar .871 OPS in 2011, Stewart owns a career .751.
No one is denying Stewart's high upside and physical talent, but he needs this 2012 season to prove that all the prior hype on him had merit. I have a lot of faith in him holding the fort down, and I even have an inkling that he could be a part of the foundation for the eventual Cub contender.
The results may not be entirely pretty at the end of the year, but I truly do appreciate the idea of starting as much low-risk/high-reward talent as possible and see which works and which doesn't. The more than does stick around, the sooner the team will have their legitimate contender.
All the more reason to root on Ian Stewart.
The New Crop of Back-End Starters
Paul Maholm. Travis Wood. Chris Volstad. Andy Sonnanstine.
I think I've figured out Epstein's plan, and I like it. He's literally picking up every third, fourth or fifth starter with even the smallest hint of upside and throwing it against a wall to see what sticks.
It's a great idea more often utilized in video game management, and I'm glad it's the status quo right now.
Travis Wood is my personal pick to have the most 2012 success. His peripherals over his two-year Major League career show the talent to be a third starter with upside, which is extremely valuable at his age. When his contract is as mega-cheap as it currently is, it's all gravy. Giving up Sean Marshall was a hefty price and all, but Wood's possible contributions on the eventual contender Epstein is trying to create are worth his weight in gold.
When it comes to Maholm, he is what he is. The Cubs salvaged a similarly useful starter from Pittsburgh in Tom Gorzelanny just recently. His Cubs tenure was marked with unspectacular usefulness, which is what I expect out of Maholm as well.
They are strikingly similar to boot. Twenty-nine-year-old lefties who punch in underrated quality seasons every other year. This "other year," however, they happen to get blown out of the water.
Either way, Maholm is most likely in Chicago to play above his head followed by getting dealt at the deadline. It's a balance, whether they believe his production is legitimate or whether he is more useful to the team being traded for prospects. It's a problem many Cubs will be facing this 2012 season.
Volstad has yet to put up a quality season in his three full years starting in Florida. He has pitched like the generic fifth starter in every one of his full seasons. This is not a slight to the 25-year-old righty, but simple fact. He has a lot of talent in that 6'9'' frame of his, but he is one that will be fighting for the fifth spot in the rotation. He has upside to be quite a bit more than the caboose of a rotation, so again, he is absolutely worth giving 30 starts to.
Last and least, Andy Sonnanstine will in all likelihood fill the long-relief role. If Volstad has struggled over the last three years, then Sonnanstine has been living in the dumps. He's simply been completely ineffective on the mound since 2008, where he was moderately useful for the Rays team that made it to the World Series.
Outside of injuries, not many see him getting to the rotation, but many Cubs fans will appreciate the depth he provides over what the team had last year.
No one can or should try to take away the accolades that the 29-year-old LaHair has amassed over his undeniably interesting 2011 calendar year.
He's been named the PCL Player of the Year on top of the same Player of the Year award for the Winter League. Without a doubt, he has crushed all the pitching he has seen.
The caveat being, the pitching he's seen is largely a lot younger than him and even less experienced. Similar production has come from Jake Fox, Jason Dubois and a whole assortment of guys who were completely outmatched in the majors.
LaHair is not those players, obviously, but the issues with his story are known and important.
His value to the 2012 team is certainly useful. Instead of wasting revenue on a pointless veteran first baseman to hold the position down for a year, the team can use LaHair in a no-risk/all-reward situation.
It is simply a curiosity of mine to see how this guy handles the full-time role. It's truly a science experiment that will battle the time-tested mythos of the AAAA player. This storyline isn't exactly a world-ending one, but it more than piques my interest.
If he can net an OPS over .800 and knock 20-plus home runs, he certainly has a place in the majors in some regard or another. He could do that or join the countless list of players in his shoes that just can't translate to the high-level talent of the pros.
Either way, I have this story as my dark-horse favorite, and it's one that many a fan debate has been held over.
With superstar prospect Anthony Rizzo in the wings, even if LaHair does succeed, his tenure as a first baseman should be short. Unless he's producing like a star, it would be hard to accept some more lackluster defense if they move him to the outfield. So even if he does succeed, the story only gets juicer.
As always, keep posted, and for whatever reason you are watching the 2012 Cubs season, let's hope it all shakes out for the best for the North-siders.