Chicago Cubs: 10 Burning Questions in Spring Training
With Opening Day less than a month away, now is the time that storylines are created, rumors are spread and expectations bloom.
The expectations for this Chicago Cubs team may be a little more unclear than in years past. There is a sense of optimism that has been absent in previous years, but that seems to be more towards the future than the present.
It's tough to tell this early what's real and what is just an illusion in spring, but the Cubs have plenty of questions to address regardless.
Here are 10 burning questions as the Cubs make their way through the spring and into the season, ultimately leading to the hottest questions of them all: When will the Cubs win and how will they get there?
10. Which Carlos Marmol Will Show Up?
Closer Carlos Marmol blew 10 saves last season, and this spring he has already surrendered two leads.
Last season, he struggled immensely in comparison to 2010. He gave up four more home runs, 11 more runs and struck out 39 less batters while his ERA went from 2.55 to 4.01. His 10 blown saves proved costly for a disappointing team.
The Cubs don't have enough talent to overcome 10 blown leads in the ninth inning.
Marmol has always had the stuff to be one of the most dominating closers in the game, but controlling those pitches is a whole other story.
For the Cubs to have any success this year, it's imperative for Marmol to regain his 2010 form.
9. Will the Cubs Sign Cuban Outfielder Jorge Soler?
The Cubs dropped the ball on letting Yoenis Cespedes slip away to Oakland.
Will they try to compensate that by signing 19-year-old Jorge Soler?
Soler is a lanky right-hander who figures to develop into a corner outfielder in the future. He's been linked to the Cubs for months, who've been said are willing to offer upwards of $27 million for his services.
He's young and years away from contributing in the big leagues, but he would be immediately projected as the Cubs' top prospect.
Some feel he's the biggest need at this point, while others don't think the price is worth the risk. Regardless, the outcome of the Soler decision will have a trickling effect throughout the organization.
8. When Will We See Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson in the Majors?
The Cubs' top two prospects, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and outfielder Brett Jackson, are each blocked at their position, preventing them from beginning this season in the majors.
However, the guys blocking are doing as good of a job as Jay Cutler's offensive line did for him.
Bryan LaHair is struggling this spring, hitting just 3-20 with seven strikeouts. It is just spring training, but the 29-year-old journeyman isn't doing himself any favors after being named the starter entering the season.
Rizzo, meanwhile, is hitting 5-14 with a tape-measure home run to go along with his solid glove. The patience of fans will be short if LaHair continues to struggle while Rizzo tears up either spring training or the minors early on.
Jackson is waiting in the wings for the departure of either Alfonso Soriano or Marlon Byrd.
Byrd is in the final year of his contract, and his $5 million contract is one that Theo Epstein would love to move.
But if we're going to bring up bad contracts, Soriano's is well documented. Soriano's name was dangled in the offseason with no takers. He is much tougher to move than Byrd.
Jackson is 5-13 this spring with a homer and four RBI. If he gets hot early, it will put pressure on Byrd and Soriano to produce. Otherwise, trade or no trade, they will be forced to step aside as Jackson takes the sprint to the outfield instead.
7. What Will the Cubs Do with Alfonso Soriano?
Soriano has $18 million left on his contract over the next two seasons. At 36, that's not a contract that other teams want to acquire.
The Cubs aren't a big fan of it either.
Epstein and Jed Hoyer would love to find a taker, and likely absorb some of the contract, for Soriano's services. His most likely destination would be in the American League as a designated hitter.
Soriano is blocking Jackson from playing in the big leagues to begin the season and doesn't figure to be in the team's plans when they are ready to compete for championships.
But all of this was before Soriano began the spring with four dingers, going 9-17 overall. Could the new clubhouse atmosphere brought on by Dale Sveum and Epstein be enough to rejuvenate the outfielder?
If his spring production is any indication of what to expect during the year, the Cubs very well could compete in the division. And if they don't compete he may have just enough trade value for someone to bite.
He's the starting left fielder for now, but it remains to be seen if he will still assume that role come August.
6. Who Fills out the Rotation?
Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm are more than penciled in to the top three spots of the starting rotation come April.
That leaves Chris Volstad, Randy Wells, Travis Wood and Jeff Samardzija fighting over the final two spots.
Volstad, acquired from the Miami Marlins in exchange for Carlos Zambrano, has yet to allow a run this spring in two starts while fanning four batters. He has a career ERA of 4.59, but is known as an inning-eater. He's a reliable option who has made 29 starts or more in each of the last three seasons.
Travis Wood was also acquired this offseason from the Reds for Sean Marshall. Wood, a lefty, made just one start so far in spring training allowing one run in 2.1 innings. At 25, he figures to have more potential than Volstad and Wells, while being more reliable than an inexperienced starter in Samardzija.
Wells saw his ERA jump over the past three seasons from 3.05 to 4.26 all the way to 4.99 last season. The drop-off is likely to hurt his chances to compete for a spot. The Cubs are more familiar with what he does, and doesn't, bring to the table as a starter.
They may be more enticed to give Wood or Samardzija a chance to prove themselves over the declining veteran.
Finally, Samardzija gives starting another chance this spring. Previous stints in the bullpen in his career have shown an explosive straight fastball, but it's not very hard to hit when it's the only pitch that he could get over the plate.
The development of a controllable off-speed pitch is critical in his pursuit of a starter spot.
5. Will Josh Vitters or Ian Stewart Breakout?
Josh Vitters was once "The Next Big Thing" for the Cubs. Ian Stewart was supposed to be the same for the Rockies.
Now the two are battling for a spot at third base for the Cubs, each hoping to break out and finally live up to expectations.
But is there reason to believe it will happen?
Stewart has been hampered by injuries in his career. Finally healthy, this may be his time to show what was expected of him in Colorado.
Stewart has seen more opportunities so far, going 4-14 and scoring four runs.
Vitters, once the Cubs top draft pick and most touted prospect, is just 2-8 this spring. That's only one more hit than pitcher Chris Volstad.
But Vitters is only 22-years-old. It's easy to forget that he's still young because he's been in the organization for four years. It's still too early to give up on Vitters.
Vitters, along with Cubs pitcher Casey Weathers, is one of two players from the top 10 selections of the 2007 draft who have yet to reach the majors (Vitters was third overall). He may finally get his opportunity this season.
4. Is Dale Sveum the Manager the Cubs Have Been Longing For?
The Cubs had the big names in Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella.
Mike Quade was the underdog hire.
Dale Sveum fits somewhere in the middle.
Sveum, a first-time manager in the big leagues, was hired this offseason by Epstein. Sveum was also in the running for the Boston vacancy.
Sveum is a respected baseball mind with strengths in video analysis, work ethic and treating players with the same expectations whether it's the best or worst player.
But is he the right man for the job?
He doesn't have the World Series rings that Piniella and Baker (they each won as players) brought to the table. Who says this isn't another Quade experience?
Without the World Series rings comes little worry of complacency. There were times that perhaps Baker and Piniella were satisfied with what they already accomplished. That won't be the case for Sveum. He's ready to get down to business as shown by his "win now" attitude.
Whether his attitude and personality can carry over to the 25-man clubhouse remains to be seen, but fans and players seem ready to give him the opportunity. Which might be more than Quade can say.
3. What Is Matt Garza's Future?
Matt Garza, coming off the best season of his career, enters the season as the ace of the staff, but will he still be there after July 31st?
Garza has a chance to be the hottest name at the trade deadline. If the Cubs are out of contention, he's the name that Epstein will hear most from contenders, asking for top prospects in return.
Or do the Cubs decide to build their rotation around the 28-year-old right hander?
An extension is a real possibility. Garza is early in his prime and would get rewarded for his future performance instead of getting paid for what he's already accomplished. An extension would be the way I would go.
Teams can never have enough pitching, and that is especially the case come August. Teams are desperate for a starter who can solidify their rotation entering the postseason. When push comes to shove, teams may very well deal multiple prospects for Garza's services.
Epstein may be offered a deal he can't refuse, or may offer Garza one of his own.
2. How Big Will Starlin Castro's Next Step Be?
Starlin Castro emerged as the face of the future for the Cubs in his first full season last year.
He made the NL All-Star team and led the league in hits with 207. His 10 home runs were just a small sample of his potential power.
How big will Castro's next step be this season? More importantly, in which direction will it be?
Castro suffered mental lapses last year both in the field and offensively. He encountered legal trouble this offseason. Is the almost 22-year-old ready to grow up and step into the role that has been cleared for him?
Is he ready to be the 20-homer, 20-steals and .300-plus average offensive leader that the Cubs expect him to grow into?
Is he ready to deal with Sveum's hard-nose attitude? Don't expect the new manager to look the other way if Castro is caught chasing butterflies in the field—like Quade did last year.
Is he ready for the Chicago and national media to come out in full force if he fails to take the next step towards being elite? Questions will certainly circle back to his sexual assault case if he struggles early.
The next step is certainly coming for Castro. But will it be a step forwards or backwards?
1. What Will Theo Epstein's Impact Be This Season?
All eyes will be on the field come Opening Day, but in the back of every Cubs fan's mind will be Theo Epstein.
Yes, Epstein's reputation will buy him time. But this is still Chicago. Despite the drought since the last championship, fans' patience won't always be there.
If Soriano struggles early, fans will bark for his trade or release. If LaHair doesn't cut it at first base, expect "Rizzo" chants streaming from the bleachers. If Tyler Colvin reaches his potential while Stewart stumbles, expect blame to come.
Even Epstein's reputation isn't enough to get the Cub faithful to overlook mistakes.
For this season though, what kind of impact can we expect Epstein to have? I'll remind you that he won't put on a pair of cleats and field a ground ball or drive in a run all year.
The impact that he can have is one on his players and could provide excitement for the fans. As long as Epstein's regime shows a glimpse of what could be coming, the fans will be satisfied. They know this won't happen overnight. Epstein is holding something much more difficult to control than a PlayStation 3 controller.
If the players show extra incentive to perform with a try-hard attitude, the way Epstein preaches, the transition from rebuilding to sustaining will be smooth sailing.