Big things weren't expected from the Chicago Cubs this year. The 2012 season has been a rebuilding project.
Patience is called for on the north side of Chicago as team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer implement their plan to improve the depth of pitching talent in the minor league system.
But the major league product has to be improved as well. The Cubs committed to Starlin Castro as their shortstop with a seven-year, $60 million contract. Anthony Rizzo looks like a future star at first base, which has to be encouraging after his first stint in the majors with the San Diego Padres didn't go so well.
The Cubs still have to put in major work in filling out the rest of their lineup, starting rotation and bullpen. However, these parts of the roster should be their biggest concerns heading into the offseason.
All statistics mentioned here are current as of Sept. 17.
Samardzija and Garza, Then... ?
When it comes to starting pitching, the Cubs might be in a better position than most rebuilding teams. They have a developing ace in Jeff Samardzija, and Matt Garza is a potential No. 1 starter if he isn't traded at some point next season.
But who fills in the starting rotation after that?
Travis Wood should be the No. 3 guy. With a 6-11 record and a 4.23 ERA with 97 strikeouts in 134 innings, his season numbers don't look terribly impressive.
However, Wood has pitched very well recently, allowing three runs or fewer in each of his past five appearances. In September, he's 2-0 with a 1.43 ERA in three starts. The Cubs have him under club control for four more seasons.
Chris Volstad has two more arbitration seasons. But do the Cubs want to keep him around? At 3-10 with a 6.26 ERA, Volstad has been one of the worst starting pitchers in the MLB this year.
The remaining three starters the Cubs will finish this season with are Justin Germano, Chris Rusin and Jason Berken.
Not much help will come from the minors next season. Arodys Vizcaino—acquired in the Paul Maholm trade—will be working his way back from Tommy John surgery. Trey McNutt struggled with Double-A Tennessee this year.
So the Cubs will probably have to sign an arm or two for the back end of their rotation.
Who's on Third?
One of the more disappointing developments of the Cubs' 2012 season has been Josh Vitters' failure to emerge as a potential starting third baseman.
Vitters hasn't hit since getting called up in early August, batting .110/.159/.207 in 88 plate appearances. That isn't much of a sample to go on, especially for a player who hit .304 with an .859 OPS at Triple-A Iowa.
But Vitters' defense hasn't earned him more opportunities at the plate. His defense has been so bad that manager Dale Sveum has opted to play Luis Valbuena at third base.
“It’s the routine plays that seem to be giving him the most problem,” Sveum told the Daily Herald's Bruce Miles.
“The spontaneous plays, he’s made all those, in great fashion, really. He’s got up and made good throws on the dives and the body-control plays, he’s done well on. He’s coming and gotten a lot better since the first day I saw him.”
With Javier Baez still at least two seasons away, the Cubs will either hope Vitters can improve his defense enough to be in the third base mix for next season or sign a veteran stopgap. Perhaps Ian Stewart will return for one more season after undergoing wrist surgery.
Can He play Center Field?
Another disappointment—perhaps a larger one, depending on your viewpoint—has been Brett Jackson's play since he got the call to the majors in early August.
Considered the Cubs' top prospect, Jackson has hit .182/.296/.384 in 115 plate appearances. Since he hit .256 in Triple-A Iowa with a .479 OPS, perhaps that was to be expected. But the Cubs were surely hoping for more.
Jackson has provided good defense in center field, however. Maybe he's been a bit reckless in throwing his body around the field, but that's the way he plays and the Cubs surely don't want to curb that aggressiveness.
"You got to play the game all out,” Jackson told ESPN Chicago's Doug Padilla. “It’s the only way I know how. I’ll try to be careful with the brick behind the ivy (at Wrigley Field) but other than that I’m going to go for those balls because those balls are important."
Jackson's hitting has to be the bigger concern going into next season. The Cubs should be encouraged that he's already formulating a plan to improve during the offseason.
"I have some habits that need to be altered, adjusted to," Jackson said to the Chicago Tribune's Paul Sullivan. "That's going to take tedious drill work, a lot of little stuff.
"Also I want to improve some strength in my top hand. I'm a right-handed athlete and swing left-handed, so the challenge for me is always using my top hand more."
But will Jackson end up working on that part of his game in Triple-A or the majors when next season begins?
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