The 2012 season was not a complete loss for the Chicago Cubs organization and its fans.
There were a few points that were able to break through the fog of the 101-loss season to highlight—or in some cases lowlight—the season: the emergence of Jeff Samardzija as a legitimate long-term starter; the outstanding defensive play of second baseman Darwin Barney; the correlation of a strong bullpen and success; and the lack of depth in the upper levels of the Cubs farm system.
Yet, many of the Cubs’ major deficiencies can be remedied in the offseason; perhaps not to an extent to allow them to sniff the playoffs, but possibly hang around the .500 mark for much of the season minus 8-10 games.
But as we begin a new year, it looks more and more likely the Cubs’ core roster will not change all that much from the one we saw last season (1B, 2B, SS, C, RF, LF). Nevertheless, if sweeping changes are made between now and Opening Day, there are many elements of the current squad that the Cubs and Cubs fans would like to see occur in 2013.
1. Jeff Samardzija solidifies himself as a frontline starter.
The 2012 season was “The Shark’s” first full season as an MLB starter. Considering the circumstances, he performed very well.
Going 9-13 with a 3.81 ERA and 180 strikeouts in 174.1 IP was very impressive given his last season as a full-time starter was in 2009 with the Iowa Cubs.
Many of us Cubs observers believe he will become a head-of-the-rotation kind of guy for the Cubs in the near future. But to do so, he needs to take one more vital step: Pitch consistently through the entire season.
Going into June 2012, his ERA was 3.09. After June, however, his ERA ballooned up to 5.05-he also averaged the fewest IP in June than in any other month.
With the exception of the month of June, Samardzija pitched very well the rest of the season. In his June starts he gave up 27 earned runs. Contrast that to his July, August and September starts when he gave up a combined 25 earned runs.
But again, the 2012 season was his first as a full-time MLB starter and struggles along the way are expected and accepted.
Therefore, if he can convert his strong finish to 2012 into an equivalent start to the 2013 season-which we all believe he can and will-the Cubs lexicon will see Samardzija cement himself as the Cubs’ future number-one.
2. Darwin Barney to improve his batting average to at least .275.
The 2012 season saw Darwin Barney win his first Gold Glove Award after putting on a defensive showcase.
In 2012 he matched the MLB’s single-season record of games played without an error at 141 games; he broke the NL single-season record of 113 games without an error; and has the record of consecutive games played without an error for a second baseman-surpassing Ryne Sandberg’s previous record of 123 games split between two seasons.
But the drawback of Darwin Barney’s game, and the thorn stuck in the crawl of Cubs fans everywhere, is his offense—or lack thereof.
Cubs fans love the fielding aspect of Darwin Barney—especially when combined with the oft absent-minded/lazy fielding of Starlin Castro up the middle. But for them to continue to believe he should remain in the everyday lineup he needs to improve at the plate.
In 2012 he hit a measly .254, with a sub-.300 OBP. There are some areas at the plate he has improved over 2011 when he hit .276: His strikeout totals dropped from 67 in 2011 to 58 in 2012, and his base-on-balls taken rose from 22 to 33.
Yet, what Cubs fans would like to see in 2013—as Barney himself would like—is for him to develop at the plate.
If he can bump his BA up to .275 and maintain his improved strikeout and walk totals, then despite the belief of Junior Lake being the heir apparent to the second base throne, he could cement himself as the Cubs’ long-term option at second base.
3. The bullpen successfully completing more holds and converting more saves.
The near incompetence of the Cubs’ 2012 bullpen was one of the main reasons the team finished with 101 losses. Remember when Ryan Dempster was 0-1 after six starts with a 1.74 ERA?
In four of those six games he left with either a lead or tie only for the bullpen let him down. Dempster did not earn his first personal win until June 5 in Milwaukee.
In 2012 the Cubs tried using everyone and their mothers to help solve their bullpen woes.
The closer situation was a complete catastrophe. The Cubs used 10 pitchers—10!—in their 49 save opportunities, converting only 28 saves.
The Cubs bullpen had the fourth highest total number of blown saves in 2012 with 21. And as it stands now, there will not be much improvement in the 2013 bullpen over the 2012 version.
There are two stats that are quite remarkable concerning the Cubs bullpen. The MLB average in converted save opportunities last season was 70 percent. The Cubs: 57 percent. The MLB average number of save opportunities in 2012 was 60. The Cubs: 49.
If the back end of the bullpen would leave the door cracked just a hair or closed halfway instead of leaving it wide open the club would automatically see a marked increase in wins.
Think of this: If the Cubs were able to match the league average in SV% while still only having 49 SVO, the Cubs could see a win total increase of 7 wins. That means their record would improve to 68-94; that may not seem like much of an improvement, but an additional seven wins because there was an upgrade in only one area is exceptional.
But if they could match both MLB averages of SVO (60) and SV% (70 percent) then their win total would increase by as many as 14 wins. Doing this would boost their record to 75-87 simply by attaining MLB averages.
You see, the Cubs do not need to have one of the best bullpens in the MLB to make a notable improvement from last season, just average.
4. The lineup as a whole to improve their batting average against left-handed pitchers.
The club’s batting average against lefties last season was abysmal. As a whole they hit .230 against south-paw pitchers with only 325 hits-good enough for MLB’s third-worst in both categories-to go along with a .292 OBP and a .346 SLG to place them second to last in both categories league-wide.
There aren’t too many options on how to improve the lineup’s hitting when facing left-handed pitchers.
Free agency is still an avenue the organization can use to improve the club’s hitting against lefties, but the player considered to be the best option is no longer accessible. Jeff Keppinger was the player I had been championing the club to sign for this very reason, and they were interested in bringing him in.
But he ended up inking a deal with the White Sox, thus eliminating the club’s best option.
So, whether the club decides to pursue players that can hit lefties or go the route of good ol’ fashioned baseball practice, improvement against south paws is something all Cubs fans would like to see in 2013.
5. Making fewer mental mistakes in the field.
This desired improvement is mainly directed at one player, we all know who that player is and we all would like to see it happen.
To say Starlin Castro has had the dubious honor of performing some of the most head-scratching plays this side of Manny Ramirez would not be inaccurate.
Granted, Ramirez always seemed a few cards shy of a full deck whenever he played the field, and Castro’s blunders appear to be more along the lines of momentary lapses of focus, but to become an elite level shortstop-as many believe he can-Castro needs to maintain his focus throughout every single game especially at such a vital position.
Errors are okay. But stupid errors are a detriment to the team.
Better focus in the field will improve defense. Improved defense will decrease runs. Fewer runs given up proceeds more wins. More wins leads to a better record. A better record leads to the playoffs. The playoffs lead to magic.
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