After going 61-101 in 2012, the Chicago Cubs should be better in 2013. They've made too many solid additions this winter to be a 100-loss wreck again.
All the same, the 2013 season does have the look of another bridge year. The Cubs are short on long-term solutions in the field and on the mound, and that means Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and the rest of the team's front office will once again be hard at work trying to round out the roster next winter.
When everything is settled, the 2014 Cubs are going to look a lot different from the 2013 Cubs. Exactly what they're going to look like, however, is anyone's guess.
Well, shoot, it just so happens that I'm anyone. And as luck would have it, I have some super-duper-early guesses as to how the Cubs are going to arrange themselves for the 2014 season.
If you would just follow me this way, we'll take a look at which holes Epstein and co. are going to have to fill and how they'll go about filling them.
Impending Free Agents: Matt Garza (SP), Scott Feldman (SP), Scott Baker (SP), Carlos Marmol (RHP), Shawn Camp (RHP), Dioner Navarro (C).
Scott Feldman and Scott Baker signed one-year contracts this winter, and there's a fair chance that neither of them will make it to the end of the season with the Cubs. If Baker comes back strong after missing 2012 recovering from Tommy John surgery and Feldman takes to the National League well, both of them are likely to be trade bait at the deadline.
Matt Garza could go a lot sooner than the deadline, as ESPNChicago.com's Bruce Levine recently suggested that he could be moved during spring training. Even if he does survive the season with the Cubs, he may ask for more than they're willing to pay him as a free agent.
Carlos Marmol, meanwhile, is sure to be a goner sooner or later. Like with Alfonso Soriano, you get the sense that the Cubs can't wait to be rid of Marmol.
Shawn Camp and Dioner Navarro could both be retained, but the Cubs may not be desperate to bring either of them back. If Navarro isn't retained, the Cubs won't sweat replacing him. Backup catchers are a dime a dozen, and there will be a fair number of free-agent options awaiting the Cubs next winter.
Option Players: David DeJesus (OF)
David DeJesus' standing in Chicago could become uncertain in a hurry. He had a solid year in 2012, posting a .753 OPS in 148 games, but he looks like a placeholder for Brett Jackson in center field.
The Cubs could move DeJesus to right field to accommodate Jackson, but not if they want to give Nate Schierholtz his long-awaited chance to make an impact as an everyday player.
By the trade deadline, DeJesus could be trade bait. Even if he does make it to the end of the season, the Cubs could choose to save themselves some money by declining his $6.5 million option and going with in-house solutions or free agents to round out their outfield.
Trade/Chopping Block Candidates: Nate Schierholtz (OF) and Ian Stewart (3B)
While it's possible that DeJesus could find his way to the trade block in 2013, it's just as possible that Schierholtz could end up being trade bait as well. He already has a reputation as a good defensive outfielder with a cannon for an arm, and he stands to boost his value with regular at-bats in 2013.
Ian Stewart is harder to figure out. He spent a good chunk of the 2012 season on the disabled list, and he wasn't much of a hitter when he was healthy. He's getting another shot to play at the hot corner on a full-time basis in 2013, but it wouldn't be much of a surprise if he fails to do anything with it.
Who Slides into the Starting Rotation?
Chicago's ace isn't going anywhere, as right-hander Jeff Samardzija is under team control through 2015. The newly acquired Edwin Jackson is signed through 2016, and Carlos Villanueva (who can start or relieve) has a two-year deal good through 2014.
As such, the Cubs could have at least three starting rotation spots taken care of next winter. The total could be four if young lefty Travis Wood pitches his way into the rotation along the way in 2013.
The chances of that happening are pretty good. Wood ended the 2012 season with an ugly 6-13 record and a 4.27 ERA, but he was solid after the dust settled at the trade deadline. In 13 starts, he posted a 3.56 ERA and held opponents to a .682 OPS.
If Wood locks up a spot, that will leave one final rotation spot that the Cubs could fill internally. The top candidate to fill said spot is 22-year-old right-hander Arodys Vizcaino.
Vizcaino missed 2012 recovering from Tommy John surgery, but he should be at more than full strength by next winter. The book on him, according to MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo, is that he has a solid fastball that sits comfortably in the low-to-mid 90s that he complements with a plus curveball.
If Wood and Vizcaino establish themselves as rotation options for 2014 in 2013, the Cubs could move forward with a starting rotation of Samardzija, Jackson, Villanueva, Wood and Vizcaino. In that case, whatever offseason moves they'll make will be for depth only.
But since there are a couple pitfalls inherent in the idea of a Samardzija-Jackson-Villanueva-Wood-Vizcaino rotation, I'd expect the Cubs to make at least one free-agent signing to round out their rotation next winter.
To that end, the Cubs could be in on young inning-eaters like Josh Johnson, Phil Hughes, Jason Vargas or Ricky Nolasco. They could also go for Tim Lincecum or Jon Lester if either of them bounces back in 2013. Any one of them would make for a nice big-splash signing.
The Cubs' flirtation with Anibal Sanchez this winter is a sign that they could be willing to break the bank in free agency next winter, but the fact that they settled for Jackson is a sign that they'll know when to walk away. They're more likely to make a mid-level signing than a big signing.
Because of that, I'd put the smart money on them signing Hughes. He's never really lived up to the hype, but he projects as a guy who would be a perfect fit in the No. 3 spot in Chicago's rotation behind Samardzija and Jackson.
How About the Outfield?
I'll go out on a limb and guess that Alfonso Soriano won't be moved during the 2013 season. He could supposedly be had for next to nothing, but no market for him has developed anyway. There are no doubt teams out there willing to take him, but apparently none that want to give up anything to get him.
If Soriano sticks around, the Cubs will have left field taken care of for 2014. The bigger question marks will be over center field and right field.
The one over center field could go away in a hurry if Jackson wrestles the starting job away from DeJesus this season. There's a very good chance of that happening if Jackson's new swing ends up being successful in helping him cut down on his strikeouts.
The Cubs could also stay in-house to take care of right field as well. DeJesus could stick around to play right if his option is picked up, and the Cubs may just look to retain Schierholtz if he isn't dealt.
The Cubs could also look to their options in the minor leagues. Asking Albert Almora or Jorge Soler to make an impact in 2014 is asking too much, but Matt Szczur should be ready for a shot at the majors if he improves on his performance at Double-A from this past season.
If no in-house options strike the club's fancy, there will be options for the Cubs on the free-agent market. They could look to hit a home run with Curtis Granderson or Jacoby Ellsbury, in which case they would slide Jackson over to right field. Or they could keep him in center field and target guys like Hunter Pence, Corey Hart, Shin-Soo Choo or Mike Morse.
Choo stands out as the top option of the bunch, as he's always been an underrated hitter and both he and the Cubs could be willing to keep him in the NL Central. Choo may also be desperate to return to right field after a season in center field with the Cincinnati Reds.
Where Will Relievers Come From?
If Shawn Camp and Carlos Marmol walk next winter, the Cubs will be looking to replace a guy who logged a team-high 80 appearances in 2012 and a guy with 115 career saves.
Replacing the saves may not be that hard, as the Cubs could make Japanese import Kyuji Fujikawa their closer well before the end of the 2013 season. If they do, then they'll just be on the lookout for a pair of setup men next winter.
One option would be to move Arodys Vizcaino to the bullpen if he fails to establish himself as a starter. There's already a train of thought that his power arsenal is better suited for relieving than starting, and the Cubs could reach the same conclusion upon turning Vizcaino loose in 2013.
Minor league right-hander Trey McNutt may also be better suited for relieving than he is for starting. Like Vizcaino, he has a power fastball/curveball combination that could make him a dominant reliever.
The Cubs' priority should be to solve their bullpen needs in-house next winter, as the free-agent market won't be overly thick with quality relievers who will also come cheap. "Proven closer" types like Rafael Betancourt, Joel Hanrahan, Ryan Madson and Fernando Rodney likely won't be on their radar.
If Fujikawa is cemented as the team's closer, the Cubs will either roll with their in-house options or pick up a cheap, solid option like Joaquin Benoit, Jesse Crain, Matt Albers or maybe Joba Chamberlain to round out their bullpen.
Crain is the most underappreciated of the bunch, as he has a 2.73 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP in 189 appearances over the last three seasons. He would be a good, reliable pickup for the Cubs.
Who Plays Third Base?
The third base situation is another one that could be solved during the season. Either Ian Stewart is going to establish himself as a keeper, or the Cubs are going to quickly learn that he's not the answer.
If it turns out that Stewart is not the answer, then Josh Vitters will have a wide-open chance to prove that he belongs.
It feels like Vitters has been in the organization forever, as he was the third overall pick in the 2007 draft. He just got his first major league call-up in August, however, and he failed to inspire much confidence in the 36 games he played in. He posted a .395 OPS and struck out 33 times in 109 plate appearances.
The bright side for Vitters is that he did hit at Triple-A in 2012, posting an .869 OPS and hitting 17 home runs. If he builds on these numbers in 2013, he could find himself in the big leagues again in no time. If he were to perform well, he could become a permanent fixture at the hot corner.
If Vitters doesn't show any promise in 2013, the Cubs could look to the free-agent market for a short-term third baseman who could hold down the fort until Christian Villanueva is ready. To that end, they could be interested in guys like Alberto Callaspo, Martin Prado or Mark Reynolds.
Callaspo is the surest bet, as he's likely to be the cheapest of the three due to his limited upside and mediocre career track record. He's a solid player, though, so he would do nicely if the Cubs find themselves in need of a stopgap third baseman.
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