This series will evaluate one team per day, starting on Jan. 23, 2013, and ending on Feb. 22, 2013 (the first game of spring training). It is based on last season's performance, offseason changes since and the author's outlook for the team in 2013. Please keep in mind that rosters can, and will, change before Opening Day. We started in the AL East, worked across to the NL counterpart, and now tackle the Central divisions in alphabetical order. Next up, the Chicago Cubs.
2012 finish: 61-101 (5th place, NL Central)
LHP Dontrelle Willis, LHP Hisanori Takahashi, RHP Scott Feldman, RHP Shawn Camp, RHP Scott Baker, RHP Barret Loux, RHP Cory Wade, RHP Carlos Villanueva, RHP Edwin Jackson, OF Darnell McDonald, OF Brent Lillibridge, OF Nate Schierholtz, C Dioneer Navarro
RHP Chris Volstad, 1B Bryan LaHair
Why they will improve this year
Can it get any worse? The Cubs were an absolute mess when Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took over. They tried to compete with the players they had, but made the quick realization that a full-on rebuild was better for this team.
That acknowledgement alone will help the Cubbies get back on track sooner rather than later. You can see above that the Cubs made a handful of additions to the roster, some of which will be under-the-radar moves that benefit the club immediately.
I really like the bolstering of the rotation (even if it's slight) with Jackson and Baker, and the outfield additions of Lillibridge and Schierholtz will add some much-needed depth to the offense. I know none of those four are stars, per se, but they are upgrades over guys who were struggling in Chicago over the last few seasons.
Now the Cubs have a competitive roster that is in line for a big win improvement in 2013. The starting pitching, led by Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija looks a lot better, and with another big year from Alfonso Soriano, the lineup could actually make opposing pitchers sweat a little bit. It's not much, but this Cubs team is definitely an improvement over its 2012 counterpart.
Why they will regress this year
The Cubs didn't actually do anything in the offseason. Adding a bunch of has-been players like Willis and Feldman is only going to make for a bigger traffic jam in the bullpen or minor leagues. Chicago still has holes at third base and in right field and will be depending upon a hit-or-miss closer in the bullpen.
A lineup that features Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Soriano is not going to scare anyone, even if those three have big years. The depth in role players is just not there for the Cubs yet, and they are miles away from contending because of it.
As for the starting rotation, they work with Samardzija, Garza, Jackson and Baker, with Travis Wood likely snatching the fifth spot. Not only is there only one southpaw presence in the rotation, but none of those guys are true No. 1 starters.
Garza has had injury issues that might crop back up, and Samardzija still hasn't put together a season worth remembering (unless a 3.81 ERA in 2012 is memorable...). Jackson and Baker have had their moments, but neither one is going to add enough punch to the pitching staff to make the moves worthwhile in the end. I'm afraid it will be a long year (again) at Wrigley Field.
The outlook for 2013
Okay, I've had my fun. I bashed the Cubs and meant very much of it, but I really do think the team will improve. The additions to the rotation will at least numb the pain of losing Ryan Dempster last year, and I actually expect Samardzija to improve upon his 2012 numbers this year.
The lineup is better than people give it credit for, though the numbers don't necessarily reflect that. I like the outfield they have in place with Soriano, David DeJesus and Schierholtz. The latter two likely won't put up huge numbers, but they will help to lift the National League's 14th-ranked offense to respectability.
I'm looking for a bigger year out of Castro with the bat, as well as a breakout campaign from Rizzo at first base. If Ian Stewart or Welington Castillo produce at all with the bat, even better. I don't foresee it happening, but there's always a chance.
As for the pitching staff, which also ranked near the bottom of the NL last year, they could do worse than forming a back of the rotation out of Feldman, Baker and Wood. It's the opinion of this writer that the Cubs approach the mid-70s in wins, though they will still occupy the NL Central basement in 2013.
Potential changes before Opening Day
*UPDATE: The Cubs made the Hairston deal official, dropping Tony Campana in a resulting move. I like the power boost that this gives Chicago's lineup. Does it make them a better team? Sure, but the result will be the same.
The only real rumor right now is one that's almost certainly true, and very close to being finalized, according to Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports on Twitter. The Cubs will be adding Scott Hairston to the lineup here soon, which will definitely upgrade the offense.
I don't expect it to provide some epic power surge, but it does leave room for Soriano to be dealt for pitching, or for an upgrade over Schierholtz in right. This is definitely a smart move by the Cubs, but shouldn't affect their season performance drastically.
Biggest surprise: Brett Jackson
Biggest disappointment: Scott Baker
Bold prediction: Rizzo hits 25 home runs and tallies 100 RBI in the middle of the order
Projected lineup (before Hairston is added)
1. David DeJesus, CF
2. Nate Schierholtz, RF
3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
4. Alfonso Soriano, LF
5. Starlin Castro, SS
6. Ian Stewart, 3B
7. Welington Castillo, C
8. Darwin Barney, 2B
1. Jeff Samardzija, RHP
2. Matt Garza, RHP
3. Edwin Jackson, RHP
4. Scott Baker, RHP
5. Travis Wood, LHP
Projected finish: 73-89, 5th place
For more preseason evaluations:
You can follow Jeremy on Twitter @Jamblinman.