One of the new advertising billboards for the Chicago Cubs is a simple saying: "Not if. When." Although this is a clever campaign that will give fans hope, there should probably be a question mark at the end of the second sentence.
Despite losing over 100 games in 2012, there is plenty of optimism in Wrigleyville. Second-year GM Theo Epstein has replenished the team's minor league system by bringing in prospects Albert Almora and Jorge Soler, who could be up in the majors in a couple of years.
Despite all of the optimism surrounding the team in the future, the Cubs are still one of the worst teams in the National League and no longer have the Houston Astros to be the cellar dwellers in the division.
This season preview will examine the Cubs roster this season and predict whether the Cubs can be more competitive than expected in 2013.
The Cubs offense was one of the worst in the majors last season, ranking 28th with 613 runs scored. The Cubs also ranked in the lower half of the league with only 137 home runs. The Cubs struggled to get on base, ranking 30th in the league with a .302 on-base percentage, a big reason for the team's 101 losses in 2012.
The Cubs lineup is extremely thin. The team's best hitters are Castro, Rizzo and an aging Alfonso Soriano, who could be trade bait in July if he plays as well as he did last season.
The Cubs have gaping holes in the outfield. David DeJesus, who hit only .263 and drove in 50 runs in 2012, will start the season in center field. The Cubs may also go with a platoon in right field with Nate Schierholtz and Scott Hairston.
Darwin Barney is a great defensive second baseman but needs to develop at the plate. Barney hit only .254 with seven home runs and 44 RBI. He isn't a power hitter, but he must find a way to get on base more often.
The Cubs also have issues at third base and catcher. Luis Valbuena struggled mightily in 90 games with the Cubs and neither Ian Stewart nor Brent Lillibridge are capable of being everyday players.
Who is the best hitter in the Cubs lineup?
Behind the plate, Welington Castillo will get the chance to start. Castillo showed some pop in his bat with a .418 slugging percentage. In 52 games, Castillo hit five homers and drove in 22 runs, which could project to about 15 home runs and 60 RBI in a full season, production the Cubs would gladly take. If Castillo doesn't pan out, the Cubs may have to go back to the drawing board at catcher.
The focus of Chicago's offense will be on Castro and Rizzo. Castro started the season with a batting average over .330 but fell off in the second half of the season. Rizzo showed promise in his debut, but his sample size is too small to determine whether he will be a star at the major league level.
Chicago's offense must improve while Epstein's coveted prospects continue seasoning in the minors. Castro and Rizzo will need to have breakout seasons, or else the Cubs offense could be set back once again.
The Cubs rotation has a lot of No. 3 and 4 starters but nobody with the electric stuff of an ace. Jeff Samardzija has shown signs of being the ace the Cubs desperately need but hasn't shown the consistency of a No. 1 starter.
Which newcomer will have the strongest season for the Cubs?
The Cubs will also be without their best pitcher, Matt Garza, for the start of the season. Garza will start the season on the disabled list but should return before the end of April.
Edwin Jackson, Scott Baker and Scott Feldman all were acquired this offseason by Epstein. Baker will also start the season on the DL as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. Jackson and Feldman could add depth to the rotation. Jackson had a below-average season, going 10-11 with a 4.03 ERA. Feldman, who had an ERA over five in 2012, could be a sleeper for the Cubs. He won 17 games with the Rangers in 2009.
Travis Wood and Carlos Villanueva will round out the rotation while Garza and Baker get healthy. Wood was awful in 2012, posting a 6-12 record with a 4.27 ERA. Villanueva was in the bullpen last season and will probably be knocked out of the rotation once Garza and Baker return.
The Cubs rotation will hinge on Samardzija and a healthy Garza in 2013. Jackson could be a nice third starter, but Baker, Wood and Feldman are all major question marks.
How many games will the Cubs win this season?
The Cubs won't score a ton of runs, so the pitching will be relied upon to shut down opponents.
The Cubs bullpen is one of the worst in the majors mainly because nobody knows who will close out games. Carlos Marmol is brilliant one day and horrible the next. James Russell was given a chance as the closer but failed. The Cubs did sign Japanese pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa—who may overthrow Marmol as the closer, but has not thrown a pitch in MLB.
It will be interesting to see how manager Dale Sveum handles the closer spot. Marmol's only consistency is that he is inconsistent, which spells disaster for a closer. Fujikawa should take over the ninth inning duties. If he succeeds, he'll be a big part of Chicago's turnaround.
The Chicago Cubs are a team that isn't ready to win right now.
The lineup struggles to get on base and lacks much power or depth. Castro and Rizzo will need to carry the offense while the team's prospects develop. Another 100 RBI from Soriano certainly wouldn't hurt either.
The rotation isn't good enough to carry an offensively challenged team to the playoffs. Samardzija could emerge as an ace, but outside of him and Garza, the rotation has plenty of question marks.
The bullpen is just as troubling. If both Marmol and Fujikawa struggle, the team may lose more games in the later innings than they did last year.
The Chicago Cubs are a team that could be very good in three or four years. They have the potential stars in place with Castro, Rizzo and Samardzija, along with the prospects who could take them to the next level. Epstein still needs to bring in better depth before this team can be competitive.
"When" isn't here just yet, but it doesn't seem to be too far away.