With changes at the top and a lot of money coming off the books, Cubs fans are expecting something new from their beloved Cubbies in 2012. They are going to need to find a way to fill the void left by Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena, as well as add to their pitching staff because the rotation and bullpen are thin.
Is Carlos Zambrano going to open the season with the Cubs on shaky ground for the third season in a row? He is proven to be quite the handful that even mainstay GM Jim Hendry could not tame, which says a lot. Big Z will have something to prove and the new regime won't just bench and suspend him like it seemed to happen in years past. He will be cut.
I'm going to jump to next season, take a few small assumptions with me, and see where it takes us.
At age 29, I think it safe to say that it is do-or-die for Geovany Soto. The 2008 Rookie of the Year hit a lackluster .228 in 2011 with 17 home runs. He seemed stagnant all season, posting his best numbers in July when he hit .280.
Soto has been up and down since 2008, but has shown he can hit for power at times. The Cubs are going to pay close attention to prospect Welington Castillo because he is a game manager who has a hot stick, and is only 24 years old. He would be more cost efficient than Soto if he can put up decent numbers, and Soto will get more expensive year by year, so it better be worth the coin or he may find himself on the trade block.
Soto should return to the days of his stellar rookie campaign in 2008 or will lose playing time to up-and-coming prospect Welington Castillo.
Garza had a good first year with the Cubs, posting a 10-10 record and a 3.32 ERA in 31 starts. It was especially impressive because Garza stepped up and into his own when the team was in disarray, posting a 6-3 record and 2.45 ERA after the All-Star break.
With a new manager and front office in place, Garza can settle in at the top of the rotation and do exactly what he was brought in to do—win ballgames. Both GM Jed Hoyer and president Theo Epstein scouted Garza heavily back in Boston, and you know new manager Dale Sveum is familiar with him from his time in Milwaukee.
I expect to see a crafty and aggressive Garza on Opening Day.
As much as Cubs fans are clamoring over second baseman Darwin Barney, no one else in the league is that enthused with him. He had a solid first half, hitting .306 with a .334 on-base percentage, but dropped off dramatically after the All-Star break, hitting to the tune of .238 and a weak .286 on-base percentage.
What this tells me more than anything is that teams keyed in on Barney after facing him once or twice and found his weaknesses. He hit .244 in September, which also does not bode well for the future. It'll be interesting to see how the coaching staff handles this situation, because Barney certainly has a lot of potential given his age, but is he capable of holding down a full-time job or is he the Cubs' utility man up the middle?
Next on the list would be Blake DeWitt, who the Rockies initially asked for in Ian Stewart talks, but were given D.J. LeMahieu instead. DeWitt has not been anything to write home about since joining the Cubs. He did finish August and September with a .274 average, but was not significantly outplaying anyone.
Jeff Baker is the final option for the Cubs, but he has proven to be a solid utility man since joining the club in 2009. While someone may win out the position in spring training, I expect a merry-go-round at second in 2012.
While his name may not be mentioned nearly as much as Brett Jackson or Starlin Castro anymore, there is a reason the Cubs have held onto him since 2007. Taken from high school with the third overall pick, it took some time for Vitters to get acclimated playing pro ball.
He spent the entire season in Double-A this past season, hitting .283 in 129 games with 14 home runs and 81 runs batted in. He went on to hit .360 in 24 games with four home runs and a .383 on-base percentage in the Arizona Fall League. He has a great approach at the plate and has been able to limit his strike-out total considerably.
I suspect Vitters will begin the season again in Double-A, mostly because he will have the opportunity to play in warmer weather and face pitching he is somewhat familiar with. If he shows he's improving, he can slide up the chain to Iowa and play with a mix of talent that has played in the majors and still waiting for their shot. A great place for someone in Vitters' position.
The reason Vitters makes the list this year is because nothing brings the best out in players more than competition. Vitters and new third baseman Ian Stewart are only four years apart, and Stewart has not proven anything yet. While Vitters is the outside candidate for third base, he will certainly be given an opportunity to show he can play in spring training.
Another interesting idea to keep in mind is that Stewart can play first base, so if the Cubs do not sign Prince Fielder or someone else, then there could be a shuffle in the works in the infield.
This is probably the boldest of the self-proclaimed "bold," but here goes. The Cubs, feeling revitalized with the changes made in the offseason, will be welcomed back by excited and obnoxious Cubs fans who will give them something extra to play for.
Guys like David DeJesus and Ian Stewart will be given more of a window to be successful, even though that was not the case with Derrek Lee or Milton Bradley when they first came over. Regardless, the Cubs are going to look good and will feature a strong bullpen and productive offense.
The reason the Reds make this list over the Brewers and Cardinals is because they still have moves to make and are not losing anyone significant. The Cardinals will be without Albert Pujols and that changes the whole entire lineup around there.
For the Brewers, the potential loss of Ryan Braun for the first 50 games of the season will certainly hurt the offense. On top of that, new addition Aramis Ramirez is historically a slow-starter, hitting .261 over the course of his career in April, and .271 in May. If their pitching does not hit the ground running, they could be in a hole that will be tough to dig themselves out.
The Reds have a very strong pitching staff and young offensive weapons that are constantly improving. It is going to be hard to run with them at this point, unless the Cubs can find a way to lure Prince Fielder to the Friendly Confines.