2012 MLB Spring Training: Chicago Cubs Season Preview

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst IMarch 3, 2012

2012 MLB Spring Training: Chicago Cubs Season Preview

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    Absolutely nothing is certain for the Chicago Cubs of 2012. They might trade Matt Garza this spring—or as late the trade deadline—or they might give him a long-term contract extension. They might, in a perfect world, scratch and claw their way over .500 and contend for the championship in what looks like a bad division. They might lose 100 games.

    Starlin Castro is the one seeming anchor of the rebuilding plan that the Cubs engaged at the outset of the offseason. But given the legal entanglements he still faces in Chicago following a September incident and sexual assault allegation, even that is not guaranteed. It's possible, if improbable, that not one player on the next Cubs team to attain the World Series will have ever donned the uniform of the parent club for a regular-season game.

    Even so, optimism abounds in Cubs Country, where fans have largely bought into the model imported by new front office mavens Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. Not even a losing season would truly dampen spirits in Wrigleyville. Here is a preview of the season to come, losing or otherwise.

The Lineup

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    How it Goes

    1. David DeJesus, RF
    2. Starlin Castro, SS
    3. Marlon Byrd, CF
    4. Bryan LaHair. 1B
    5. Geovany Soto, C
    6. Ian Stewart, 3B
    7. Alfonso Soriano, LF
    8. Darwin Barney, 2B

    What it Does

    In Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena, the Cubs had two solid (if unspectacular) sources of power at the heart of their order last season. Both are gone. It's likely that the team's 2011 home run leader, Alfonso Soriano, will be the 2012 home run leader, but he's no longer more than a league-average hitter.

    Stewart, DeJesus and Soto represent the upside of this group, having had subpar 2011 seasons but track records that suggest they could be much better. The expected midseason arrivals of Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson also could infuse the batting order with life. 

The Rotation

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    Who They Are

    1. Matt Garza
    2. Ryan Dempster
    3. Paul Maholm
    4. Chris Volstad
    5. Travis Wood

    How They Stack Up

    Many outlets seem to think a heated competition for the fifth starter's role will develop, with Randy Wells, Jeff Samardzija and some far less likely understudies battling Wood for that spot. Management is too smart (hey, when's the last time that phrase applied to Chicago?) to dissolve a perfectly good camp competition, but that is not real. Wood came over in the Sean Marshall deal because he has substantial upside, and the others are in this situation because they don't. Wood will get the gig.

    Garza, Dempster and Maholm are midseason trade candidates of different degrees, depending on their first-half performances: Garza signing a multi-year extension, or not; Dempster's willingness to be traded; and Maholm's health. If the five of these players pitch the entire season together, it's a solid rotation. That is unlikely.

The Bullpen

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    Who Comes In

    1. Carlos Marmol
    2. Kerry Wood
    3. Jeff Samardzija
    4. James Russell
    5. Manny Corpas
    6. Randy Wells
    7. Scott Maine

    What Comes of It

    Marmiol's three-year extension after the 2010 season was the right idea, but poorly executed. Then-GM Jim Hendry gave Marmol $20 million through 2013, or about $5 million more than he deserved. The contract is also badly back-loaded, such that the Cubs owe Marmol $17 million over the next two years and probably can't move him. He's not a comforting back-end option for the bullpen, though.

    Wood's reiterated return is a better story than it is a baseball move, but he is a solid set-up man. Samardzija got rather lucky en route to solid 2011 numbers, but has a chance to be good if he doesn't let not making the rotation get inside his head. Russell and Maine are no-names, but could be two very good lefty specialists.

The Bench

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    Who They Are

    1. Welington Castillo
    2. Tony Campana
    3. Reed Johnson
    4. Adrian Cardenas
    5. Jeff Baker

    How They Roll

    With a career .303/.368/.413 batting line and good contact rates in the minors, Adrian Cardenas can hit a good bit. He's more likely than Blake DeWitt to win the Cubs' final bench spot, though he's a miserable defensive infielder and that hurts. Baker hits lefties well (.886 career OPS), but does little else. Campana's speed is tantalizing, but he doesn't make enough contact to use it well and has less power than perhaps any player in MLB history. It's ridiculous how little power he has.

Top 5 Others

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    Who's Waiting

    1. Brett Jackson
    2. Anthony Rizzo
    3. Jay Jackson
    4. Trey McNutt
    5. Josh Vitters

    What They're Waiting For

    Jackson and Rizzo have only to prove they are ready, and they will get the call. No consideration will supersede their development this year. For the rest, it will be about proving themselves to new bosses after the old ones helped derail their development, as well as about hoping for the right opportunity. Even if Vitters figures out plate discipline and taps into his power, for instance, he needs Ian Stewart to struggle in order to reach the big leagues.

The Leader

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    Dale Sveum listens to hard rock and takes a hard line. He's intense and incisive, and he has never hesitated to get in his players' faces. He's very familiar with the new leadership triumvirate.

    Beyond that, he's an enigma. He seems likely to be hard-nosed but player-friendly, and he reminds this reporter a bit of excellent former Cubs skipper Jim Riggleman.

Three Up

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    Who's on the Rise

    1. Welington Castillo
    2. James Russell
    3. Travis Wood

    And Why

    Castillo might be "a 20-homer catcher who slows down the running game," according to Baseball Prospectus's Kevin Goldstein. Castillo handles pitchers well and can easily stay behind the plate. He's big and burly, with a strong arm and good power. He doesn't do much else, but really, how much else does a catcher need to do?

    Russell has pitched just under 117 big league innings, has struck out 85 batters and has walked only 25. That's terrific. He gives up way, way too many home runs, but left-handed batters have a .702 career OPS against him, and some of that was during an ill-fated experiment with him as a starting pitcher. He has 53 strikeouts and six walks against left-handers.

    Wood was a buy-low investment, a player once considered a very solid prospect and who really impressed in 2010. Last season was a major step back, but his cutter and changeup give Wood a good chance of turning things around as a Cub.

Three Down

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    Who's Going the Wrong Way

    1. Darwin Barney
    2. Starlin Castro
    3. Paul Maholm

    And Why

    Barney had a measly .666 OPS in 2011, and that was not far from his ceiling. He's a below-average hitter, a solid fielder and nothing else. Built for a utility role, he got loud laudations for his work as the full-time second baseman in 2011. They weren't all that earned, though, and he will not be as good again.

    Call Maholm Mr. Consistency. He has been as close to a league-average pitcher over the past five years as almost anyone, only peeking above that line occasionally but never dropping below it. That's the good news. The bad news is he has no plus pitch, does not make batters miss and lost a mile per hour on his fastball last season.

    Castro is simply a work in progress. Any 22-year-old is. He needs time to develop, and while his early success is thrilling, it ought not to make anyone forget that baseball players don't age in a strictly linear fashion. Castro, like anyone else, will have setbacks. I project such a season this year.

10 Questions

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    Colleague Joel Reuter put together a delightfully varied and intelligent Cubs roundtable article, and I participated. Instead of rehashing those points here, jump over to Joel's piece and read through the 10 questions addressed therein:

    MLB Spring Training: Chicago Cubs Featured Columnist Preseason Roundtable

Cumulative Runs & Final Thoughts

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    Runs Above Average:

    Unit RAA
    Lineup 23.03
    Rotation -32.8
    Bullpen 0.2
    Bench -13.57

    Total: -23.14

    Chicago could actually be much worse than this. My projection system is very kind to (especially) Ian Stewart, David DeJesus, Darwin Barney and Brett Jackson. This team is not concerned much with this season's results, though, so it isn't the end of the world if they stink. Trading Garza might be the highlight of the year, if it happens.

    This is the fourth of 30 team previews in 30 days, leading up to the start of the 2012 MLB regular season.

    Check out ArizonaAtlantaBaltimore and Boston.

    Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Matt Trueblood offers insight on all facets of each club, profiles their manager, raise key questions, identifies risers and fallers and lays out run matrices for each team based on his proprietary 2012 projections. Check back daily for the next team in the series, or follow Trueblood on Twitter: