The Cubs aren't expected to make the postseason this year, but that doesn't mean that they are simply going through the motions. Every team wants to win, and the Cubs are no exception.
While the Theo Epstein plan will take time to materialize, the 2012 Cubs will be playing 162 baseball games like everybody else. Why not try to win more than they lose?
That's easier said than done, of course. One look at their one through eight positional starters tells us that power and run scoring could be hard to come by this season.
But it's the pitching that likely will make or break this season for the Cubs. Recognizing that, let's take a look at the projected starting staff and see what we've got to work with.
If you just look at the traditional numbers, it will not tell the story of just how fine of a season Garza had in 2011. If you don't know by now, wins and losses are a terrible way to judge a pitcher's worth.
There are too many variables outside of a pitcher's control. Defense, run support and the bullpen all cost Garza several wins last season.
Graza posted career bests in WAR, FIP and xFIP in 2011. Much of his success can be traced to an improved strikeout rate as he struck out opposing batters 23.5 percent of the time, placing him between Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia for 12th among all qualified starters.
Even with a modest regression, FanGraphs expects Garza to prevent runs at about 15 percent better than a league average pitcher in 2012, while throwing about 200 innings.
He's clearly the Cubs' top starter, and actually the only sure bet to count on for this season. He could be traded, of course, which would only make sense if they got a good haul of prospects in return.
Unlike Garza, who had the best statistical season of his career last year, Dempster was pretty lousy in 2011. He turns 35 in May, so I wouldn't expect much from him. He is essentially playing for next season's contract, so he should at least be plenty motivated.
But a closer examination of Dempster's 2011 season shows that his FIP and xFIP were better than what he produced in 2010, when he won 15 games.
His ERA was almost a full run higher, however, and his BABIP was .324 in 2011 compared to .294 the year prior, so he may have pitched in some bad luck.
Dempster's home run rate has increased dramatically since his breakout season in 2008, when he went 17-6 with a 2.96 ERA. If he can throw more ground balls and the Cubs make fewer errors, he will be better than last year.
Dempster would be a good, albeit expensive, No. 4 starter on a contending team. If he pitches well and the Cubs aren't in contention, he could be a trade chip for a contending club around midseason.
Maholm has pitched well this spring, for what that's worth, and has solidified his status as the Cubs No. 3 starter.
Maholm signed with the Cubs for $4.25 million, with a $500,000 buyout on a $6.5 million option for 2013. FanGraphs thinks it's a decent risk, stating that "Maholm has consistently beat his xFIP for the last three years and could potentially blossom with a strong defense and legitimate team around him."
Whether the terms "strong defense" and "legitimate team" apply to this year's Cubs is a matter for debate. However, he is a southpaw who produces ground balls, so we can expect a nice league average FIP from him in 2012.
He did, however, have shoulder issues in 2011, and that's always a scary thing for pitchers. But he is capable of a 2.0 WAR season, so he should be an asset for the Cubs this year.
So, what do we have thus far? One elite starter and two decent ones. That actually is a recipe for a pretty good season if you ask me. But now here come the fourth and fifth starters, and they will both need to be around league average if the Cubs want to contend.
I am going to predict that Volstad grabs the fourth spot in the rotation. Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine what to expect out of him in 2012.
What we do know is that he, too, has pitched well this spring, having allowed only one run over 10 innings. Oh, and he will definitely help the Cubs' pickup basketball team (if they have one).
No matter what Volstad does this year, it's got to be better that watching Carlos Zambrano throw a tantrum on the mound. And Volstad actually has posted a superior FIP to Big Z over the past two years.
Randy Wells / Jeff Samardzija / Travis Wood
Of this trio fighting for the fifth and final spot in the rotation, Wood seems to be the least likely to win. He is having a very rough spring (seven runs over 2.2 innings with four walks) while Samardzija is having a good one (three runs in 10 innings).
Since the Wood acquisition cost the Cubs a very fine left-handed reliever in Sean Marshall, I'm sure he will be given every opportunity to win this job.
Meanwhile, Wells has not allowed a run in two outings.
Prediction: Samardzija will be told he is needed in the bullpen and Wells gets the nod. But at some point I think we'll see Wood in this spot.