10 Things We Learned About the Chicago Cubs This Season
In 2012, the Chicago Cubs endured one of the worst seasons in franchise history. You'd have to travel back 46 years to uncover the last time the North Siders lost more than 100 games in one year.
Cubs fans expected a certain level of trial and error, of course. After all, it was Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer's first season with the organization. Same goes for Chicago's skipper, Dale Sveum.
You don't need me to tell you that little went right for the Cubbies in 2012. The 61-101 record speaks for itself. Even so, numerous reasons to be excited about this franchise rose to the surface throughout the course of the year.
Here are 10 things we learned about the Chicago Cubs this season and how these lessons should impact the future.
The Starting Rotation Needs Some Serious Attention
Jeff Samardzija's emergence in the starting rotation is a welcome bonus for the Cubs, but shipping away Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm before the trade deadline created twice as many holes to fill.
Additionally, Epstein has mentioned that Chicago will attempt to trade Matt Garza (h/t chicagonow.com) when he returns to full health. Garza was looking like a sure bet to follow Dempster and Maholm out the door, but an elbow injury forced the Cubs to shut him down for the season.
The 27-year-old Samardzija led all Chicago pitchers with 174.2 innings pitched and 180 strikeouts. He finished with a respectable ERA of 3.81, winning nine games and losing 13 on the year.
The addition of Travis Wood via trade proved to be a smart move. Wood's hot finish to the season offers hope that he can fill a spot in the rotation for both the short and long-term future.
Aside from that, the Cubbies are in rough shape.
Epstein and Hoyer have been on the lookout for help. Chicago came close to acquiring a veteran arm in Dan Haren less than a week ago, but the deal reportedly fell through (per MLB.com's Carrie Muskat).
Names like Brandon McCarthy and Shaun Marcum have been brought up as possible free-agent targets (h/t Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun Times), and bringing back Dempster, who is now on the market, hasn't been ruled out (h/t Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune), either.
Don't expect the Cubs to get into a bidding war to claim any of baseball's premier free agents, but adding a reasonably priced arm (or two) is a must.
The Chris Volstad Experiment Was a Nightmare
The decision to part ways with Carlos Zambrano and acquire Chris Volstad seemed like a move with potential upside at the time it was made. Zambrano had worn out his welcome in the Windy City, and the right-handed Volstad had just finished the previous season on a tear.
Who knew his one-year stay in Chicago would end up becoming a complete nightmare?
The 26-year-old finished 2012 with a 3-12 record and an ERA of 6.31. While an anemic offense can be to blame for a couple of his losses, Volstad wouldn't have survived most outings even if he was pitching against the Cubs' lineup.
Just five of Volstad's 21 starts this season count as quality starts, which is six or more innings pitched with no more than three runs allowed. He surrendered four or more runs 57 percent of the time he took the mound in 2012.
No one is claiming that the Cubs miss Zambrano's antics, but Volstad's abysmal season turned out to be an unsavory alternative.
The Matt Garza Situation Could Become Extremely Troublesome
The Cubs would love to dump Garza and his increasingly expensive salary before 2013, but it doesn't mean they'll be able to.
The hard-throwing righty can be a dominant strikeout pitcher when he's locked in. But, mlbtraderumors.com projects him to earn around $10 million next season, and his injury-ravaged 2012 campaign raises concerns regarding the soon-to-be 29-year-old's long-term durability.
Epstein and Hoyer would love to grab a prospect or two in return for Garza and then sign a veteran arm at a low price, but how much can the Cubs reasonably expect to haul in?
It's doubtful any organization would fork out a valuable asset in return for a high-priced pitcher with injury concerns, unless they're either in a win-now mindset or simply unafraid to spend liberally. While there are undoubtedly owners with track records of such behavior, it's never a guarantee.
Of course, the Cubs could attempt to shop him around before next season's trade deadline should they be in position to do so. If he struggles in the first half, however, Garza's presence will become an awfully big burden for the franchise to deal with.
Alfonso Soriano's Situation Is a Tricky One, Too
36-year-old Alfonso Soriano experienced a bit of a resurgence in 2012.
The veteran outfielder hit 32 home runs and eclipsed the 100-RBI mark for the first time since 2005. More impressively, Soriano became a reliable option on the field after a career filled with disappointing defensive performances.
With the Cubs building for the future, high-priced veterans like Soriano typically do not fit into a team's immediate plans. He's got two years left on his contract, with another $19 million coming his way in 2013. GM's searching for a big bat may look his way, but it's unlikely they'll offer anything of immediate value for an aging star with a deep injury history.
For Chicago, that may not be a bad thing.
Soriano's 32 HR were twice the amount any other Cub hit in 2012. Simply put, the Cubs desperately need his power in the lineup. If they can replace his production in free agency, fine. But it's not like that's going to come cheap.
What makes the situation even trickier, is that Soriano recently stated he will debate retirement (via Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago) after his contract is up, but wants a chance to win a World Series before he departs from baseball for good. His outlook on the Cubs' immediate future may play a big role in how everything plays out.
Only time will tell what that outlook is.
Anthony Rizzo Was a Great Addition
Anthony Rizzo's promising performance following a June call-up provides hope that the Cubs have found their long-term answer at first base.
The 6'3", 220-pound first baseman was awful at the plate for the Padres in 2011, but he turned his fortunes around after arriving to Chicago via trade. Rizzo hit for a .285 average in 337 plate appearances, driving in 48 runs with 15 HR.
The 23-year-old has consistently dominated minor league pitching, and now appears ready to do some damage against the big league arms as well. With continued development, Rizzo has the tools to hit 30 HR and 100 RBI for the next decade.
Starlin Castro Is Worth the Money
The Cubs signed star shortstop Starlin Castro to a seven-year, $60 million deal over the summer, and many wondered if that was such a smart idea. The 22-year-old has struggled defensively, and the occasional lapse in focus has concerned some more than others.
If you look closely, though, you'll see that Castro's defense has improved each season. Remembering that he's only 22 (with solid range), there's good reason to believe it will continue to ascend.
As Castro's opportunities in the field have increased in each of his three seasons, so has his fielding percentage. While his 27 errors in 2012 was easily the worst of any MLB shortstop, his bat has evolved into one of the game's best.
Castro finished second among all shortstops with 78 RBI. He hit a career-high 14 HR and batted .283 on the season. The average dipped some from 2011 (.307) but remains at a solid level.
And you can't question the youngster's durability. He played all 162 games in 2012, becoming the first Cubs shortstop in franchise history to do so.
Shortstops of this caliber are extremely rare, and the Cubs have one locked up. The fact that he's so young and yet has already been to multiple All-Star games speaks volumes about his potential. The North Siders have a lot to get fixed, but Castro is every bit a part of the solution and not the problem.
Darwin Barney Needs to Be Part of the Long-Term Picture
Darwin Barney's spectacular defensive performance in 2012 was rewarded with a Gold Glove award (per ESPN.com) last week.
The 26-year-old second baseman made just three errors all season on 744 total chances. He was just three outs away from breaking the major league record for consecutive games without an error (141) before a slip-up in the eighth inning of a game on Sept. 29 cost him that opportunity.
Defensively, Barney is everything the Cubs could want at second base. His presence alone can assist Castro in his development as a fielder.
He needs work as a hitter, but so do many infielders who play defense at such a high level. At 5'8", 179 pounds, you aren't going to get much power anyway.
Barney has stated (per Jason Patt of SB Nation Chicago) he wants to be a part of the Cubs' long-term plans. Epstein and Hoyer need to ensure that he gets his wish.
The Infield Is a Third Baseman Away from Becoming a True Strength
Pitching is a major need for the Cubs, but a serviceable third baseman should rank high on the wish list as well.
Luis Valbuena looks like he'll never be a full-time starter at this level, and prospect Josh Vitters proved in his late-season call-up that he's no where near developed enough to hang with the big boys. The overall lack of production Chicago received from third base in 2012 was flat out embarrassing.
If we learned anything this season, it's that this problem cannot carry into 2013.
Then again, what are the potential solutions? The free-agent market is considerably weak at third base. Veteran Kevin Youkilis is a possibility, but his production at the plate has taken a substantial nosedive in recent years and he's never been durable enough to last a full season.
The Cubs could look to trade for a big name like the Mets' David Wright, but that would cost and arm and a leg—not including the amount of money he would command for a new deal.
If Chicago had a reliable third baseman, its infield would instantly become one worth bragging about. For now, though, it remains one piece shy.
Brett Jackson Needs a Full Season of Triple-A Ball
The Cubs have issues in the outfield, too. And that consists or more than just the Alfonso Soriano situation.
Defensively, highly touted prospect Brett Jackson is ready to contribute. At the plate, however, he's going to need some time. Probably a considerable amount of it.
Jackson, a former first-round pick in 2009, struck out a seemingly unimaginable 59 times in 120 at-bats after being called up in August. He whiffed 14 times in his first 24 trips to the plate. The strikeouts piled up at an alarming rate, but that was the case in the minors as well.
There's a lot to like with Jackson. He's fearless on the field, and possesses the size and speed to be a star. But he's a classic case of a young player in need of a lengthy stretch of Triple-A dominance before he develops the necessary amount of confidence to thrive in the majors.
Jackson has the makings of an All-Star, but he isn't going to get there overnight.
The Cubs Have Nowhere to Go but Up
Okay, maybe that's not entirely true. Since the Cubs didn't even finish last in the NL Central, it could get worse.
Even so, it was only the third 100-loss season in franchise history. The bullpen, including Carlos Marmol, struggled all year. Outside of a couple bright spots, the hitting was atrocious.
But, there is potential. Rizzo looks ready to contribute efficiently over the course of a full season, for one. Samardzija has the stuff to remain an effective starter for years to come. With Castro and Barney, the Cubs have a dynamic combination of offense and defensive in the middle infield.
Expecting a legitimate contender in 2013 is a lot to ask, but the Chicago Cubs have a respectable core to build around, and management determined to make this club a winner sooner than later.