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Cubs begin new era, but contending will have to wait
The headline writers in Chicago had a field day about the Cubs' new “Theo-logy” when Theo Epstein was named the team's new president in October. As general manager of the Boston Red Sox, Epstein helped craft a team that broke an 86-year World Series drought in 2004. Now he's the boss of a team that hasn't won the big prize in 103 years. The team he inherited was a mess. The Cubs stumbled through a 71-91 season, with far too many dollars going to Carlos Zambrano, who was suspended by the team after quitting in August, and Alfonso Soriano, an aging outfielder who never became the 40-40 man the team hoped for when they signed him to an eight-year deal before the 2007 campaign. The new regime began cleaning up some of the mess in early January by dealing Zambrano to the Marlins, but turning the club into a consistent winner will likely take more than one year, so 2012 appears to be a season of adjustment. With new general manager Jed Hoyer, senior VP of scouting and player development Jason McLeod and new skipper Dale Sveum in place, Epstein believes he has a management team to lead the Cubs to a bright future. But the present “Theo-logy” is a little hazy.
The Cubs had no choice but to part ways with Zambrano. The former staff ace, who had compiled a laundry list of controversial actions over the years, quit on his team after a game in Atlanta in August, prompting then-general manager Jim Hendry to suspend him the rest of the season and effectively end his tenure in Chicago. The Marlins agreed to take Zambrano in a deal for Chris Volstad, but the Cubs will be picking up a reported $15 million of the $18 million he is owed for the 2012 season. Matt Garza finished the 2011 season strong, but he is considered one of the best trading chips, so he probably won't finish the season in a Cubs uniform. Ryan Dempster returns as the likely No. 1 starter despite a 10-14 campaign in 2011. Randy Wells' lights-out August (4-0, 3.32 ERA) helped vault him to a 7-6 mark, which was a nice recovery after struggling in 2010 with an 8-14 mark. But he will start 2012 at Triple-A Iowa. The Cubs traded dependable setup man Sean Marshall to Cincinnati to bring the promising Travis Wood into the rotation. The young lefty will get a few starts at Triple-A before taking his place in the rotation full-time. Volstad, a first-round pick in 2005, struggled last season (5-13) after going 12-9 in 2010. Paul Maholm, who pitched well despite going just 6-14 last year in Pittsburgh, signed a one-year deal with a club option for 2013 in January. They will back Dempster and Garza for now. When Jeff Samardzija was drafted in 2006, the Cubs eyed him as being an effective starter, but he developed a niche as a late-inning reliever and finished with a career-high eight wins and career-best 2.97 ERA. But he's back in a starter's role.
With 10 blown saves and a career-worst 4.01 ERA, closer Carlos Marmol is coming off a rough 2011 season. He was demoted back to setup man for a little while. But he has 72 saves in the past two seasons and goes into spring training as the most experienced closer on the squad. Lefthander James Russell was 0-5 with a 9.33 ERA in five starts and 1-1 with a 2.19 ERA in 59 relief appearances, so he could work his way in as a top setup man. Scott Maine was effective at Iowa but up-and-down in seven major league appearances, posting a 10.29 ERA. Since the Cubs are in need of another southpaw in the pen, he may fill that need. Rafael Dolis showed promise in Double-A Tennessee, got a brief taste of the majors in September and appears to have earned a spot in the bullpen.
Shortstop Starlin Castro led the National League with 207 hits and 29 errors. His defense can be both spectacular and maddening to Cubs fans - sometimes both in the same game. With experience and maturity will come stardom for Castro. At second base, Darwin Barney became a solid major league player, hitting .276, mostly batting second, in 143 games. He was the National League Rookie of the Month in April but tailed off after the All-Star Game.
Aramis Ramirez was the Opening Day third baseman for the Cubs for the past eight years, but he became a free agent and signed with Milwaukee, so the Cubs traded for Colorado's Ian Stewart, who had 25 homers in 2009 and 18 in 2010. But in 2011 he hit just .156 with no home runs in 48 games and was demoted to Triple-A Colorado Springs. The Cubs are hoping a change of scenery will help. At first base, the Cubs will turn to 29-year old Bryan LeHair - for the short term. They acquired power-hitting prospect Anthony Rizzo from San Diego, but the plan - for now - is to let Rizzo start in Triple-A. LaHair led all of minor league baseball last season with 38 home runs at Triple-A Iowa. He hit .288 in 20 games last year with the Cubs.
The Cubs' outfield is solid, but unspectacular. Soriano is back in left field, and while his power numbers are decent (70 homers and 92 doubles the past three seasons), his batting average has dipped into the .240-.250 range. His defense in left field continues to be problematic. Marlon Byrd has 101 RBIs and 176 strikeouts in 271 games over two seasons with the Cubs. David DeJesus became the first free agent signing in the Epstein era and figures to patrol right field. He has a lifetime .284 batting average but hit just .240 with Oakland in 2011.
Which Geovany Soto will show up? Soto has never been able to match his 2008 NL Rookie of the Year season (.285 with 23 homers and 86 RBIs). He followed that season with an awful 2009 campaign (.218 with 11 homers and 47 RBIs), and has averaged only 17 home runs and 54 RBIs in the past two seasons. He committed a career-high 13 errors last year but threw out a National League-high 36 baserunners.
The Cubs parted ways with backup catcher Koyie Hill, who was with the organization for five years and was on the major league roster full-time the past three seasons. Steve Clevenger has taken that spot. Outfielder Reed Johnson hit .361 or better in three different months of the 2011 season and made some spectacular plays in the field. Outfielder Tony Campana provides speed in both the field and on the basepaths. Jeff Baker can play in both the infield and outfield and hit safely in 30 of his 45 starts. Infielder Blake DeWitt is a solid fielder and turned into a valuable pinch-hitter, batting .265 in 121 games. Journeyman Joe Mather provides another bat off the bench and can play the corner outfield positions.
Third-year owner Tom Ricketts showed Cubs fans that he was serious about winning with his hires of Epstein and Co., and while the Wrigley faithful are sick of hearing about patience, the fans might be willing to endure a tough year or two if it means building a winner. With so many new executives in place, along with Sveum and a host of new coaches, this is clearly a transition year, and it would be a surprise if the newcomers could turn this team from a 71-game winner to a contender in one season. Sveum was blunt on his first day on the job and put the players on notice. “When you lose that many games, there are obviously problems,” he said. “Losing isn't OK. Not running a ball out isn't OK. It's unacceptable, and that has to be communicated.”
On paper the roster appears to be filled with underachievers, players on the decline and question marks. Castro is a bona-fide star with a huge future ahead of him, but the surrounding cast isn't anything to get excited about. But with the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals losing Albert Pujols and the Milwaukee Brewers losing Prince Fielder, the Central Division doesn't seem to have a powerhouse team. If some of the veterans recover from tough 2011 campaigns and keep the team afloat for four months, management could become bold and aggressive in making trade-deadline deals to help the Cubs contend. However, if the team struggles early, Epstein and Co. will begin to take a look at the younger players in the system and part ways with the veterans.
RF David DeJesus (L)
Has never played in Wrigley Field but should shore up the top of the lineup.
2B Darwin Barney (R)
Had 90 hits before the All-Star Game in 2011 but struggled after that.
SS Starlin Castro (R)
The sky is the limit for someone who has accomplished so much before turning 22.
1B Bryan LaHair (R)
Career minor leaguer is keeping the seat warm for newly acquired prospect Anthony Rizzo.
LF Alfonso Soriano (R)
His speed is gone; his contract is immovable; will he ever hit 30-plus homers again?
CF Marlon Byrd (R)
Suffered horrific face injury when he was hit with a pitch May 21 and had mixed results after return in July.
3B Ian Stewart (L)
Cubs are crossing their fingers 26-year-old can return to 25-homer form of 2009.
C Geovany Soto (R)
Roller coaster career needs an upswing this year in a lineup full of question marks.
OF Tony Campana (L)
Stole a team-high 24 bases in 26 attempts in only 95 games in 2011.
OF Reed Johnson (R)
Hit .309, slugged .467 in his second go-round with the Cubs last year.
C Steve Clevenger (L)
Provides a left-handed complement to Soto.
INF Jeff Baker (R)
Started at five different positions last year and was a DH in three games against American League teams.
INF Blake Dewitt (L)
Valuable member of the bench; drove in 10 runs as a pinch-hitter for the Cubs last year.
OF Joe Mather
Former Cardinal and Brave can provide pop off the bench.
RH Ryan Dempster
Has thrown 200-plus innings four years in a row since moving from closer back to starter.
RH Matt Garza
Has averaged 11 wins and 198 innings over the last four seasons.
RH Chris Volstad
Batters hit .289 against the 6'8" former first-round pick en route to a 13-loss season with the Marlins.
LH Paul Maholm
Lost 14 games in Pittsburgh in '11 but had a career-best 3.66 ERA and only allowed 160 hits in 162.1 IP.
RH Jeff Samardzija
Former Notre Dame receiver had best season as a Cub, winning eight games and posting a 2.97 ERA out of the bullpen.
RH Randy Wells
After an April 4 win, didn't get second victory until July 23; was 4-0 in August. Is expected to re-join the rotation by midseason.
LH Travis Wood
Cubs traded reliable reliever Sean Marshall for him and hope he will be around for a long time. His stay in Triple-A should be brief.
RH Carlos Marmol (Closer)
Blew 10 save opportunities last year; will he get his spot as closer back?
RH Kerry Wood
Veteran re-signed with the Cubs in mid-January; struck out 57 batters in 51 innings last season.
LH James Russell
Struggled as a starter but was brilliant as a middle reliever in 2011.
RH Rafael Dolis
Another minor league starter who has found success as a reliever.
LH Scott Maine
Showed promise at Triple-A but was inconsistent in seven major league appearances. Currently the best candidate in the system to be the extra lefty.