Year 2 of the Theo Epstein era on the North Side should feature a more competitive Cubs team
Back in December, Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney introduced Jim Deshaies as the team’s new television analyst and said he would be “the guy who will call the next World Series team for the Cubs.” The last guy to call a World Series team for the Cubs was…well…no one. The Cubs’ first televised game was in 1946, and the team was last in the World Series in 1945. The Cubs haven’t been to a World Series in more than 65 years, haven’t won a World Series in more than a century, lost 101 games in 2012 and made offseason moves that were patchwork for another season of rebuilding. So fans might be forgiven for saying the usual “Wait ’til next year’’ before the season even begins. The second year of the Theo Epstein Era could be similar to the first, with promising players taking their lumps and marginally talented veterans filling up roster spots. Epstein promised the turnaround process would take time and asked fans to show patience. But the resolve of even the most patient Cubs fans was tested last year as the franchise lost 100 games for only the third time ever.
Last year the Cubs opened the season with Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, Chris Volstad and Paul Maholm in the rotation. They ended the season with Justin Germano, Chris Rusin, Jason Berken, Volstad, and Travis Wood. Samardzija threw the most innings (174.2) and was shut down in early September. He could become the ace of the staff. Garza, who was supposed to be traded last offseason and again during the season, suffered an elbow injury a few weeks before the trading deadline and is back to give the rotation some stability. The healthier he gets, the hotter the trade rumors will get. Shortly before Christmas, the Cubs agreed to a four-year, $52 million deal with Edwin Jackson and a two-year, $10 million pact with Carlos Villanueva. Jackson went 10–11 with a 4.03 ERA with the Nationals in 2012. Travis Wood and Scott Feldman seem to have locked up spots in the rotation. Villanueva will have a place at least until Garza returns. It will be interesting to see how Scott Baker, coming off Tommy John surgery last summer, will figure in as the season progresses. He won 38 games for Minnesota from 2008-10.
The Cubs nearly traded closer Carlos Marmol in the offseason. He can either be unhittable or wild. His 11.7 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio is impressive, but his 7.3 walks-per-nine-innings ratio is alarming. Marmol was demoted for a few weeks last May. If that happens again, expect Kyuji Fujikawa, a Japanese import signed to a two-year deal in December, to slide into the closer’s role. Fujikawa posted dominant numbers in the last six seasons as the closer for Hanshin. He had 202 saves with a 1.36 ERA and a 0.855 WHIP. Southpaw James Russell and righthander Michael Bowden could become valuable setup men.
While many people in baseball believe shortstop Starlin Castro and second baseman Darwin Barney will occupy the Cubs’ middle infield for years to come, there are others who believe that minor leaguer Javier Baez is the team’s shortstop of the future because of his superior defense. Castro is erratic, but he and Barney, a 2012 Gold Glove winner, will team together for another year at least. Castro is a gifted offensive player who led the Cubs in hits for the second year in a row. Barney, the Cubs’ fourth-round pick in 2007, needs to improve his .254 average. He hit .303 in Wrigley Field but only .206 on the road.
First baseman Anthony Rizzo and third baseman Ian Stewart are on the opposite ends of the offensive spectrum. Rizzo is an up-and-coming player who many in the organization believe has All-Star potential. Epstein and his lieutenants drafted Rizzo when they were with the Red Sox. Current Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer dealt for Rizzo while he was an executive with San Diego. Then Hoyer joined the Cubs and acquired Rizzo once again. The left-handed hitter showed some power (15 home runs in 337 at-bats) and hit for average (.285) in a half season with the Cubs. Can he keep it up during a full season? This is the year to find out. Between stints on the DL, Stewart hit .201 in 179 at-bats in his first year with the club after hitting .156 in an injury-filled season with Colorado in 2011. Stewart signed a one-year deal in December to remain with the Cubs. But the injury bug has struck once again as Stewart is dealing with a strained quad. Luis Valbuena and Brent Lillibridge will share the position until Stewart is proven healthy and productive.
Left fielder Alfonso Soriano had one of his best seasons as a Cub, hitting .262 with team highs in homers (32), RBIs (108), doubles (33) and total bases (280). He has two more years remaining on his contract, and current management would love to move him and dump his large salary. But as long as there are no takers, Soriano will return and should provide a solid bat, improved defense and veteran leadership. Steady David DeJesus will likely man center field again after moving over to right when rookie Brett Jackson was promoted. Jackson struggled in the big leagues, and it’s doubtful he’ll open the season as a starting outfielder. DeJesus led off and had a team-high 61 walks. His seven stolen bases were third on the team. The Opening Day right fielder could be left-handed hitting newcomer Nate Schierholtz, who has a career average of .270 in six seasons with San Francisco and Philadelphia. He, like Soriano, has a cannon for an arm, and the two should make baserunners think twice about taking that extra base.
With just 63 games under his belt, Welington Castillo will be given the nod as the Cubs’ starting catcher. Last year, in his first significant action in the majors, Castillo hit .265 in 170 at-bats with 51 strikeouts. He is regarded as an outstanding defensive player. If he can just hit a little, he will be a more-than-adequate replacement for Geovany Soto, who was traded last season.
Outfielder Dave Sappelt showed some hitting and speed in a brief stint with the Cubs and could make a case to stick around. Backup catcher Steve Clevenger, a left-handed hitter, has hit .309 in 548 games in the minors but just .202 in his first 71 big-league games and could share backup duties behind the plate with Dioner Navarro. Clevenger can play first and maybe even some third if his bat comes to life. Valbuena filled in when Stewart was hurt last year. He didn’t impress with the bat but was a good fielder. Scott Hairston and Brent Lillibridge bring experience and versatility to the bench.
Epstein cleaned house in his first year with the Cubs. With all of the changes comes an adjustment period — which will require patience from the long-suffering fans. Epstein didn’t get it done with the Red Sox overnight, but he eventually delivered two World Series crowns to the city. His plan is to stock the minor league system with valuable assets. It figures to pay off in the long run, but the struggles in the short term will continue.
The offseason moves were underwhelming. It’s pretty clear there will not be a quick fix. But there is hope that the Cubs will be an improved team in 2013. The starting pitching should be better, and the lineup has some potential if Rizzo develops into a consistent producer and Soriano continues to deliver. There have been times in the not-so-distant past — 1998, 2003 and 2007 — when the Cubs have stunned the baseball world by making the playoffs the season after winning fewer than 70 games. There aren’t, however, many signs pointing in that direction for 2013.
CF David DeJesus (L)
Will become a more effective leadoff man if he can improve against lefties (.149 last year).
SS Starlin Castro (R)
Proven hitter for average — .297 in three full seasons — but is probably a better fit for a No.2 hitter than No.3.
1B Anthony Rizzo (L)
Hit .338 with runners in scoring position in his first run with the Cubs last year.
LF Alfonso Soriano (R)
Slugged .499, hit 32 homers and drove in 108 runs in ’12. Will continue to be shopped.
RF Nate Schierholtz (L)
Was known as “Nate the Great” with Giants. Ready to rebound after a toe injury hampered him last August.
3B Ian Stewart (L)
Hoping back-to-back nightmare seasons at the plate — and in the health department — are behind him. But a strained quad has sent him to the DL.
C Welington Castillo (R)
Solid defensive tools for a player who could be around awhile if his offense develops.
2B Darwin Barney (R)
Already has a Gold Glove under his belt. Has the tools to be a solid No. 2 hitter eventually.
IF Luis Valbuena (L)
He’s an ideal candidate as a late-inning replacement; good glove but light bat (.219 in 2012), but will fill in at third until Stewart gets healthy.
C-1B Steve Clevenger (L)
Will be challenged by Dioner Navarro for the backup backstop position in spring training.
C Dioner Navarro (S)
Has just 369 at-bats over last three seasons total.
OF Dave Sappelt (R)
Could grab the final spot on the roster if prospect Brett Jackson is shipped back to Class AAA.
OF Scott Hairston (R)
Utility player will get lots of at-bats, especially against left-handed pitching.
UT Brent Lillibridge (R)
If he shows he can offer anything offensively, the valuable defender can keep a job.
RH Jeff Samardzija
Impressed in his first extended time as a big-league starter and led the club with 180 strikeouts.
RH Matt Garza
Could be dealt if he bounces back from elbow injury; has a 15–17 record in two seasons with the Cubs. Strained lat will keep him out for at least the first few weeks.
RH Edwin Jackson
Has been on eight teams since 2003 but picked up the long-term contract he’s been seeking with the Cubs.
RH Scott Feldman
Had a 5.00-plus ERA in 2010 and 2012 for Texas and is now looking for success in the National League.
LH Travis Wood
Second on the team with 14 quality starts last year, but will have to fight to win the final rotation spot.
RH Carlos Marmol (Closer)
Will enter the season as the Cubs closer, but don’t be surprised if the team shops him aggressively.
RH Kyuji Fujikawa
Will open the season as a setup man, but has the tools to close. Put up dominant numbers in Japan.
RH Shawn Camp
Had six losses but led the squad with 18 holds last year; tied for the NL lead with 80 appearances.
RH Carlos Villanueva
Has valuable experience as both a starter and reliever; a strong spring could vault him into the rotation. Should fill in for Garza in the rotation.
LH James Russell
Seven wins and a 3.25 ERA in 2012 gives him an edge as the top left-handed setup man in 2013.
RH Michael Bowden
Had a 2.95 ERA with the Cubs in 30 appearances after a long stint with Class AAA Iowa.
RH Hector Rondon
Rule 5 pick should spend the summer eating lots of innings in Chicago.