The Cubs are coming off a 100-loss season, with a decent chance of another one in 2013 in what should be another rebuilding year. Theo Epstein and his braintrust inherited a team full of aging, expensive veterans that was built to "win now" in 08-09 while the Tribune was in the process of selling the club. The farm system wasn't in great shape either. Top prospects Chris Archer and Hak-Ju Lee were traded for Matt Garza in what was likely a last-ditch attempt for Jim Hendry to save his job, and several recent high draft picks, such as Hayden Simpson, Tyler Colvin, and Jeff Samardzija, were looking like disappointments. The new front office quickly traded the high risk, high reward fireballer Andrew Cashner for Anthony Rizzo, who was thought of highly enough to be acquired by both Epstein and Hoyer at their previous franchises. The Cubs signed several players on short, relatively inexpensive deals in the hopes of deadline deals for more prospects, and spent a big chunk of change on the international market (Jorge Soler) before the new CBA kicked in. Suffice to say, 2013 is going to be a year to look to the future.
Jeff Samardzija. If you told us a year ago that Samardzija would be the most valuable pitcher on the team, we would have laughed you out of the room. We had seen plenty of his fast but flat fastball as he bounced back and forth from Iowa to Chicago dating back to 2008, and in 2011 he lucked into a 2.97 ERA in spite of walking over five batters per nine innings. Given that pitchers tend to become even less effective when moved to the rotation, the move was absolutely baffling. But the scouts said that he was a different pitcher, and 174 innings of solid pitching later, it sure looks like they were right. The big difference seems to be that Samardzija has developed an absolutely filthy splitter, as well as finally figuring out his previously erratic cut fastball. He still occasionally throws a four seamer too high in the zone, but he looks like the real deal now.
Starlin Castro. So much is made of what Starlin Castro can't do that people tend to forget the things he can do. He's not so great at drawing walks. He sometimes makes erratic throws to first. He sometimes has focus problems (though this is probably overblown). But he's only 23, and still has room to grow. Here's a list of all the players since 1980 that have had more plate appearances than Castro through their age 22 season: Adrian Beltre, Roberto Alomar, Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Renteria, and Ken Griffey Jr. Not a bad group to be associated with. Castro should add a bit more power as he gets older, and some changes to his footwork have reduced his erratic throws to first. The Cubs have him locked up through the 2020 season to what is looking like a very team-friendly deal, indeed.
Position player prospects. In many respects, the more interesting Cubs team to watch in the Chicago area this year might be the Kane County Cougars, the Cubs recently-moved A-ball affiliate. At once point or another the team will likely see top prospects Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, and Dan Vogelbach, as well as Javier Baez assuming he hasn't rocketed past the level already. Baez has been a world-beater during his time in the minors, blasting tape-measure home runs while holding down the shortstop position. His future could be at third base due to being blocked by Starlin Castro, and given his recent performance that's something the Cubs might have to consider sooner than they planned. This year will be a crucial one for him as he begins facing pitchers with quality off-speed stuff in the higher minors. On the negative side, the Cubs have next to no pitching in their system. But nothing says you can't trade depth for different depth. Most of these Cubs prospects are unfortunately still a long way from the majors, and a lot can happen in that time so it's important not to get your hopes up.
On base percentage. The 2008 Cubs led the National League in on base percentage. Since then, they have finished 10th, 11th, 10th, and finally dead last in the league in 2012. The new front office has made it a priority to improve this aspect, but they inherited a lot of free swingers in the organization from regulars such as Alfonso Soriano and Starlin Castro, to top prospects like Javier Baez. CF prospect Brett Jackson draws many walks, but in his stint in the bigs last year his strikeout rate more than canceled it out. Currently the Cubs top projected player in OBP is leadoff hitter David DeJesus, projected to have a roughly .350 OBP. Theo and co. have their work cut out for them.
Third Base. The Cubs sure miss Aramis Ramirez. Their slated opening day third baseman is Luis Valbuena, who is the very definition of replacement level. Former third overall draft pick Josh Vitters got a decent chunk of playing time last year and posted a line of .121/.193/.202, "good" for one of the 30 worst seasons since 1950 among players with more than 100 PA. Vitters still has a beautiful swing, but he has a tough time actually hitting anything with it. The Cubs solution to the loss of Ramirez was to trade another failed first round pick (Tyler Colvin) for serviceable third baseman Ian Stewart. Stewart's injury problems with Colorado followed him to Chicago, and he was ineffective for most of 2012 and is slated to start 2013 on the DL.
Carlos Marmol. I can count on one hand the number of pitchers I enjoyed watching more than 2008-2009 Carlos Marmol. His slider is just about the filthiest pitch that I've ever seen. However, since then his already shaky control has slipped to the point where the strike zone is just a suggestion. Despite striking out a MLB record 16 batters per nine innings in 2010, he also walked 6 batters per nine. His strikeout rate regressed over the next two seasons, but the walk rate did not. Optimists would point to his strong second half rebound last year following directions to not shake off his catcher and throw more fastballs, but they have to be nervous given his awful spring performance. The Cubs have been trying to trade him for months, but if he keeps this up they won't find many takers.
Eating money in trades. The Cubs were sellers at last year's deadline, and made it quite clear that they were willing to send money along with players to get a better return in prospects, as was done in the Dempster and Maholm trades which netted them (injured) top prospect Arodys Vizcaino. The Cubs are willing to foot a large portion of Alfonso Soriano's salary as well in the right deal. The Cubs are money-rich and player-poor right now, and since it's more difficult for them to flex their financial muscles in the international market in the new CBA and relatively useless to spend on the free agent market this seems to be the best strategy available to get the extra edge on talent acquisition.
Brett Jackson. If Brett Jackson can prove that his whopping 41.5% strikeout rate in the majors was just an outlier, the Cubs will have a solid option in center field for many years to come. Jackson easily has the best eye on the team and maybe even in the whole organization, which makes it a head-scratcher that he has such a big strikeout rate. He's made some changes to his swing this year to mixed reviews – ESPN's Keith Law thinks he'll still have the same contact problems. He had a decent spring, striking out five times to five walks, but he'll have to show a lot more in Iowa before getting called up to stay.
Arodys Vizcaino. The Cubs picked up Vizcaino for Paul Maholm, Reed Johnson, and cash at the trade deadline last year. Going into 2012, Vizcaino was the 40th ranked prospect by Baseball America, with a blazing fastball and an incredible curveball. However, he ended up requiring Tommy John surgery last spring and is out until mid-season 2013. There's still some question as to whether he belongs in the rotation or the bullpen, but
given that the only other Cubs pitching prospects that could be credible starters are all in the low minors, they have every reason to try to stretch him out. If they succeed, they will have picked up a 2 or 3 starter ready to hit the club with a wave of young talent for a utility outfielder and an aging back of the rotation starter that clearly wasn't going to be part of a winning Cubs team. Watching his hammer of a curveball would sure be nice too.
Wrigley Field renovation shenanigans. Wrigley field is a dump. A beautiful dump with great history and tradition, but it needs to be updated out of the early 20th century. Tear down the bowl, keep the ivy, marquee, and the scoreboard, and I'd be happy. But if the team does anything at all, at the very minimum they have to upgrade the antiquated player facilities. The park's batting cages are under the bleachers and inaccessible during the game, and the locker room is a closet compared to any ballpark built since indoor plumbing wasn't widely available. The Cubs also have strained relations with their neighbors, particularly the rooftop businesses across Sheffield and Waveland and the powerful city alderman they have in their pockets. The Cubs have offered to foot the bill for the renovations if the city agrees to relax some of the relatively draconian restrictions placed on the club, most notably signage restrictions and day games. There have already been indirect rumblings that the Cubs could even consider the possibility of maybe tentatively looking into putting an exploratory committee together to think about moving to another location, but Wrigley Field is too much of a cash cow for everyone involved for that threat to be taken seriously. But if Tunney digs in his heels for too long, he and the neighborhood businesses should be careful what they wish for. The White Sox-loving Daleys are no longer in the mayors office, and Rahm Emmanuel has backed the Cubs play so far.
Fan unrest. Despite the narrative that the national media has been pushing for years, Cubs fans shed the "Loveable Losers" tag for good after the 2003 playoffs. The fact that TribCo poured so much money into the team for the short-term goal of driving up the value of the franchise certainly doesn't help the fan mindset either. It's telling that two years ago it was nearly impossible to get an opening day ticket, whereas today you can simply walk up and buy one. The Cubs still have a large body of season ticket holders to rely on, but judging from the sheer number of empty seats last year they're not showing up to buy anything at the park, and the inability to resell tickets to help finance a package is driving away some customers as well. If the famous season ticket waiting list shrinks to zero, the club might start to panic. So far Tom Ricketts has stood firmly behind Epstein and Hoyer's rebuilding plan, but if they start hemorrhaging money things might change in a hurry.
Front office job losses. Team President Theo Epstein assembled an incredible front office around him to completely revamp the Cubs system. The only problem could be that they're *too* good. Cubs VP of scouting and player development Jason McLeod could be on the short list for a GM job very soon, and it's possible that GM Jed Hoyer might want to strike out on his own given the right situation, as well as any number of other talented executives in the organization. All we can do is hope that since they found the first Jason McLeod (or whoever), they've got the talent to find the next one.