2013 Chicago Cubs Preview
After an abysmal, 101-loss 2012 campaign, the Cubs will rely on their young, talented position players to push them out of the cellar in the NL Central Division this season
The Chicago Cubs needed to do something this offseason to right their ship after going 61-101 last year and finishing dead last in the NL Central Division. The ball club showed little signs of greatness in 2012 largely due to the fact that many of their young position players were struggling in their early days of big league play, and that their starting rotation was extremely weak. They addressed the pitching issue this winter, signing free agents Edwin Jackson, Scott Baker, Scott Feldman and Carlos Villanueva to compete for spots in their starting rotation this spring. To give their bench a boost, the club brought in outfielders Scott Hairston and Nate Schierholtz and utility man Brent Lillibridge as well as catcher Dioner Navarro. In order for the Cubs to succeed in clawing their way out of the cellar of their division they will need this mix of veterans and very young prospects to gel, otherwise it is going to be a very long summer on the south side of Chicago.
Jackson, Feldman and Villanueva all figure into the Cubs’ plans this season, expected to fill out the three through five spots in their rotation. All three had losing records last season with ERAs ranging from just over 4 to just over 5, so the upside to them remains to be seen. Jackson is the most interesting from the bunch as he has averaged at least 11 wins and 193 innings over his past six seasons, so at the very least he will be able to give the Cubs’ bullpen a break when he takes the hill. Baker is expected to begin the season on the DL as he continues rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and he did not throw a single pitch in 2012. He should be ready to make his spring debut on St. Patrick’s Day, which means that he could be ready to join the Cubs’ rotation by mid-to-late April barring any setbacks. When he does so, either Feldman or Villanueva will likely be moved to the bullpen which is where the two spent time last season for their respective ball clubs.
At the top of the rotation will be Matt Garza, who is currently the ace of the staff but is in the last year of his current contract and while the Cubs have shown interest in giving him an extension, the two sides are nowhere close to coming to an agreement on what the terms of that extension would look like. With that being said, Garza (5-7, 3.91 ERA in 18 starts last season) is likely to be moved at the trade deadline to make room for some of the Cubs younger pitching prospects to get the call up to the show and see if they are ready to face big league hitting.
Behind Garza, Jeff Samardzija (9-13, 3.81) had a really great 2012 campaign. In his first full season as a starting pitcher, Samardzija gave the club 174.2 innings of work in 28 games and struck out 180 batters. He showed signs that he could be the ace of the staff in the coming years, so if they do move Garza at the deadline, he will likely step up and be their number one guy in the rotation. With very little depth beyond Brooks Raley and Chris Rusin ready to make the jumps to the majors this season, the club could move Feldman or Villanueva or both at the deadline as well to stock up on some talented arms should they have hot first halves.
The Cubs will start the season with Carlos Marmol resuming his role as the club’s closer. Marmol was all over the place in 2012, finishing the year with an even 3-3 record and 20 saves in 60 appearances. Marmol was almost traded to the Angels this offseason and is due $9.8 million in the final year of his contract, so if he has any kind of success in the first half of the season, he is likely to be on the move at the deadline as well. The Cubs can afford to let Marmol go as they have his replacement ready to go in Kyuji Fujikawa, who was signed to a two-year, $9.5 million deal this offseason after spending the past 14 years playing with the Hanshin Tigers of Japan. Fujikawa is 32-years old and brings to the States 220 career saves and an ERA of 1.77 and he averages 11.9 strikeouts per 9 innings. For the time being he will be called upon to work the 8 th, but if Marmol struggles again this season, he will have a chance to move into the closer role to see if he can repeat the success he’s had in Japan in the United States.
Shawn Camp and James Russell will return to be the Cubs’ go-to-guys in the 7 th inning, while Michael Bowden, Hisanori Takahashi and long reliever Hector Rondon will round out the bullpen. Camp led the National League with 80 appearances last season and the Cubs rewarded his efforts with a $1.35 million contract this offseason. They will need both he and Russell to continue to be dominant in middle relief as the likelihood of their starting pitching going deep into ball games is not high once they get past the first three guys in the rotation.
The Cubs’ offense will really live or die by the performance of 22-year old shortstop Starlin Castro. With 529 career hits already under his belt, Castro has become the face of a very young and fairly faceless franchise. He has the stuff to be a perennial 20/20 guy and last season saw him improve defensively as well. He has a very bright future ahead of him and if he continues to mature this season he has the potential to be the catalyst that the Cubs need to spark their offense.
Another bat to watch will be first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who hit .285 with 15 homers and 48 RBIs after joining the club on June 26 th. He steamrolled through triple-A before his call up and has the potential to be a power hitting first baseman that could give the club 30 plus homers and well over 100 RBIs and has the potential to be the club’s clean-up hitter for many years to come.
Beyond those two, the Cubs line-up is average at best filled with a mix of young guys who are still developing like second baseman Darwin Barney, and veterans like Alfonso Soriano, David DeJesus and Nate Schierholtz who at this point are simply placeholders until younger guys are ready to be called up from the minors to take their place. Third baseman Ian Stewart is on the hot seat after batting just .201 for the club last season, and catcher Welington Castillo will try to prove that he has the stuff to play every day now that Geovany Soto is gone and not coming back.
After losing 101 games last season things can’t get much worse for the Cubs and their increasingly impatient fan base. The club has been stuck in rebuilding mode for the better part of a decade now, only showing brief signs of what could be before coming back to the reality that they still don’t have the right pieces in place to succeed. They are moving in the right direction with the additions they made to their pitching staff this winter, and if they get off to hot starts their value at the trade deadline could net some all-important pitching prospects for the ball club that will keep them out of contention talks for another year or so, but give them a much brighter future overall. The team will improve this season, but only marginally, and will probably finish 67-95, still in last place, but they should see some of their younger minor leaguers take the field sometime later this summer which will give fans a glimpse of what’s to come over the next few seasons.
By Robert Gonzalez