Significant Acquisitions: RHP Edwin Jackson, RHP Scott Feldman, RHP Scott Baker, RHP Carlos Villanueva, OF Scott Hairston, RHP Kyuji Fujikawa, C Dioner Navarro, UT Brent Lillibridge, LHP Hisanori Takahashi, RHP Hector Rondon, RHP Cory Wade, OF Brian Bogusevic
Cubs fans knew they were in for the long haul when the new front office brass of Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod took over before last season. Due to the short-term thinking of the previous regime, the Cubs’ new front office not only had to deal with an overpriced Major League roster, but also a farm system that had been bled dry by poor drafting and frequent attempts to stop a raging flood with a beaver dam.
The drastic rebuild culminated in the team’s first 100-loss season since 1966, but the team is in a much better position now than it was a year ago. The farm system is suddenly loaded with talent in the lower-levels and there are some intriguing pieces on the Major League club that can, at the very least, be used as trade assets in the next couple years.
The Cubs pitching was atrocious in 2012 as the team finished ahead of only the Rockies and Astros in the NL in runs allowed. The Cubs allowed 301 runs over the last two months of the season and went 18-41 (only the Red Sox had a worse record over the final two months of the season) after the team traded Ryan Dempster to Texas and lost Matt Garza to injury.
Garza was to be the Opening Day starter in 2013, but a lat strain will keep him out until at least May—which further hurts his already diminishing trade value; he’ll be a free agent at season’s end. In 18 starts last season, Garza posted excellent strike out- and walk-rates, but gave up 15 home runs in only 103 2/3 innings. The Cubs may have missed his peak trade value by not dealing him in the 2011-12 offseason.
Jeff Samardzija opened eyes in 2012 and will likely start on Opening Day in Garza’s absence. In his first season as a starter at the Major League level, Samardzija was excellent posting a 3.21 K/BB ratio in 174 2/3 innings. He’s another player that, at 28 with two more years of control beyond 2013, could bring back a serious haul in a trade if he has another good year.
The rest of the rotation underwent a drastic reconstruction with free agent signings Edwin Jackson (four-years, $52-million), Scott Feldman (one-year, $6-million) and Carlos Villanueva (two-years, $10-million) expected to start the year in the rotation. Jackson looks to have finally found a home after playing for seven different organizations in his first eight big-league seasons. He’s durable and consistent and should fit nicely into the middle of the rotation for the next few years until the team is ready to be good again. Feldman and Villanueva have spent the last few years as swingmen and although they are both expected to be starting at the beginning of the year, they’ll be competing for the last rotation spot for when another free agent signing, Scott Baker, returns in June from Tommy John surgery.
The bullpen could be dangerously thin again this season. Many of the pitchers posted half-decent results last year, but their peripherals suggest marked regression for 2013. Closer Carlos Marmol is once again on the trade block, but the Cubs have yet to be able to unload him. Last year, he somehow posted a 3.42 ERA, but walked 45 batters in 55 1/3 innings—he’s a disaster waiting to happen.
The Cubs also went out and signed former Hanshin Tigers closer Kyuji Fujikawa to a two-year, $9.5-million deal with a third-year option and the 32-year-old could take over for Marmol is he’s dealt or can’t hit the strike zone. Fujikawa was dominating in time with Hanshin posting a 1.36 ERA in 369 2/3 innings over six seasons.
Veteran right-hander Shawn Camp is back after leading the NL in appearances last year and joins incumbent left-hander James Russell and right-hander Michael Bowden, all three of whom posted better ERAs than their peripherals would suggest. Hisanori Takahashi, Rule V pick Hector Rondon, Jaye Chapman and Alberto Cabrera will provide depth.
The Cubs weren’t any better at scoring runs than they were at preventing them last year, but there were a few bright spots. Bryan LaHair started off well at first base, but then fell off dramatically after the call-up of Anthony Rizzo which moved him to the outfield. LaHair is now plying his wares in Japan while Rizzo looks like a legitimate everyday first baseman after posting a .285/.342/.463 slash line with 15 home runs in only 368 plate appearances as a 22-year-old.
Joining Rizzo in the middle of the lineup is leftfielder Alfonso Soriano, who despite having a cumbersome contract, is actually a very useful player. He had a 116 wRC+ last year as a 36-year-old and might actually have some trade value if the Cubs are willing to eat the majority of the $36-million remaining on his deal over the next two years.
Shortstop Starlin Castro regressed a little bit offensively, but is still one of the best short stops in the NL and at just 23, still has a lot of room to grow. He probably doesn’t get on base enough to be a top-of-the-order hitter, but his bourgeoning power suggests he might fit well in the middle-to-lower half. He combines with Ian Stewart to form the left side of the infield, providing Stewart stays healthy. The Cubs don’t have much in the way of options at third base with the reinforcements consisting of Luis Valbuena and Josh Vitters so they’ll need Stewart to hit better than his awful 65 wRC+ from last year.
At the top of the order will be David DeJesus, who’s entering the year as the projected everyday centerfielder. DeJesus is an average hitter, but he gets on base at a decent clip and has the profile of a leadoff hitter. Beside him in rightfield, the Cubs will likely go with a platoon of Nate Schierholtz and Scott Hairston with former Astro Brian Bogusevic providing insurance.
Darwin Barney is back to play second base, but his value is derived entirely from his glove. Last season in 588 plate appearances, Barney hit a woeful .254/.299/.354. Valbuena and utility man Brent Lillibridge could also see time there this season.
Welington Castillo and Dioner Navarro are expected to handle the catching duties in 2013. Castillo showed some promise in 190 plate appearances last season and should get a bulk of the playing time. Steve Clevenger and J.C. Boscan are around to provide depth if needed.
The Cubs finished ninth in defensive efficiency in the NL last year and return much of the same group for 2013. DeJesus’ move from right to centerfield with the departure of Tony Campana won’t help, but both Hairston and Schierholtz are solid in right. Soriano worked on his positioning last season which seemed to help, but he’s still well-below-average in left.
Up-the-middle, Barney is one of the best defensive infielders in baseball and should probably be playing short, but there are worse options than Castro even if he eventually needs to move off the position. Castillo has worked hard to become an average defensive catcher but is not considered to be any better than that.
The Cubs worked hard to improve their starting rotation over the winter and they’ll be better in 2013, but the lineup is very thin and the rotation still lacks high-impact talent. Prospects like shortstop Javier Baez and outfielders Albert Almora and Jorge Soler are still a couple years off so expect the Cubs to continue to trade away their Major League assets and build for the future. When the time is right, the Cubs have as much money as anyone and should be able to turn things around quickly once they decide to.
2013 Prediction: 68-94, 5th NL Central