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Springtime Storylines: How will year one of the Cubs’ rebuilding plan fly in The Friendly Confines?

Apr 1, 2012, 8:36 AM EDT

theo epstein wrigley AP

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: 103 years and counting.

The Big Question: How will the first year of the Cubs’ rebuild go over on Chicago’s north side?

The modern-era Cubs have tried just about every strategy, it seems, to snap one of the most embarrassing stretches of futility in professional sports history. And yet baseball’s ultimate prize is as far out of reach as it has ever been for the baby bears and their Old-Style swilling, day-game loving fans.

The 2012 Cubs roster is a run aground cruise ship — reeking of wasted wealth and rusting on most sides.

Still owed $54 million over the next three seasons, left fielder Alfonso Soriano hasn’t finished with an OPS better than .818 since 2008. Marlon Byrd, who scored a three-year, $15 million contract in January of 2010, hasn’t come close to the kind of numbers he produced during his three-year breakout tenure with the Rangers. Darwin Barney drew due praise last season for his defense, but he batted just .238/.286/.328 in the second half and .276/.313/.353 overall. The sophomore second baseman is already 26 years old.

The Cubs just rid their books of the Kosuke Fukudome mistake, but they’re on the hook for $15 million of the $18 million owed in 2012 to Carlos Zambrano, who was shipped off to Miami shortly after the New Year.

It’s going to be a long summer at Wrigley Field. And there won’t be a quick in-season fix to the Cubs’ myriad problems. Which has us thinking that attendance in The Friendly Confines might fall below three million for the first time since 2003, with those depressing empty-bleacher photos appearing far earlier than usual.

What Else Is Going On?

  • The Cubs mercifully put an end to the Jim Hendry era this winter, throwing a five-year, $15 million contract at Theo Epstein to take over as club president. Epstein helped break an 86-year World Series title drought in Boston and will look to conquer another “curse” in Chitown. He brings with him Jed Hoyer, who had been serving as the general manager of the Padres and will now assume that role with the Cubs. Both are bright, forward-thinking baseball minds with impressive résumés in the area of team building.
  • The starting rotation comes with no quick fix for Epstein and Hoyer. Ryan Dempster is nice, but he turns 35 years old in May and will be a free agent after this season. Former Notre Dame wideout Jeff Samardzija has enjoyed a successful month in the Cactus League, but chronic command issues seem likely to ultimately derail his transition from reliever to starter. Chris Volstad had a 4.59 ERA and 1.41 WHIP in his four years with the Marlins and left-hander Paul Maholm isn’t any better than league-average. Matt Garza is only under contract through 2013 and is likely to be used as a trade chip this July.
  • Dominican shortstop Starlin Castro is the lone gem in the Cubs’ starting lineup. A newly-turned 22-year-old, he’s the youngest player in franchise history to amass more than 200 hits in a season and is still a couple years short of his physical prime. All indications are he’s going to be a difference-maker for a long, long time, even if filling out that slender frame is accompanied by a move to third base.

How Are They Gonna Do?

The Cubs do have quite a bit going for them: a massive and passionate fanbase, a world-class game day experience and an intelligent new front office. But the on-field product could be as bad it has been in the past 20 years. They’ll struggle to reach 70 wins, finishing fifth in the six-team National League Central.

  1. Old Gator - Apr 1, 2012 at 9:58 AM

    It will play no better or worse than the last 103 years of rebuilding programs. Me, I’m going down the street for a stuffed spinach special at Giordano’s.

  2. sndvl99 - Apr 1, 2012 at 10:10 AM

    Ryan Dempster is “Great”?

    • wlschneider09 - Apr 1, 2012 at 11:34 AM

      In fairness, if you compare Dempster to the rest of the cubs staff he starts to look pretty special.

    • Drew Silva - Apr 1, 2012 at 3:32 PM

      I changed the wording. Meant he’s “great” as in “not a concern.” 3.70 xFIP last year, really good strikeout rate. He’s a very solid starter.

      • sndvl99 - Apr 1, 2012 at 8:14 PM

        Thanks, didn’t mean to bust your chops, but if baseball or sports writers in general would describe a player as “good” or “very good”, they will be right 99 times out of 100. When a writer describes an athlete as “great” they are usually right about 10 times out of 100.

  3. shawon0meter - Apr 1, 2012 at 10:14 AM

    I’d like to see the Cubs keep Garza. He’s young enough to be very helpful when the Cubs become playoff contenders again in 3 or 4 years. (HOPEFULLY)

    • paperlions - Apr 1, 2012 at 11:49 AM

      True….but how much do you think they should spend on him over the next 4 or so years when they know they won’t be competing? Does it make sense to blow $60M+ on a guy for years you know you’ll be an also ran?

  4. hojo20 - Apr 1, 2012 at 10:39 AM

    I’m a CUbs fan, but so down on the team. Also they’re pricing me out of attending games. Bleacher seats are around $165 for premium games. Back in ’04 they were $35.

    • cerowb - Apr 1, 2012 at 2:05 PM

      Are you sure about that? Not sure what qualifies as a ‘Premium Game’…but I’m looking at a Cubs-Cardinals game for Monday night, April 23rd. Bleacher seats are going for $27…

      • hojo20 - Apr 1, 2012 at 3:22 PM

        Try during the summer. 6/15 vs. Boston. $647.92 for 4 bleacher seats. Maybe I’ll skip a mortgage
        payment to buy them.

  5. yournuts - Apr 1, 2012 at 1:19 PM

    Haven’t the Cubby’s been rebuilding for the last 104 years? When do you think the rebuilding process will finally end?

  6. qcubed3 - Apr 1, 2012 at 2:57 PM

    I don’t know why cubs fans are so down right now. You only have a few more years till 2015 when the cubs are preordained to win the World Series. I am also excited for 2015 because Back to the Future II has also shown me that I will finally get my hoverboard.

    • ajcardsfan - Apr 2, 2012 at 12:24 PM

      I’m debating opening an 80s themed Cafe. The only problem would be getting licensing for automated Michael Jackson screen.

  7. deep64blue - Apr 1, 2012 at 3:28 PM

    World-class game day experience? Ah I see it’s an April Fools joke …. Wrigley Field looks awesome on TV but it’s a terrible place to watch a game.

    • Drew Silva - Apr 1, 2012 at 4:18 PM

      Easily my favorite stadium. Who cares if it’s not comfortable?

  8. astrosfan75956 - Apr 1, 2012 at 10:35 PM

    Ah, who cares, their loveable losers.

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