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2013 Preview: Chicago Cubs

Mar 20, 2013, 6:37 PM EDT

theo epstein getty Getty Images

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 2013 season. Up next: The Chicago Cubs.

The Big Question: Is Theo Epstein pushing the Cubs any closer to contention?

He most definitely is, but it’s doubtful to show up in the standings this year because the other teams in the National League Central are — on paper — quite clearly superior. Epstein has helped breath life into the Cubs’ minor league system since taking over as team president in October 2011 and he has been making incremental roster improvements in free agency with the help of talented general manager Jed Hoyer. But the lovable losers are not built for championships yet.

Starlin Castro is entering his age-23 season and has already tallied 529 hits in 445 career major league games, but he had a .323 on-base percentage in 2012 and his defense rates poorly at shortstop. He may become a superstar one of these years, but he’s not there now. Though you probably don’t want to tell him that. Castro will bat second in the Cubs’ lineup this year behind 33-year-old center fielder David DeJesus, who registered an underwhelming .263/.350/.403 batting line last season. Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo does pretty much everything well and should hit third for Chicago for many years to come, but he still has some developing to do. Alfonso Soriano is the Cubs’ cleanup man and made plenty of noise in 2012 with his 32 home runs and 108 RBI. But he’s a liability in the outfield and he turned 37 years old this winter.

And the batting order takes a sharp dive from there. Nate Schierholtz and Scott Hairston will share time in right field. Luis Valbuena will start at third base until Ian Stewart recovers from a quad injury. Welington Castillo will start behind the plate, and Darwin Barney and his .654 career OPS will man second base.

This is not a good offense, and it looks especially poor when stacked against the lineups of the Reds, Cardinals, Brewers and Pirates. With the Astros gone, the National League Central is no longer a breeze.

What Else Is Going On?

  • The rotation is fine right now and could actually be pretty good once all the pieces are in place. Jeff Samardzija, who will serve as this year’s Opening Day starter, posted a cool 3.81 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 180/56 K/BB ratio across 174 2/3 innings in 2012. It was his first full season in the starting rotation and he absolutely flourished. Edwin Jackson was signed to a four-year, $52 million free agent contract this winter and Scott Feldman was brought in on what could be a bargain one-year, $6 million deal. Matt Garza should return from his lat strain by early May and Scott Baker should be recovered from Tommy John surgery by the end of April. Travis Wood and Carlos Villanueva are solid fill-ins.
  • The Cubs have been trying to trade closer Carlos Marmol since last summer but have been unable to work anything out. The wild 30-year-old right-hander had a 1.54 WHIP in 2012, yielding 45 walks in 55 1/3 innings. If the Cubs do figure out a way to part with Marmol this season, newcomer Kyuji Fujikawa will likely slide into the ninth-inning role. The 32-year-old from Kochi, Japan had a 1.77 ERA and 11.8 K/9 in 12 years of Nippon Professional Baseball before deciding to head overseas this offseason.
  • About that rejuventated minor league system. The Cubs signed Cuban defector Jorge Soler to a nine-year, $30 million contract last June and then watched the 21-year-old outfielder bat .338/.398/.513 with three home runs and 15 RBI in 20 games at Low-A Peoria. Albert Almora was the sixth overall pick in the 2012 MLB Amateur Draft and carries high upside as a center fielder. Javier Baez, the ninth overall pick in 2011, hit .294 with an .888 OPS, 16 home runs and 24 stolen bases last year between two different classifications of Single-A. The 20-year-old shortstop could eventually push Castro to third base.
  • There’s no better atmosphere for a midsummer baseball game than Wrigley Field, but the structure needs some care. Which is why the new Cubs ownership group — led by chairman Tom Ricketts — is hoping to break ground on a massive $300 million renovation as soon as the 2013 regular season comes to a close. All of the logistics are still being worked out, but the plans look really great.

Prediction: Last place in the new-look, five-team National League Central.

  1. riverace19 - Mar 20, 2013 at 7:01 PM

    Last place for sure but a 6 game improvement over 2012. 67 wins 95 losses.

  2. cubfan531 - Mar 20, 2013 at 7:41 PM

    Sori had one error and 12 assists last year, with only slightly below average range factor numbers. For the first time in his career, he got the guidance he needed from Dave McKay. Rather than just telling him he was doing things wrong in the outfield, McKay showed him what he was doing wrong and how to fix it.

    Soriano’s not a gold glove candidate, but he’s no longer a massive liability on defense.

    • 18thstreet - Mar 21, 2013 at 9:40 AM

      Doesn’t it seem POSSIBLE at this point that they’d be able to trade him before the year is out? Sure, he’s overpriced. But the rumors were that the Cubs would eat 2/3rd or so of the remaining money on the deal. He’s still a useful player average OBP, above-average slugging. I would image there would be a team that would pay $10 million a year for two years for that.

  3. jlovenotjlo - Mar 20, 2013 at 8:52 PM

    I try not to miss opportunities to troll the Cubs and their fans…it’s honestly been so easy that I haven’t even enjoyed doing it the last couple of years. As a White Sox fan, I feel truly blessed to have the Cubs organization playing across town for all these years.

    That being said, I was wondering if anyone know the record for most playoff game losses in a row? The Cubs sit at a very impressive 9 and I feel that a playoff sweep in 2015, or at least some wild card game losses over the next decade, would have to put the Cubs at or near the top of this list. Any help in this would be greatly appreciated HBT folks.

    • American of African Descent - Mar 21, 2013 at 9:26 AM

      Come one. Let’s be a little forgiving of the Cubs.

      Anyone can have a bad century.

    • splintchesthair - Mar 21, 2013 at 9:53 AM

      Man, I can’t argue with that. But then again, it’s easy to be smug when your favorite team is sitting on an astounding three World Series championships compared to the Cubs’ measly two. And when you only have to wait 88 years between them, why, one practically bursts with pride. I mean, the fact that the White Sox have accomplished everything they have in only 111 years really takes your breath away.

      • jlovenotjlo - Mar 21, 2013 at 2:39 PM

        Fair enough, and well done.

        I’m fully aware of how lame the following is going to sound, but anyway, if the playoff format in the 50s and 60s was similar to today’s (as in allowing 1/3 of the league in), the White Sox would have been perennial contenders and no doubt would have taken at least one during that time. They missed the playoffs with over 100 wins on different occasions during these eras. Damn Yankees. The Cubs have just been complete losers since winning the pennant in 1945. That’s incredible.

        And 2005 still happened. The sh*t-talking definitely took it up a notch after that. Before, it was just Cubs fans telling us we had no fans. Well they have no one alive who saw that World Series happen in 1908.

        Speaking of which, there are no radio or TV recordings of the last Cubs World Series.

    • mgdsquiggy17 - Mar 21, 2013 at 3:56 PM

      “, if the playoff format in the 50s and 60s was similar to today’s (as in allowing 1/3 of the league in), the White Sox would have been perennial contenders and no doubt would have taken at least one during that time. They missed the playoffs with over 100 wins on different occasions during these eras.”

      Actually the White Sox didn’t have a single year where they won more then 100 games in that era. They had 90 wins quite often but never exceed 100 wins in the 50’s or 60’s. In fact 1917 is the only season they had 100 wins. The Red Sox have the most consecutive playoff loses with 13 I believe. You could say the same thing for the Cubs if you’re getting into shoulda, woulda, coulda. There were years they just missed out and if they got in and got hot they could have won 1 as well.

      • splintchesthair - Mar 21, 2013 at 4:15 PM

        If we’re tallying up “potential” championships, it just sort of proves my point that trash-talking when it comes to Chicago baseball history is nothing but a World’s Tallest Midget contest.

  4. mungman69 - Mar 20, 2013 at 9:21 PM

    The Cubs have been bad forever. That old curse of the goat. Hell, that goat could play 3rd base and bat fifth. Oh well, blame it on Bartman.

  5. markofapro - Mar 20, 2013 at 10:12 PM

    Feldman is not a bargain

    • moseskkim - Mar 21, 2013 at 2:15 AM

      Feldman could be.. How do u know he’s not if the season hasn’t even started?

  6. xwarr1orx - Mar 21, 2013 at 8:05 AM

    Baez much more likely to move to 3rd than Castro, Castro’s stats don’t play as well at 3rd as Baez’s potential does.

  7. buffalomafia - Mar 21, 2013 at 9:36 AM

    How could the Cubs be do bad for do long?

    Epstein or not they never sign any big nes that can play? If they do they never win.

    I would like to see them with Pirates battle it out!

  8. buffalomafia - Mar 21, 2013 at 9:37 AM

    Stupid I phone sucks fir texting! Lol

  9. janessa31888 - Mar 21, 2013 at 10:32 AM

    I don’t know how the Cubs fans do it. They deserve a winner. As a fan of a city with 3 terrible teams(cleveland) one starts to wonder if the bad luck will ever end.

  10. jgillmeister - Mar 27, 2013 at 1:34 PM

    Castro’s defense rates poorly at SS? Do your research, man! Every ranking I’ve seen puts him in the top half in the NL. Not excellent, but not poor. He’s also improving each year, which says that in a couple, he may be top-rated with the glove. Remember, he is still 1 year younger than the average MLB rookie.

  11. xerocc - Mar 28, 2013 at 10:58 AM

    This is v bad team, Epstein has done nothing to improve the major league roster

    • Uncle Charlie - Mar 28, 2013 at 12:45 PM

      By doing what exactly? Overspending on FAs? What all-star 3B were they going to sign? Pay $60 million + on over thirty year old out fielders. Keith Law ranks the Cubs farm system as the fifth best in MLB. I for one am content to wait it out instead of seeing another Soriano contract shelled out that does little to help the team compete.

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