And let the Epstein Era officially begin!
Spring training has officially kicked off for the 2012 edition of the Chicago Cubs, and you can’t help but have a feeling of optimism, considering what last year’s season turned into, meaning there’s only one way to go: UP. Giant holes left in the St. Louis and Milwaukee line-ups by the departures of Albert Pujols (gone to the Angels), and Prince Fielder (gone to the Tigers), the world of the NL Central division seems a bit brighter doesn’t it? (it doesn’t hurt that 2011 NL MVP Ryan Braun could miss the first 50 games, either). So realistically the Central is up for grabs (well not for you, Houston…sorry to get your hopes up), and in the Era of Epstein why shouldn’t the Cubs believe this could be a big year???
Well here’s why…the Cubs lost their rbi leader (Aramis Ramirez gone to Milwaukee), their best reliever (Sean marshall gone to Cincinatti), their best pitching prospect (Andrew Cashner gone to San Diego), and their homerun leader (Carlos Pena gone to Tampa Bay) yet somehow they are suppose to be better. Ok. Here’s how spring training looks:
The infield – The Cubs let Pena go back to Tampa Bay and have decided to give Bryan LaHair the job at 1st base for now. LaHair came up at the end of last season, played in 20 games and batted .288, thus fans started asking why he didn’t get more at-bats in a season that was all but lost. Well this year there’s no one standing in his way, albeit a step behind in the minors is the organization’s top prospect, Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo was high on Epstein’s list in Boston, and in turn grabbed him from San Diego as soon as he got to town. Rizzo isn’t ready yet…that is unless he tears up spring training. But for now it’s LaHair’s job. If the Cubs are looking for a safety in numbers, fan favorite and former Cub Derrek Lee is still on the market and could probably be brought in for cheap. Lee was a leader in the clubhouse and easily one of the more popular Cubs in recent years, but that’s just an option.
Who is Adrian Cardenas you ask? Well, picked up from the A’s this off-season, Cardenas hit over .300 in Triple A and played all infield positions, besides catcher and 1st. He is expected to challenge Darwin Barney, who had a good year starting at 2nd most of the season. Edgar Gonzalez could also get a look at 2nd base as well. Ian Stewart was picked up from Colorado over the off-season to play 3rd. Stewart needs to rebound from a sub-par 2011, but the Cubs have faith he will do just that playing everyday in Wrigley Field. Blake DeWitt and Jeff baker are also expected to compete for back-up roles, while be on the look-out for prospects Josh Vitters and Junior Lake. Geovany Soto returns to camp in tremendous shape, hoping to rebound form an ugly 2011. Soto will have a new back-up this year as Wellington Castillo and Jason Jaramillo battle it out in camp. NL hits leader Starlin Castro is looked upon to be the future of the Cubs, and will return at shortstop. A kid with unlimited potential, the true question will be is he ready to carry the ballclub with MVP-type numbers???
The outfield – Theres more questions here than answers, so let’s do this: Alfonso Soriano is still a Cub and will be playing left field. Despite the drop in batting average he still played in over 130 games and hit 26 homeruns and drove in 88 rbi’s. Marlon Byrd looks like a completely different person. He’s in tremendous shape and will be in centerfield. The Cubs also brought back fan favorite and hustle king Reed Johnson. Playing rightfield will be the newly acquired David Dejesus. DeJesus had an ok year in 2011, but could put up big numbers playing in a much smaller ballpark and a new league (last season DeJesus played for the A’s). The Cubs also signed Dave Sappelt, which means there’s a numbers game in play. Fan favorite Tony Campana will have to fight and claw his way on the team again this year, but if the scrappy speedster wants to play in the big leagues he’s gonna have to show he belongs. The influx of outfielders also means that unless he tears up spring training like his counter-part Rizzo, then Cubs minor league phenom Brett Jackson will have to wait his turn in the minors. The Cubs were very good at mix and matching outfielders, but from who and where they get their production from is a big concern. For me, I’m hoping prospect Matt Szczur surpises a lot of people this spring.
Relief pitching – Carlos Marmol needs a great spring, because there’s little doubt that new manager Dale Sveum and his staff will have little patience in pulling the trigger on finding a new closer. With the way James Russell and Jeff Samardzija pitched last season in relief, they are starved for a bigger role. Plus the return of one-time closer and team leader Kerry Wood is a huge plus, on the field and off. I am a big believer in the young arms of Casey Coleman and Chris Carpenter, plus bringing in Chris Volstad adds depth to the staff. Add Trevor Miller and Rodrigo Lopez to the mix as veteran stopgates…the weak and short-armed pitching staff the Cubs once had in 2011 looks a lot better. Look for sleepers Scott Maine, John Gaub, Casey Weathers, and Trey McNutt this spring as well. In any event, the success of this season and this staff falls on Marmol. If he has a great year, this team could win a lot more close ballgames and might just be in the hunt til the end.
Most importantly here is the Cubs have finally got some left-handed bats (DeJesus, LaHair, Cardenas, Stewart, Rizzo,etc..) in the line-up.
Starting pitching – Randy Wells needs to get more consistant. The same for Ryan Dempster. Both had shakey seasons in 2011, but have shown that they can be great pitchers at times. Dempster is the workhorse, but Wells either gives you 8 innings or 3 really ugly ones. Paul Maholm and Travis Wood are new additions to the rotation and add left-handed pitching to the mix. Both are young and have a tremendous upside. The Cubs are looking to Matt Garza to be the ace of the staff this season, and he has the potential to do just that. Garza gets flustered easily, but when he’s on his game he is one of the most dominant pitchers in the league. Waiting in the wings to get a starting job is Samardzija, Coleman, and Lopez, along with Volstad and Carpenter. Depth is the key word here, and was the same when Epstein was in Boston.
And the rest – New manager Dale Sveum comes in with the intent to make sure this team competes hard everyday. A no-nonsense guy, he’s determined to make sure the Cubs are much better defensively, which would do wonders for the pitching staff. New pitching coach Chris Bosio has already said that hitters will get knocked down if they look too comfortable at the plate, as the days of the lovable losers are over. Let’s hope so. The depth in pitching and the addition of a few left-handers really helps this team, plus an improvement in defense will keep them in contention. But it all comes down to runs. Who will have a break-out season for this team? And will the Jackson/Rizzo era start sooner rather than later on the northside? For Cubs fans’ sake lets hope it happens later.