Time to change the Cubs, ch-ch-changes...
Once again the Chicago Cubs are going through a rebuild in an effort to win a World Series for the first time in... well, let's just say awhile. The last time the Cubs won the World Series, it was about six months before they started to build the Titanic.
Neither the RMS Titanic nor the Cubs have had a successful run yet.
Theo Epstein was brought in as the man to right the ship, but let's not forget that Jed Hoyer is actually the GM. In case you ever forget that fact, remember that Epstein traded Anthony Rizzo to Hoyer the Padres for Adrian Gonzalez, and then they both traded Andrew Cashner away to get Rizzo back.
I think the best thing the Cubs can do right now is get away from bad contracts and hopefully build up their farm system for a potential run in 2013-2014 to begin with. They have dropped their estimated payroll from $146 million in 2010 to $125 million last season, to perhaps $111 million this year. They owe 3 years and $54 million to Alfonso Soriano, but there's nothing they can do about that short of framing him on felony charges. Something that I don't think Cubs fans would have a problem with.
This team is short on stars, but saying goodbye to Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Zambrano was a step in the right direction. Chicago won't have much problem attracting free agents when they're ready to win, but they just aren't ready yet. Who are the most important fantasy names to look at in 2012 though?
Best Hitter: Starlin Castro, SS
Bad sign #1: Starlin Castro is your best hitter. No offense to Castro, who could develop in one of the best and most valuable all-around players in the game, but he hasn't even turned 22 yet and he's a SS that doesn't hit 20 HR or steal 40 bases... not yet at least.
Even in the meantime, Castro provides 200 hits, potentially 100 runs, 20 stolen bases and 10 home runs from a very shallow shortstop position and he could only get better. His .344 BABIP in 2011 isn't only sustainable, but it's right around what you'd expect from Castro. If he lucks into a .380 BABIP this year, he could become a .320 hitter. On the negative side, you'd like to see him draw more walks and raise the OBP to something closer to .400 and if he did that with his speed and doubles power, he could lead the league in runs scored.
Best Pitcher: Matt Garza
Garza is a pitcher that's been so heralded throughout his career that he was once traded for Delmon Young (when he was considered to be a future 5-tool star) and then to the Cubs for a package of 5 players that could be anywhere from good-to-great players for the Rays. He responded in 2011 by pitching the best baseball of his career (I'm picturing a golden baseball, littered with diamonds and rubys) posting a 5 WAR season with a 2.95 FIP and 3.19 xFIP. He struck out just under a batter per inning while limiting walks to 2.86 per 9.
He never posted a FIP or xFIP under 4.00 in his career prior to that.
The biggest change in his repertoire in Chicago was dramatically cutting down on how often he used his 93 MPH fastball in comparison to his secondary offerings. He threw his slider almost 10% more often than he did in 2010 while doubling how often he threw his change. If he continues down this path, there's no reason to think he can't strike out 200 batters this season and be a top 10 NL starting pitcher.
Possible Breakout: Jeff Samardzija, SP
If you're calling this a stretch... you're right! But I have to save Rizzo for the rookie watch.
I just don't see many better options right now and at least Samardzija is interesting. I wonder if I now know how to spell Samardzija or if I'll forget tomorrow.
Here are the pitchers that could make up the Cubs rotation: Garza, Ryan Dempster, Travis Wood, Paul Maholm, Chris Volstad, Randy Wells, Andy Sonnanstine, Casey Coleman, Trey McNutt, Jay Jackson and Samardzija. (Nope, I had to go up and look again at the spelling.) Garza, Dempster, and Maholm should be in there. I'm not a fan of any of the other "veterans" in the mix. Never liked Wells, Volstad, Wood, or Sonnanstine much. I won't be surprised if Wells and Volstad win the last two jobs, but I don't think any of those guys would hold off a guy with potential and Samardzija has potential.
In 88 innings last year, he struck out 87 batters and walked 50 while allowing 64 hits and 5 HR with a 2.97 ERA. His biggest issue is obviously the extreme amount of walks he allows, but it was an improvement from 2010 at least. If he can hit the zone more often with out allowing a ton more hits or home runs, then he could be a fine #3 starter. The Cubs are going to stretch him out in the spring and give it a shot. Or a "shimotzja"
Disappointment: Alfonso Soriano
Because somebody is going to draft him, right? Right? Maybe people don't draft him anymore. It still gives me an opportunity to talk about him!
Soriano in the six years prior to joining the club averaged .281/.327/.512, 34 HR, 93 RBI, 35 SB, 103 R, 40 2B, 180 hits and a 116 OPS+.
5 years with the Cubs: .266/.320/.498, 26 HR, 73 RBI, 11 SB, 71 R, 32 2B, 132 hits and a 109 OPS+.
Last year he hit .244/.289/.469. Again, he's still owed $54 million from his $136 million contract, yet he still can't buy a walk.
Rookie Watch: Anthony Rizzo, 1B
A player will be considered a rookie if he has under 130 major league at-bats. Rizzo has 128 major league at-bats!
I displayed my love for Rizzo in an article last year before he was called up to the majors, speaking about how he'd have the same rare ability to hit to all fields and succeed in Petco Park as Adrian Gonzalez had before him. He responded by hitting .141/.281/.242 over those 128 at-bats. But am I worried? No, not really.
Petco is one of the three most pitcher-friendly parks in baseball and Rizzo was all of 21 years old. Don't overlook that as a 21-year-old in AAA last season, he hit .331/.404/.652 with 26 HR and 34 2B in 93 games. If he wasn't called up to the majors at all, he'd be a top 5 prospect and I'd wonder if the Padres would even consider dealing for Yonder Alonso or trading him for Cashner.
He might not put up huge numbers during his first season in Chicago, but I think he's going to be far too overlooked and very well might hit 20-30 home runs and produce an above-average OPS. Keep an eye on him you dirty grease monkey.
Players I like: Maholm, Carlos Marmol