2012 Fantasy Baseball Real Teams Preview: Chicago Cubs

Our team-by-team preview of the 2012 MLB season from a fantasy perspective continues today with the Chicago Cubs. Make sure you check out Kenneth Arthur's spotlight on various Cubs players. Our series will return Monday with the Cincinnati Reds.

2011 in Review & 2012 Outlook

The Cubs limped out of the gate in 2011, falling 23 games behind first place by the trade deadline before rebounding somewhat to finish "only" 25 games out at 71-91, good for a 5th place finish in the 6 team NL Central. Following the season, they fired long-time General Manager Jim Hendry and hired Theo Epstein from the Boston Red Sox. Immediately after arriving in town, Epstein made a series of moves that clearly signaled a full-on rebuild, among them trades that saw Sean Marshall and Carlos Zambrano leave town. The departure of Aramis Ramirez (who declined his $16 million player option before signing with the Brewers for more years but less AAV) further reinforced the idea that contending is more of a long-term hope than an immediate one.

2012 is not likely to be the "next year" Cubs fans are perpetually looking for. If not for 21 year-old Starlin Castro, Chicago might boast the oldest starting lineup in the bigs, and it's not like the olds on the team are crafty veterans still holding on to their glory years. Instead, the outfield (for example) is filled with the ever-declining Alfonso Soriano and second-division players David DeJesus and Marlon Byrd. Ryan Rowland-Smith isn't 27 anymore, folks. Nobody is going to mistake the NL Central for baseball's best division. Even so, the Cubs aren't contenders, but if Epstein can keep finding ways to give away his problem players for legitimate prospects, the window may open soon enough.

Home Ballpark

I'm not simply being romantic if I say that Wrigley Field is a historic landmark - it's actually listed as a landmark by the city of Chicago, which prevents them from expanding or making significant repairs without permission from the city. What a crazy world we live in. Wrigley plays mostly neutral overall, but that's a very deceiving statistic in this case. As a general rule, when the wind blows in off of Lake Michigan in the early parts of the season, the park is very friendly to pitchers, but as the temperature rises and the wind turns, it becomes a hitter's park. There are exceptions - on any given day the wind can be blowing the opposite direction from what you might expect (or it might just swirl or change directions in the middle of the game), so absent some pretty serious weather research, it's very hard to project how a given game might play out. Here's an idea: sell high on Cubs pitchers and buy low on their hitters at the end of May and see if you don't come out on top more often than not. It worked for me last year with Aramis Ramirez (and given his historical data, the other owner really should have known better).

Manager & Coaching Staff

Dale Sveum only has 12 games of managerial experience under his belt (as an interim in Milwaukee), but he already has quite a reputation as a tough guy (He has tattoos...the horror!) who also possesses "extraordinary baseball knowledge," in the words of Theo Epstein. Sveum is definitely an Epstein hire all the way. He spent time in Boston as a third base coach at the beginning of Theo's tenure, and he's expected to implement that same aggressive, statistically-minded philosophy as the manager.

Expected Position Battles

There's not much here, so let me see if I can't manufacture something. Can new pitchers Travis Wood and Andy Sonnanstine crack the rotation in favor of Randy Wells and/or Chris Volstad? There's simply not much competition for spots here, which is yet another indication of how bad the outlook is in the short-term.

Projected Lineup & Rotation

Starlin Castro - SS

Darwin Barney - 2B

Bryan LaHair - 1B

Marlon Byrd - CF

David DeJesus - RF

Alfonso Soriano - LF

Geovany Soto - C

Ian Stewart - 3B

Guessing the lineup was incredibly hard. Dale Sveum has limited managerial experience and he also represents a new organizational philosophy. Will he follow "The Book" and organize his lineup by OBP, or will he defer to his veterans, allowing them to occupy the middle of the lineup in the name of stroking egos?

Matt Garza | Ryan Dempster | Paul Maholm | Chris Volstad | Randy Wells

It's been said by more than one analyst that the general perception of Paul Maholm as a quality rotation piece is a problem of expectations. In other words, he's probably a true 4 or 5, but he was forced to play the part of a 1 in Pittsburgh, a mantle he simply couldn't carry. He won't shoulder that same burden in Chicago, but the fact that he's still pretty much guaranteed a spot speaks volumes about the state of starting pitching on the North Side.

Bullpen Situation

Carlos Marmol remains the Cubs closer, and with him you take the good (12.0 K/9) with the bad (5.8 BB/9). Personally, I like my relief pitchers to post better rate stats, but there's no doubt he can put you over the top in strikeouts while still contributing saves. Kerry Wood returns as the setup man who at 34 still possesses a 94 mph heater and a nice K-rate. Other intriguing arms include Jeff Samardzija and Chris Carpenter, who seem to be cut from the same cloth as Marmol, though they won't earn you any saves.

Potential Fantasy Sleepers

My definition of sleeper and yours may vary. I use the term to refer to a player who may be undervalued, no matter his current or expected draft position.

When the best thing a general manager can say about a player is, "I don't believe in the concept of 4-A players," it makes me want to run the other way. It inspires even less confidence that he said this mere days before trading for a highly regarded prospect that plays the same position. Something about Bryan LaHair intrigues me, though. I'm not ready to make him my starter at first base, but he might be a good option to stream against right-handed pitching if you're up against it for some reason. Small sample size caveats apply, but in 177 career plate appearances against righties, LaHair boasts a .286/.345/.435. That's not enough to set off alarm bells, but it probably should be enough to make one wonder if the Quad-A label is entirely fair. Bryan Lahair doesn't even show up on the ADP list at Mock Draft Central, which contains 34 first basemen. Among them is the newly-acquired Anthony Rizzo, who almost certainly won't break camp with the team.

Matt Garza is currently the 31st starting pitcher off the board. In my preliminary starting pitcher ranks which I posted in December, I listed him at 23:

Garza remade himself in 2011, and I'm buying continued success. Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild reportedly encouraged Garza to rely more on his breaking stuff, and new coach Chris Bosio would be wise to continue that philosophy, as his ground balls jumped, his fly balls dropped (as well as HR/FB), and he struck more batters out. His xFIP (3.19) was by far the lowest it's ever been and was 1.12 better than the year previous. Matt Garza's improvement is no mirage.

Spring Training Storylines to Watch

I'm watching Dale Sveum to try to get a better sense of his style. Is he really a disciplinarian? Will he bench Alfonso Soriano if he doesn't run out a ground ball? Is he averse to the sac-bunt? Will he let his starting pitcher twist in the wind when he gets himself into trouble?

In addition, I'd love it if Starlin Castro developed a sudden interest in taking a walk once in a while, so I'll keep an eye on him as well.

Follow the Team

Official: Site | Twitter

MLB.com beat reporter: Carrie Muskat (Blog | Twitter)

Chicago Tribune beat reporter: Paul Sullivan (Blog | Twitter)

ESPNChicago beat reporter: Bruce Levine (Blog | Twitter)

Broadcasters: Len Kasper & Bob Brenly (Twitter)

SBN: Bleed Cubbie Blue (Blog | Twitter)

Know of any other sites or Twitter accounts that deserve a mention? Let me know in the comments.

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