In 2008, the Cubs won 97 games, their most as a franchise in 63 years, and appeared to have a future at the top of the division for several years. Flash forward four years, and the Cubs are coming off a 100-loss season, their first in 46 years. Some even called this squad the worst in franchise history, and the team's on-field play was so ugly that the season highlight was probably watching endless replays of this...
Best Fantasy Hitter: Starlin Castro
Castro is a young fantasy stud in the making, but in 2012 he failed to put together the superstar season fans had been expecting from him, and in fact he actually regressed a smidge. After leading the league in hits and batting .307 in 2011, he dropped to .283 this year, though most of that can probably be attributable to a 29-point drop in BABIP. Of more concern was his utter lack of progress on the plate discipline front, as he drew just one more walk over 2011 and had a still-unimpressive 5.2% walk percentage.
That's all okay, though. Despite the relatively small gains, Castro is just turning 23 in March, so no one is panicking. He still put together a very solid fantasy year and projects to be a 20-homer/30-steal stud and one of the very best fantasy shortstops in the very near future. If he ever learns to take a few more walks, he could be damned scary.
Best Fantasy Pitcher: Jeff Samardzija
It was slim pickings in this category, due to the general awfulness of the Cubs' pitching staff in 2012, but Samardzija is the choice (beating out a brilliant half-season from Ryan Dempster) after his successful transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation. Samardzija was a bit inconsistent, but he provided fantasy owners with 180 strikeouts (in 174.2 innings) and a reasonable 3.80 ERA. Due to concerns about how his arm would hold up as a starter, Samardzija was put on a Strasburg-esque innings limit and was shut down on September 8...right when he was throwing his best ball of the season. I'm sure his fantasy owners loved that.
Samardzija probably won't be on any such limit next season, and he actually might be one of the sneakier sleepers of 2013. After struggling with his command out of the bullpen throughout his career, Samardzija impressively kept his walks under control this year while striking out batters at a career-best rate. He actually pitched a little better than his ERA might indicate, as his xFIP was a shiny 3.38. With a little more luck and a better defense behind him, Samardzija could be looking at a bit of a breakout next year.
Top Overachiever: Bryan LaHair
LaHair was a fantasy monster in April, hitting a ridiculous .390/.471/.780 on the month and provoking some knee-jerk fantasy owners into declaring him a long-quashed hidden treasure. Naturally, LaHair regressed and hit more like...well, Bryan LaHair over the next five months. While his .286/.364/.519 first half line makes it look like he kept up the mashing for a few months, he actually slowed down the second May hit. In the second half, he was basically worthless, hitting .202/.269/.303 while losing his job to Anthony Rizzo.
LaHair was a nice story for a month and he provided some nice Chris Shelton-esque heroics for those who love seeing their team atop the fantasy standings in April. It was also nice to see him get some extended at-bats after being left for dead in Seattle's farm system for so many years. Now that Rizzo is firmly ensconced at first base, though, he's the odd man out and will be lucky if he can even manage to stick around the majors as a bench player.
Biggest Disappointment: Brett Jackson
Jackson was rated as one of Chicago's top prospects (Baseball America had him at number 32 overall coming into the year), and he excited a lot of fantasy owners with his power/speed/walks combo. Upon his call up in August, there was the thought that he could provide immediate help to fantasy owners, as he seemed about as seasoned a prospect as you could find. The only question was if his alarming contact woes in the minors would eat him alive in the Show.
They did. And then some. Jackson was pretty awful in his two-month stint with the big club, striking out a whopping 59 times in just 142 plate appearances. That means he struck out 42% of the time he came to the plate. By comparison, whiffmaster extraordinaire Adam Dunn struck out in 34% of his plate appearances. Some early struggles were expected, but it's hard to be a good major league player when you have this much trouble making contact. On the bright side, he did walk a ton and the rebuilding Cubs are confident that Jackson's strikeout problems can be fixed.
Top 2013 Sleeper: Arodys Vizcaino
The Cubs nicely yoinked Vizcaino from the Braves in the Paul Maholm deal at the July trading deadline. Vizcaino missed all of 2012 after undergoing shoulder surgery, so it's unclear what his timetable truly is or how effective he'll be after the year layoff. However, with his arsenal of mid-90's fastball and power curve, he could make an impact in Chicago's bullpen in 2013. The team surely still has visions of Vizcaino in the rotation, but they'll be bringing him along slowly because of the injury. If he finds himself in the major league bullpen next year, he could be a sleeper candidate for saves because...
2013 Saves Report
Carlos Marmol stinks. That's all you really need to know when looking at the Cubs' closer outlook next year. Marmol has been wearing out Cubs fans' patience for some time now, and he actually lost the closer job in May. Upon regaining it a month later, he actually pitched reasonably well, at one point racking up 18 consecutive saves without blowing one, which is a minor miracle for him. Unfortunately, his walk rate was an obscene 7.3 per nine innings, and coupled with a still-declining strikeout rate, it just seems inevitable that the bottom is going to fall out and he'll be in for a Brad Lidge 2009-type season. He's got one more year left on his three-year deal, so he's still the nominal closer, but it would be wise to keep an eye on Vizcaino or Rafael Dolis if (when?) Marmol implodes.
2013 Fantasy Outlook
The Cubs are in tear-it-down mode but, unlike the lowly Astros, whom I profiled on Tuesday, there is actually a lot of interest to fantasy geeks here. Castro is a budding star, Rizzo looks like the real deal after an abortive year in San Diego, Samardzija should be an effective strikeout artist, and even Alfonso Soriano can give you a 30-home run year for a reasonably low price. Not to mention, Brett Jackson should improve and outfield prospect Matt Szczur (don't ask me how to pronounce that) could have a fantasy impact next year.
The Cubs are banking on curse-breaker Theo Epstein to bring them back to the promised land and bring the team their first world title since the Teddy Roosevelt administration. That won't happen any time soon, but at least fantasy fans have something to get excited about on the Cubs' roster in 2013.