Chicago Cubs 2012 Preview

Published March 27, 2012

| Sports Network

Fans of the Chicago Cubs have gotten used to waiting until next year. Well this season it really applies, because this Cubs team is going nowhere and quite possibly could be the worst team in baseball.

But their is hope. Why? Well because the team's biggest offseason acquisition came in the form of former Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, who earned everlasting fame as the man who put together World Series championship teams in 2004 and 2007 after the Red Sox had not won a title since 1918.

Now Epstein takes on an even bigger challenge - making the Cubs, a team without a world title since 1908, a World Series champion. He also brought in one of his main soldiers in Boston in Jed Hoyer to be the Cubs' GM.

Team Epstein made their presence felt early on, as they jettisoned volatile right-hander Carlos Zambrano to Miami and acquired highly-regarded first base prospect Anthony Rizzo from San Diego after brief flirtations with both Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols.

Still, this is a team that finished 71-91 a year ago and could be worse this year under new manager Dale Sveum, who replaces Mike Quade after also being a finalist for the managerial job in Boston.

Sveum's maiden voyage into the managerial ranks may be a bit rocky this season, but there is hope. You have to believe in Epstein, not to mention the team's stud shortstop Starlin Castro. And help is on the way in form of Rizzo, plus highly-regarded outfielder Brett Jackson.

But, anyone hoping for the team to break that curse, you are going to have to keep hoping.

Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Chicago Cubs, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:

2011 FINISH (71-91) - FIFTH PLACE (NL CENTRAL)

KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: David DeJesus (OF), Dave Sappelt (OF), Ian Stewart (3B), Travis Wood (LHP), Chris Volstad (RHP), Anthony Rizzo (1B)

KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Tyler Colvin (OF), John Grabow (LHP), Koyie Hill (C), D.J. LeMahieu (INF), Rodrigo Lopez (RHP), Sean Marshall (LHP), Ramon Ortiz (RHP), Carlos Pena (1B), Aramis Ramirez (3B), Carlos Zambrano (RHP)

PROJECTED LINEUP: David DeJesus (RF); Marlon Byrd (CF); Starlin Castro (SS); Bryan LaHair (1B); Alfonso Soriano (LF); Geovany Soto (C); Ian Stewart (3B); Darwin Barney (2B)

PROJECTED ROTATION: Ryan Dempster (RHP); Matt Garza (RHP); Chris Volstad (RHP); Jeff Samardzija (RHP); Paul Maholm (LHP)

PROJECTED CLOSER: Carlos Marmol (RHP)

MANAGER: Dale Sveum

JUST HOW GOOD CAN STARLIN CASTRO BE?

Lost in all the losing last season was the emergence of an All-Star in shortstop Starlin Castro.

The 22-year-old burst upon the scene in 2010 with a six-RBI game in his debut, and last year led the National League with 207 hits, to go along with a .307 average, 10 home runs, 36 doubles, nine triples and 66 RBI.

Castro did most of his damage while batting leadoff last season. This year, though, the plan is to hit him third. Power-wise he'll never be a 30 home run threat, but he is so far away the best offensive player in this lineup heading into the season it's not even funny.

"I was trying to hit home runs," Castro said. "Dale told me, 'If you're hitting third, just be the same way you are (batting leadoff). You don't need to hit more home runs.' So I'm prepared."

As potentially great as Castro is at short, he also made 29 errors last season and must work on that portion of his game. Some have speculated that Castro eventually will move to second base or third base with another Dominican shortstop prospect Junior Lake ready to step in soon.

"My defense," Castro said. "I'm working hard on my defense and running bases. I'm trying to steal more bases and focus more."

WILL ANYONE TAKE ALFONSO SORIANO?

If we've learned anything in sports it's that every contract can be moved, especially in baseball. If you disagree consider A.J. Burnett and Derek Lowe were both traded this offseason.

Of course, you are either going to have take on an equally atrocious contract back in return, or you are going to have to eat a lot of money in a deal, like the two trades mentioned above. But, it can happen.

That will likely be the case with the Cubs and Alfonso Soriano, who is owed $54 million through 2014. That's a lot for any player, but even more so for a player that last year batted just .244 with 26 home runs and 88 RBI, his highest total since knocking in 104 in 2005 with Texas.

Soriano's 40-40 days are long gone, but he can be a useful power hitter, just not at the $18 million price tag.

What makes the Soriano deal even more frustrating for those in Chicago is the fact that prized prospect Brett Jackson is almost ready to take his place in the Cubbies outfield. But with Soriano, Marlon Byrd, and David DeJesus slotted as their starting outfielders, that's just not going to happen just yet.

"I don't see that opportunity, the way the roster is configured," Sveum said. "You don't want the guy to sit on the bench. He needs to go play still. Unfortunately, there���s not really an opening right now for that to happen."

But Jackson will be up at some point this season.

MAYBE THE STARTING STAFF ISN'T SO BAD?

Right-handers Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster weren't awful last season, combining to go 20-24, with the former pitching to a 3.32 ERA. However, Garza's name came up in trade discussions this winter and barring an extension, he will likely be the most coveted starter at this year's trade deadline.

Regardless of how bad the Cubs are going to be this season you know what you are getting with both of them, though: double-digit wins, ERAs around 4.00 and roughly around 200 innings.

Left-hander Paul Maholm was signed after spending the first seven years of his career in Pittsburgh and could be in line for a breakout campaign, despite going just 6-14 last season.

As was the case for most of his career with the Pirates, run support was an issue last season, as the team scored an average of 3.38 runs-per-game for him, which was the fifth-lowest mark in the National League.

Starting with his first big league season in 2006, Maholm has averaged 4.25 runs of support per nine innings pitched, the fourth-lowest mark in all of baseball in that span. At the same time, he is one of only six major league southpaws to throw at least 1,100 innings the last six years.

You won't hear this too often, but Maholm may have left the Pirates for a team that's even worse.

It seems as if every year we have the same storyline, that being can Jeff Samardzija become a starter? But every spring he disappoints and winds up in the bullpen.

This spring, though, he has pitched well as a starter, leaving some to think that this is the year he gives the Cubs meaningful innings at the start of a game.

X FACTOR: CARLOS MARMOL: Like Garza and Soriano, Marmol could be expendable. Relievers are like gold at the trade deadline and there won't be much better available than Marmol, who has saved 72 games over the past two seasons, including 36 a year ago. On the negative side, he blew 10 saves and had an unsightly 4.01 ERA last year. He did, though, strike out 99 in 74 innings. In an off year, the league hit only .205 against Marmol. If he can return to 2010 form (38-for-43 in saves, 2.55 ERA, 138 strikeouts in 77 2/3 innings), he could emerge as the most valuable commodity at the deadline on this team.

OUTLOOK

This is the official start of the rebuild in Chicago. It started with Epstein and continued when the team traded away Zambrano, and allowed Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena to walk in free agency. The next step will be to let a market develop for one of their starting outfielders, and trade him when the market for said player reaches it's highest point, opening the door for Jackson to join the team. Also the team should be able to grab some nice pieces if and when Garza is dealt. Even if they signed him long-term, that wouldn't be so bad. Along the way, though, the Cubs are going to take their lumps. The only thing stopping this team from the cellar is the fact that they play in the NL Central with the Houston Astros, amazingly a team that might be even worse than they are.

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http://www.foxnews.com/sports/2012/03/27/chicago-cubs-2012-preview/