When I first looked at the picture above, I couldn't tell if these Cubs players were searching for something, gambling, or praying. Let's face it. The Cubs will probably need to do all 3 this season. The reality is that the organization really isn't about 2013. Not as far as contending for any kind of title, anyway. But strange things do happen in baseball -- maybe they'll find a missing piece or two, have some risks payoff, and get a lot of help from the baseball gods.
Instead of our 5 things to watch for, we give you 5 keys to the season. The lineups are at the bottom of the article today and this will also serve as our Game Thread....
1. Pitching depth: The Cubs addressed this in their offseason and that's a good thing. The Cubs knew they'd have questions about Matt Garza and Scott Baker and so far, their worst fears have been realized. Both players will start the season on the DL and will miss at least a month and a half. To prepare, the Cubs stocked up on depth this season. In addition to signing Baker, they've also picked up Edwin Jackson, Scott Feldman, and Carlos Villanueva. Jackson was expected to be a mainstay and now the latter two are now assured a chance at proving their worth in the rotation to start the season. Had they not had this depth, the Cubs would have had to have rolled the dice with as many as 4 unproven starters -- 5 if you aren't convinced Jeff Samardzija is the real deal yet. As it is, the Cubs will have 5 starters who have at least experienced some success in their major league careers to try and hold the fort until Garza and Baker can return.
The Cubs also have a deeper bullpen this year whereas last year they had to rely on good, but erratic young arms in key spots. This season the Cubs will have experienced veterans in the late innings: Carlos Marmol, Kyuji Fujikawa, Shawn Camp, and James Russell. They could also be joined later in the year by Scott Feldman and Carlos Villanueva. The younger, unproven arms such as Michael Bowden and Hector Rondon, will be the long/middle relievers and guys like Rafael Dolis, Lendy Castillo, and Brooks Raley will get much needed seasoning in the minors. The Cubs also have hard-throwing relief prospects Trey McNutt, Marcus Hatley, and Tony Zych waiting in the wings.
2. Maximizing production with platoons: To me, this has been obvious from the moment the Cubs signed OF'er Nate Schierholtz rather than pursuing big names like Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher. Instead of making long term investments on players who will be in their peak years while the Cubs rebuild, the Cubs opted to go with short term solutions on talented, but perhaps incomplete, players. Schierholtz and Scott Hairston were once top prospects in their respective organizations but neither has lived up to expectations -- but each has shown some potential for productivity behind the numbers. The Cubs hope getting Schierholtz out of AT&T and limiting exposure against LHP will maximize his production while Scott Hairston, who mashes LHP, can pick up the slack on short side of the platoon. The Cubs are hoping from the same from Dave Sappelt in CF as he fills in for David DeJesus against the LHP that have been DDJ's nemesis over the past couple of years. Manager Dale Sveum may well go with a 3rd platoon at 3B to start the season with Luis Valbuena and Brent Lillibridge. Individually, none of these players are expected to be stars or even average starters, but it's a case where the Cubs are betting that the whole is greater than the sum of it's parts. Even the backup catchers could give Welington Castillo a few days off vs. the tougher RHPs. Both Dioner Navarro (switch-hitter) and Steve Clevenger provide a LH bat for that scenario.
3. Breakout years by key players: The Cubs have some intriguing young players who have not yet reached their peak years, led by All-Star SS Starlin Castro. Castro has been working on two key weaknesses in the past couple of offseasons -- his defense and pitch selection at the plate. There is definite improvement on defense, where Castro had a well above average UZR/150 between May and August, but he'll look to put in a more consistent, complete season defensively as his new and improved mechanics become more natural. Castro has shown signs of a more disciplined approach late in the season and this spring. A great percentage of his OBP will always be generated by his ability to hit for average, but if Castro can supplement that with just a league average walk rate, he'll become much more valuable at the top of the order. There is a chance that Castro develops more power as well as he continues to fill out physically and improve his approach.
Anthony Rizzo is another candidate to build on a solid season. Rizzo has also made key adjustments in the past couple of offseasons and this year those things should become more natural to him as well, which hopefully leads to a more consistent season. The Cubs are already relying on Rizzo to become their primary source of LH power in their lineup. His approach at the plate as far as pitch selection and using all fields continues to evolve. So has his defense, which has Gold Glove potential.
Welington Castillo is being given a leadership role this season behind the plate and he has worked hard to be able to handle that great responsibility. His defense is far ahead of where it was 2 years ago and his ability to call a game is light years better. Castillo has the natural tools to be a force behind the plate. He is agile and moves well while possessing a cannon for an arm, able to throw lasers to 2nd base even from his knees. At the plate, Castillo's pitch selection has also improved though he is extremely aggressive in the strike zone, where he frequently sells out for power. This likely means he won't hit for a high average though it also means a lot of hard contact, which may lead to high BABIPs despite his glacial speed from home to first. As long as he provides plus defense and game management behind the plate, however, the Cubs will settle for a decent OBP with solid to plus pop from a catcher.
Another player who may be in line for a breakout is pitcher Travis Wood. He's had a good spring but has shown flashes of being an above average pitcher throughout his young career. It's been a matter of consistency with his command. Wood cannot afford to fall behind hitters or leave the ball up in the zone. He seems to be figuring that out and has improved his approach on the mound. He has the athleticism to develop plus command to support that improved approach and if he does, he average stuff will play up enough so that he can be a long term asset in the rotation.
4. Midseason minor league boost: The Cubs top ceiling talent is at the lower level of the minors but they do have some potental starters and role players at the upper levels. Brett Jackson is the top among those and he has worked hard to fix the holes in his swing. The early results are promising but Jackson will have to prove it's for real at Iowa to start the season. Jackson could solve the Cubs CF question by midseason as a player who can upgrade defense, speed, and power at the position. He also handles lefties well enough to play everyday. But his potential to be that kind of asset all rests on his ability to make more consistent contact.
Junior Lake and Logan Watkins are both dynamic, athletic players who can add speed, energy, and versatility to a team that is somewhat one dimensional roster-wise. They may not project as starters, especially right away, but they could make impacts as situational players early on. With 3B still open at the MLB level, Josh Vitters gets another opportunity as well as Lake will start the season on the DL.
As mentioned earlier, the bullpen could well get a dose of power arms sometime this season.
5. Luck: All of the above can make the Cubs a better team than expected but it likely won't be enough. There is one element that can give them an additional boost and that is the element of luck. Sometimes the ball bounces your way and on rare occasion, it can last for an entire season. We've seen it happen with Cubs past teams and with surprises like Oakland and Baltimore last season. This is the part of your season that no computer projection can account for and unfortunately, it's one the Cubs will be relying heavily on this season. The future plan is to remove as much luck from the equation as possible but the Cubs are nowhere near that right now.
In the news today...
- Sveum has announced some roster decisions and Brent Lillibridge an Michael Bowden are now locks. But if you read our Opening Day Roster piece, you probably already knew that.
- Here is an interesting article on minor league ballpark effects by Baseball America. Iowa is near the bottom as far as average runs in the PCL but would rank 2nd in the IL, the other AAA league. On the other hand, Tennessee is the biggest hitters park in the AA Southern League. Daytona is also one of the better hitter parks in the FSL, but that leagues' offensive numbers pale in comparison to those put up in the rival California League. And the low A ball team should see virtually no changes from moving to Peoria to Kane County, both stadiums are near the bottom for offensive numbers and have very similar statistics.
Vs. the Dodgers at 3 pm CT today. Audio on MLB.com
Note: Jody Davis will join Mick Gillespie in the booth today.
- Barney 2B
- Castro SS
- Rizzo 1B
- Hairston LF
- Sappelt CF
- Castillo C
- Lillibridge 3B
- Bogusevic RF
- Feldman P
Vs. the Mariners at 9 pm CT tonight. The game will be on WGN radio and you can also catch live video of the game on MLB.com. I'm going to do both.
- DeJesus CF
- Valbuena 3B
- Schierholtz RF
- Soriano LF
- Navarro C
- Baez SS
- Nelson 1B
- Gonzalez 2B
- Samardzija P
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