2013 Chicago Cubs Season Preview

CubsIf you read my column channeling Buzz Killington earlier this week, you probably already know my hopes for the Chicago Cubs – as far as wins and losses go – aren’t very high for 2013. But, don’t take that as a sign that I’m already counting this year as a lost cause. It’s just that the cause in question isn’t reaching the playoffs.

As I wrote in that article, 2013 is an important year for the Northsiders. If you’re paralleling the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer Cub rebuild with rebuilding an actual physical structure, then last year was the demolition period. The upper-management duo dismantled much of the mess left by Jim Hendry and his regime and began to lay the foundation for what they hope will be a future perennial contender.

Paramount in that effort was acquiring first baseman Anthony Rizzo, trading aging contracts such as Marlon Byrd, Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm, and rebuilding the minor leagues with the signing of prospects such as Jorge Soler and (drafting) Albert Almora as well as refocusing on the success of players already in the system such as Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters.

This year, if all goes as planned, we should begin to see the future team take shape. We’ve already seen the beginnings of that work, with Rizzo and Starlin Castro now firmly planted in the middle of the Cubs’ lineup, but expect to see more long-term pieces on the field in 2013.

One of the most important of those pieces can be found behind the plate in Wellingotn Castillo – whose bandwagon I’ve been on for two years, now, and who the Cubs seem to be ready to insert as an every-day part of the lineup.

Other potential long-term pieces such as fellow catcher Dioner Navarro and outfielder Nate Schierholtz will also have the opportunity to earn their keep. I also wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Jackson and Vitters getting another shot in the bigs this year.

And there-in lies my reason for attempting to temper both my own excitement and the excitement of Cubs fans in general for next week’s season-opener. It’s great that baseball is back and I’m extremely excited to see what strides the Cubs can make in 2013, but getting too heavily invested in the win/loss column is dangerous.

There still remains a good chance that this year, too, will be a difficult season to endure as a fan, but it needs to be allowed to unfold however it may; win or lose. While searching for a short-term answer to the Cubs’ third-base woes, for example, might help boost the Cubs offense and help them fight for positioning within the division, it also has the capability of prohibiting a young player from getting his feet wet and gaining experience at the major league level.

And not to sound like a broken record – but that’s what this year, just as with last year, is all about.

Of course, with all of that said, fans should rest assured that 2013 will not be as dismal as the year previous, when – not that you need to be reminded – the Cubs suffered a miserable 101-loss season. Below I’ll give you my predictions for how 2013 will shake out in the NL Central as well as a few bold (or not so bold) predictions regarding a handful of key players.

# – TEAM NAME – W/L
1 – Cincinnati – 92/70
2 – Pittsburgh – 87/75
3 – St. Louis – 85/77
4 – Milwaukee – 81/81
5 – Chicago Cubs – 79/83

Before I get into the players, let me take a second to qualify that last-place prediction. The Cubs pitching staff is significantly improved over last season and I think that will have a massive effect on wins and losses; I just happen to believe that the offense is still too incomplete to consistently win games. That said, if Rizzo has a real breakout year, or Castro, or even Schierholtz, then it’s in no way out of the question for the Cubs to sneak their way to a third- or fourth-place spot in the division and potentially even break the .500 mark – I just happen to find it unlikely.

Players:

CubsStarlin Castro – Castro is coming off a down year in his third big league season and seems, based off of early reports, to be working hard to rebound his numbers back to those he experienced in his first two years in the league. Now that he’s back in the two-spot in the lineup, where it seems he’s most comfortable, having batted .302 AVG/.335 OBP from that position in his career. I think a conservative projection would put Castro with a line of .300 AVG/.340 OBP/.450 SLG in 2013; which is more than acceptable by any standard.

Darwin Barney – I can’t stress how important 2013 is for Barney. After his breakout defensive season, in which he posted an absolutely insane 3.6 defensive WAR, it’s going to be important for Barney to repeat that performance – or – significantly improve his offensive output. Based on last season’s numbers, Barney’s offensive ineptitude was vastly outweighed by the positive effect he had on the defense. If he can keep that up and put up similarly-impressive defensive numbers in 2013, he will have very likely earned himself a long-term spot on the roster. But, by the same token, if his defense falls back to the levels of his first two seasons and his offense doesn’t improve, the Cubs may look in a new direction.

Alfonso Soriano – Chances are, Soriano will not finish the season in Chicago. Particularly if he gets off to a hot start to the campaign. It looked, for a while, like he might not even start the season with the team, but as has happened each time his name has been brought up in talks, the interest eventually died. But, as we approach the midway point in the season, there are sure to be plenty of teams seeking a power bat for the playoffs. A productive start to the season could make Soriano one of the most valuable bats available come the trade deadline.

Wellington Castillo – Chicago doesn’t have the best record when it comes to patience with minor leaguers. If you need proof, just take a look at the public support for Jackson and Vitters at the moment; it’s all but evaporated. It’s a curse that affects all fan-bases, but it seems to be an issue of extra concern for Northsiders. Perhaps because we’ve been burned so many times before. But regardless the reason, it seems that with Cubs fans, if a player doesn’t get off to a Castro-or-Rizzo-like start to their career, they’re cast aside and considered a failure. You only have to look right across town to see a fan base that’s a little more patient with their rising stars. Sox fans, as a group, are only now beginning to hop off the Gordon Beckham bandwagon, despite the fact that he’s put up a .245 AVG/.312 OBP/.382 SLG stat line in four years as a big leaguer. Anyway, the point here is that Castillo’s potential to be the long-term answer behind the plate will have a lot to do with how he starts this year. For better or worse, a poor start to the season might doom his hopes of being a franchise catcher. A good start, or at least a good season, is imperative for the young backstop.

Carlos Marmol – Another player likely to end the season in a different uniform, how Marmol starts the season will be of the utmost importance. Particularly because Detroit – who has been rumored for months to be interested in the often-erratic hurler – has already sent down their would-be closer Bruce Rondon. Teams always want closers, and when Marmol is on, he has the ability to be one of the best. If he gets off to a good start, he’ll find a new home with ease.

20130119_mm_cubscon00060261Jorge Soler – I know, he’s not on the big league roster. In fact, it appears he’ll start the year at High-A Daytona; quite a ways both in process and miles from the friendly confines. Still, if he continues his robust production at the minor-league level, there’s no doubt in my mind he’ll quickly work his way through the system. Depending how things are looking in September, a late-season call-up – however unlikely – isn’t entirely out of the question, either.

Dale SveumI’ve written about it before, but this is a key year for the manager. If he can guide this team to a significant improvement in record over 2012, there’s a strong chance he cements himself as the manager of this team for years to come. That said, if things fall apart and there’s any inkling that, perhaps, a lack of leadership is creating a less-than-desired rate of development among the Cubs’ young players, he could find himself among the jobless ranks very quickly.

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