Baseball fans on the North Side of Chicago appear to be in store for another “rebuilding” year as Tom Ricketts, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and the Chicago Cubs attempt to work their way back to relevance. However, there is nothing quite like Cubs Opening Day. The Cubs open up in Pittsburgh on Monday, April 1, before the home opener against the Milwaukee Brewers on Monday, April 8.
Regardless of expectations, talent or the previous year’s record, hope springs eternal when the first pitch of the season is tossed. As always, storylines are plentiful in the world of the Chicago Cubs.
A Look Back Before Looking Forward
The 2012 season is one the Chicago Cubs would like to forget as quickly as possible. The emergence of Anthony Rizo, the development of Starlin Castro and the defensive prowess of Darwin Barney were just about the only bright spots. The Cubs eventually finished the year with a 61-101 mark, their worst since 1966. The Cubs finished 36 games out of first and in fifth place in the NL Central, managing to maintain a six game edge on the lowly Houston Astros.
Jeff Samardzija will take the ball on Opening Day against the Pirates as he receives the distinction of being the “No. 1 starter” for the first time in his career. The Valparaiso High School graduate will be an important piece to the team this season. He went 9-13 a year ago with a 3.81 ERA in his first full season as a big league starting pitcher. A key for Samardzija as he transitions to a front of the rotation role is to build stamina and gain an ability to pitch deeper into games.
The Cubs did not make any major splashes in the free agent market, but Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer did make several subtle moves that could pay off in the long run. The Cubs bolstered the pitching rotation with the additions of Edwin Jackson, Carlos Villanueva, Scott Baker and Scott Feldman. Jackson was the Cubs most significant free agent pickup and could work into the team’s plans for years to come. Jackson, who was 10-11 with a 4.03 ERA as a Washington National last season, inked a four year, $52 million contract. Feldman (one-year, $6 million), a former Ranger, was brought in for additional depth, while Baker, who is coming off Tommy John surgery, injured his elbow in Spring Training and will spend at least half the season on the shelf. Nate Schierholtz will see time in right field and off the bench. Japanese hurler Kyuji Fujikawa will play a significant role in the late innings with a strong fastball and the ability to snap off vanishing breaking balls.
Starlin Castro will play the most important defensive position on the field as the Cubs shortstop and will be a key coy in the lineup as the No. 2 hitter. Castro has several years under his belt and could be poised for a breakout season. Anthony Rizzo is set for his first full big league season and will be asked to provide some thump in the middle of the lineup. Alfonso Soriano is the lone holdover from the 2007 Divisional Champion Cubs and will still be a productive offensive player, though hope of him living up to his bloated contract has faded. Luis Valbuena will start the year as the everyday third baseman, Welington Castillo will get the nod behind the dish and David DeJesus will start in centerfield and bat atop the Cubs order.
The Pitching Staff
With Matt Garza and Baker both sidelined, the Cubs pitching depth will be tested immediately. Travis Wood, who came over in the trade that sent Sean Marshall to the Reds in December 2011, will begin the season knowing he has a spot in the rotation, rather than being shuffled back and forth between Triple-A Iowa and Wrigley Field. The left-hander posted a 4.27 ERA last season. Feldman, Villanueva and Jackson join Wood and Samardzija to form the starting five. The bullpen could end up being a strength for the 2013 Cubs with Carlos Marmol slated to close in back of Fujikawa, right hander Shawn Camp (who was the Most Valuable Cub last season) and left hander James Russell. Michael Bowden and Hisanori Takahashi are also in the mix as middle relievers. If Marmol falters in the closer’s role, he could be replaced by Fujikawa.
On paper, the Cubs do not have enough talent to compete with the St. Louis Cardinals or Cincinnati Reds for the division title. The Reds are the popular pick to win the division, but Milwaukee and Pittsburgh could also be in the mix. The Cubs can no longer count on victories over the Astros, as Houston has been transported to the American League West.