For the fifth straight year, Playing Pepper returns to C70 At The Bat. If you aren't aware, this series helps get a feel for the other 29 teams in baseball by asking those that follow them the closest--their bloggers. We've got spring training action going, so it's time to play a little pepper.
As always, I have strict rules about this series. No matter the thoughts of some of the readership (which, to be fair, tend to keep their thoughts about anything on this blog to themselves), we cover every team. Even those baby bears from the north side of Chicago.
The arrival of Theo Epstein before last season was hailed as a major milestone for the club, but nobody expected him to wave a magic wand and turn the Cubs into contenders instantly. Which is good, because the only thing they contended for was the basement of the NL Central, giving Houston quite a run before falling "short" of that dubious distinction. Still, the Cubs lost 101 games and this year don't have the cushion of the lowly Astros to keep them out of the cellar.
Of course, there are good things happening in Chicago as well. To find them, I gathered information from some of the passionate Cub fans. (As you'll see, terminology is important here.) Rob Harris writes the blog Blue Batting Helmet and can be found on Twitter @rlincolnharris. Rob's a familiar face from Peppers past, as is Brian Corbin, whom you'll find at Bullpen Brian and @bullpenbrian. New to the scrum is Andrew Denny, who writes at FanSided's Cub site Cubbies Crib and Tweets @Denny__Andrew (yes, that's two underscores).
Given the Cubs' national reach, it's not surprising that when I opened this year's Pepper up to some general baseball bloggers, there were a couple that jumped at writing about the baby bears. Justin Jabs has Baseblog as his writing base and can be found on Twitter @justinjabs. Stevo-sama writes the blog entitled The Baseball Enthusiast, Tweets @yoshiki89, and probably wouldn't want his fellow Cub writers to know that he has a Cardinals hat. I'll let him explain that last part sometime!
Stick with us as we unravel the mysteries of the offseason and the potential changes to Wrigley Field.
BBH: B. The free agent signings were nothing earth-shaking, like the Angels' deal for Josh Hamilton, but they did address several areas of need, such as the closer role and starting pitching. I also think the groundwork has been laid for moving Alfonso Soriano at some point soon.
BBr: Grade: B. Solid upgrades to the rotation and outfield depth. Third base and center field still sub-par.
CC: The Cubs get a solid A- for their offseason efforts. The brass realized their gap areas in pitching and outfielding and make cost effective signings that allow the Cubs to have some leniency next year financially. The Scott Hairston signing added a nicely powered right handed bat as well as sound defensive outfielding, and the Nate Schierholtz deal is a great value signing for his potential upside. Why not a A or A+? Many of the pitching signings (Scott Baker, Scott Feldman) are coming off injury and could potentially be flops, but on a positive note the Cubs did not overspend on any of these players.
BBl: To fairly evaluate a team that is building like the Chicago Cubs, I think it's only fair to grade them based on what their offseason expectations were. In hindsight, the Cubs addressed some of their biggest needs.
They rebuilt a struggling rotation with bounce-back candidates like Scott Baker and Scott Feldman, and signed a solid starting pitcher in Edwin Jackson (personally, I was more excited at the idea of adding Anibal Sanchez, but after watching Jackson's press conference and hearing some more about him, I'm happy with the addition).
The Cubs figured out a patch in center field, sliding over David DeJesus from right and adding Nate Schierholtz and Scott Hairston. Hopefully, Brett Jackson can figure out his swing and learn from his half season of MLB failure like Anthony Rizzo did and give the Cubs a nice problem to have in the outfield during the second half.
From the reports I've read it sounds like they've done their due diligence on any young studs that would be available (Giancarlo Stanton, cough cough) despite how unrealistic a deal could be. That's all you can really ask for in situations like that.
Alfonso Soriano will probably start on Opening Day in left field, which I am completely fine with. I would rather the Cubs pay his salary and take on his production then pay him to play on another team in exchange for peanuts.
Finally, I'm glad they brought Ian Stewart back, although I am probably in the minority. Cubs fans have all heard about what Stewart could be - a plus defensive third baseman with some nice pop from the left side of the plate - but the nagging wrist injury resulted in a poor 2012. He's worth another shot in 2013 following the recent surgery which he says cured him.
In short, the Cubs lived up to my expectations for the offseason. They addressed their areas of need, took some chances on bounce-back players, and while I don't think they're going to pull off a surprising Baltimore Orioles-esque run, there's a small chance there. I am satisfied. Not blown away, mind you, but satisfied - and that earns them a solid B in my book.
BE: There are two distinct ways to look at this; from the standpoint of transactions that might help to win more games this season, and transactions that might help to enable more transactions during the season that might help to win more games in future seasons. Regarding the first, you can't argue that the Cubs came in with a C+...pitching is only a little bit better, and offense hasn't changed at all. Offense was the Cubs' biggest problem last year, although pitching could have been better...neither one clicked at the same time and with the moves made in the offseason, you won't hear that clicking sound any more than you might have hoped to last year. Regarding the second, here's where I think the Cubs stand to put their money towards acquiring more talent based on how much better any of the guys on the squad play this year, out of the gate. Edwin Jackson, Scott Feldman, and even Darwin Barney come to mind; players like those who exceed expectations could be on the move by All-Star Break, and that would be a good thing for next year. After reviewing some of the offseason acquisitions, it was easy for me to give the Cubs a B for those deals, only as long as they capitalize on them when the time is right.
C70: What are your thoughts about the suggested Wrigley Field improvements?
BBH: The Ricketts family probably bought the ballpark more than they bought the franchise itself. The Cubs and Wrigley Field are synonymous with each other, and the improvements, at least on paper, seem like they'll preserve what makes Wrigley the experience that it is. I especially like the hotel that's being proposed across the street from the ballpark. The neighborhood doesn't have anything like that now.
BBr: Long overdue and much needed. Wrigley Field has been updated many times, all for the better. These improvements should be the best yet.
CC: Wrigley is in dire need of a face lift. Structurally, the building is in shambles and player facilities are outdated. Putting modern twists (like the party patio in right field last season) on the field were welcomed by fans without compromising the integrity of Wrigley Field. It will be an exciting and welcomed transfer to the 21st century.
BBl: All of the mock-ups and drawing of the Wrigley renovations that I've seen are very tasteful. There's no jumbotron replacing the manual scoreboard, the ivy still exists, and the Marquee has a fresh coat of paint. The fan experience looks like it will be upgraded with some nicer stores and such. But most importantly, adequate facilities for the players - the clubhouse, batting cages, gym, the works - have been included in the plans. If the updates facilities will make the Cubs players better, and I don't see why they wouldn't, it's something the team needs to go for.
With that in mind, the team and the city of Chicago need to figure out the political mess. (I hate when politics get in the way of my baseball!) One thing that could be at stake is the fate of the Wrigleyville rooftops. All I know is I want to experience at least one game up there before they're potentially put out of business by signage that could help fund the Wrigley renovation.
BE: It's really hard for any Cubs fan not to take a stand on this that doesn't sound either jingoistically nostalgic or wretchedly ambivalent to tradition. Baseball is a traditional institution, as fans we should by nature resist change at its most intrinsic level. However, the dialog that has ensued between the club, Alderman Tunney, the rooftop crowd, and preservationists has sounded more to me like an update of "The Trees," that timeless Rush classic tune. We were told the Toyota sign would be horrendous, and it wasn't. We're now being told the rooftops will die, but what does that have to do with the team and Wrigley field, really? Rooftops are fun, but that's not the kind of baseball enjoyment I subscribe to...for the events of the game you can't see from across the street, you can see at home on TV and eat/drink all you want there. Of course, one misses the Wrigleyville experience by "not being there" but the point of being there is to be at Wrigley, inside the confines, enjoying the game.
I think the club has a pretty solid plan on increasing revenue, optimizing seating capacity, and an improved ballpark experience without sacrificing the essence of Wrigley Field in any way, shape, or form. The true days of the rooftops died years ago, when enterprise moved in. Therefore, you can't kill that which is already dead. I mourn the loss of the TORCO sign more than I can say I didn't like the Toyota sign, so I look forward to the changes and I applaud the care and caution the club is exercising towards implementing these changes.
C70: How long do you expect to see Carlos Marmol wearing the Cubbie blue?
BBH: I won't answer that because I don't use the term "Cubbie." This was a term created by Harry Caray when he needed to add a syllable to "Take me out to the Ballgame" I don't root for the "Cubbies" and never will in the future, either.
BBr: Not long. Marmol could be dealt by the end of spring training, or by July 31 at the latest.
CC: It wouldn't shock me if he's traded during spring training. While deals are rare during Cactus and Grapefruit league, many teams will realize their gaps in the bullpen and Marmol is the last viable candidate for a trade. His services and skills are still welcomed by the Cubs but he will be moved at the deadline at the latest, even if that means the Cubs have to eat a large portion of his salary.
BBl: Unless Marmol is willing to give the Cubs a huge hometown discount in 2014, I doubt we see his slider at Wrigley past the trade deadline. Very few relievers are with the amount of money that Marmol is making, in my opinion. I thought the Dan Haren deal was a nice exchange, but turns out he wasn't healthy enough to the Cubs standards. Marmol's first half in 2012 was poor, but he kicked it up a notch in the second half. If he can maintain that success into the first half of 2013, I would be surprised if he isn't gone.
BE: As most folks know, Marmol was almost part of a trade that would have netted Dan Haren back in November. While I was skeptical about Haren's future with any club (and still remain so) I was not predisposed to think this deal would have been sour. Marmol is a lot like Carlos Zambrano in some recent years, and a great deal like Lee Smith if you go back even further. It's hard to dismiss him as an errant talent when overall, he's so good yet when he's bad, the pain lingers on more than the joy ever could. This enables most of us to ignore his good outings, completely forget his great outings, and only remember those trips to the mound that end in one's supply of Tums exhausted and small scraps of paper in abundance on the floor. It's true that we may have seen his peak as a thing of the past, but his talent is still valuable.
Closers like Craig Kimbrel and the like are making Marmol's spot on the roster perpetually unpalpable; I expect him to remain on the roster throughout the season, but if he starts out in a remarkable fashion, I would press for a transaction that would land him on a squad that has bigger closer problems than the Cubs are facing (their problem isn't Marmol, it's how few opportunities Marmol will get to appear) and allow the office to focus on developing and/or acquiring new potential talent for the days beyond Marmol's contract, which expires this season.
C70: What rookie will make the biggest impact in 2013?
BBH: I'm hopeful that Brett Jackson will finally emerge as a player worthy of all the hype he's received.
BBr: The hope is it's CF Brett Jackson, who struggled after his MLB debut last August: .175 avg, 59 K in 142 plate appearances.
CC: Although not a rookie to MLB baseball, Anthony Rizzo was a rookie by major league parameters and most certainly had the biggest impact on the team. His power and defense were showcased almost immediately and his call up from AAA Iowa was one of the most hotly anticipated events of the 2012 season. He will continue to be a fan favourite in 2013 and beyond.
BBl: I'd say Japanese relief pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa. But that might be cheating. He's one of the few rookies who will start the season with the club and will be a nice piece in the Chicago bullpen. If he puts up Shawn Camp's 2012 numbers at worst, that will still be pretty valuable to the team going forward.
BE: I am looking at Brett Jackson to work in some finesse in his plate discipline (which has more holes than an entire season of Marmol-theory) and show himself up at the plate with fewer strikeouts and more walks. He's capable of it, but he hasn't shown any of us that he believes he is capable of it. This is a make or break year for Jackson; he's not the despaired-cause that Josh Vitters is, and even though the Cubs are now deep in the outfield again, should some players get moved he will have his chance again, and this time around, he's got to make it count.
Rizzo proved a lot of people wrong about him last year, but still has plenty to prove, and he'll get it done. Jackson is still so precariously on the fence, he's got to forge explosions in the field with his bat as well as his glove this year...and if he does so, he can make an impact not only on the field, but also as part of a trade that could net the club better talent. In fact, if DeJesus, [Nate] Schierholtz, and Hairston knock anybody's socks off, I would expect Jackson to be part of a huge deal by default. Jackson is a win-win for the Cubs, no matter which way you look at it. The rookie field gets legitimately clogged next season, which will be very interesting.
C70: What will be the final record of the team and where will they finish in the division?
BBH: 73-89, and they'll end up fourth of the five teams in the NL Central.
BBr: 72-90, 5th Place. The Cubs' record will depend heavily on what happens at the July 31 trade deadline.
CC: 73-89 at best and as much as I hate to say it, probably 4th in the NL central. No doubt that the team has made vast improvements in the off season, but there are a lot of variables that need to be addressed that could potentially go awry. A few more big bats and one more starting pitcher could make the Cubs a playoff contender, but this year is "The Year".
BBl: 75 wins is an optimistic yet realistic guess from me. They finish only above the Milwaukee Brewers, because screw them. :)
BE: I think it will be a miracle if the Cubs win more than 70 games this year, so I'll set up camp for a 70-92 record for 2013, and with the Astros out of our beloved NL Central division, this means the Cubs can count on occupying the last place berth of the division, pole-to-pole.
C70: What one thing from your team are you most looking forward to watching?
BBH: Upward movement from last year. Theo Epstein and the rest of the front office won't get another mulligan like they did last year. They need to get out of the gate strong and establish themselves as something more than they were last year. And they need to win a game in California, which they didn't do last year.
BBr: Player development: Is Jeff Samardzija No.1 material? A sophomore slump for Anthony Rizzo? Breakout year for Starlin Castro?
CC: Wellington Castillo at backstop has a lot of potential and may be one of those players who quietly has a great season. Bullpen arm James Russell had a very solid 2012 as well and could also be a sleeper. Really, it's all the up and coming players with big time potential that get me most excited.
BBl: There are many things to choose from: a full season of Anthony Rizzo, Darwin Barney's second Gold Glove attempt, Edwin Jackson in his first moment of contractual comfort in his career. But I would say the thing I am most looking forward to watching is Jeff Samardzija's 2013 season. Is the Shark for real? Only time will tell. If his 2013 is even better than his 2012, fans could see a him sign a contract extension next offseason.
BE: Besides the kind of moves I expect will be happening mid-season, I look forward to watching Starlin Castro (one of my favorite active players in baseball) continue his development and of course, Kyuji Fujikawa. I believe he is going to really raise some eyebrows with his solid performance this season. I've been a fan of the Hanshin Tigers for many years, and he has been a reliable part of their squad for so long I nearly cried when he signed with the Cubs.
My thanks to all of these guys for their time and insights. While it's likely going to be a tough year for the Cubs again in 2013, it's possible that better days are just over the horizon.
The BBA has, as a secondary aim, the goal of producing year-end
awards in a similar fashion to the Baseball Writers of America. These
awards can be found at the official site in October with links back to the voters,
ensuring transparency and, most likely, the onset of some good baseball