The 2012 season is finally upon us. Here’s what some of the View From the Bleachers writers are looking forward to this year.
For me, the biggest thing I’ll be watching is the development of not only the players we had in the system already, but also the young talent brought in over the off-season by the new regime. We’re told to trust, and I do. I’m more excited about this season than I’ve been about any season since 2004 and the main reason for that is the new attitude system wide.
On a more specific level, I’ll be paying close attention to Geovany Soto. I believe his time as the starting catcher in Chicago is coming to a close and I’ll be watching to see if he can prove me wrong. I’ll be watching the development of Starlin Castro with particular attention paid to his defensive development. For him to be an elite player in the league, he has to improve in that area.
On the whole, if you’re only focused on the Major League team and the results on a day to day basis, you’re probably going to be disappointed. I’d strongly invite you to broaden the areas of the team you pay attention to in an effort to get a more complete picture. We can help get you through it all year long.
The 2012 Cubs season will be judged on more than wins and losses. The team could finish well under .500 and still make progress toward the ultimate goal of winning a World Series. This year I would like to see the Cubs develop the farm system and the younger players on the team. By the end of the year, prospects such as Brett Jackson and Anthony Rizzo could be ready to make their big league debuts. The development of Starlin Castro is the most important aspect of the season in order to put the Cubs in a position to build a winning team around the young shortstop, who just turned 22 years old. Castro must improve defensively in order to become an all-around fundamentally sound player. There are other players who may or may not be able to contribute to a winning team on the North Side of Chicago in the near future. Carlos Marmol, Geovany Soto and Darwin Barney will all be under the microscope this season. James Russell must continue to emerge as a solid left handed relief option. The future of Matt Garza will be another interesting story to watch this season. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer could deal the solid right hander by the July deadline, or they could sign him to a long term contract. My main concern is that the Cubs build for the future instead of attempting to win and rebuild at the same time, which would ultimately lead to them failing at both. The history of baseball is filled with surprise teams that reached the postseason after entering the year expected to finish at the bottom of the standings. There is more opportunity than ever for a team to reach the postseason with the addition of another wild card team in each league, but the 2012 Chicago Cubs winning the division is still a long shot. Fans should be more concerned with individual performances of young players this season.
Unfortunately, I think Cubs fans who judge the success of this season based upon wins and losses are likely to be disappointed. Since I like to be more optimistic in my pessimism, I am largely going to base the Cubs’ success on four things: (1) Starlin Castro’s progression; (2) the progression of the Cubs farm system; (3) if the Cubs are able to convert their veterans who are either overpaid or nearing free agency into prospects; and (4) if any of the Cubs’ lottery tickets pay off. I think the first three are pretty self explanatory, and I will be covering number two in a good amount of detail over the season, so I will explain number four more fully. The Cubs have three lottery tickets on their big league club: 3B Ian Stewart, SP Chris Volstad and SP Jeff Samardzija. In the case of Stewart and Volstad, they are former highly rated prospects who have yet to live up to their prospect status in the majors. Their former teams had both given up on them ever reaching that potential, despite the fact that Stewart will just turn 27 next week and Volstad is only 25. Samardzija is a different story, as a guy who was never that highly rated a prospect. He was drafted as a raw pitcher with an electric fastball, but he also had poor control and a lack of decent secondary pitches. Pretty much everyone has said the control and secondary pitches have seemed much better this spring.
It is not that I find any of these players that interesting as actual players or people, or that I in fact expect any of them to exceed expectations. But if even one of them does, that would be a windfall for the Cubs. If two of them do, that could do a ton for the Cubs rebuilding efforts. If all three of them really pan out? It would be the baseball version of winning the lottery. Besides, Starlin Castro only gets four or five plate appearances a game. I need something else to focus on when he is not hitting or when the ball is not hit at him.
Joe asked us to write about what we’re looking for this season. Hm. The only thing I am looking for this season, and I believe we’re already seeing it, is a return to fundamentals-based ball. Although it’s fun to see someone hit a home run, sitting back and waiting for that to happen is not a recipe for winning baseball. And that’s exactly how I feel the Cubs have structured their offense (such as it is) in the past. “Hope someone hits a home run” hasn’t worked. I want to see better base-running, singles to the opposite field when advantageous, walks, improved defense, and appropriate use of relief pitching. And, whether that results in 1 win or 100 wins, I will be happy the improvements have started.
Joe also asked us to be specific about our player expectations. Hm. I have no player expectations. Although it would be mighty nice to have a roster full of Pujols’ and Cabreras, that’s not realistic even if we were attempting to compete this season. Not everyone will be a star. Yet everyone has a role to fill. If your role is a light-hitting, defensively-strong second baseman, then I expect you to be the best light-hitting defensively-strong second baseman you can be. Someone else will fill in with the extra hitting (though maybe not this year!) I feel everyone on this roster is tradable (yes, even Geo), and I feel everyone on this roster is sit-able (yes, even Geo). Playing time should not be proportionally related to salary.
While I don’t expect a lot from this team this year, I do feel it has the potential to be the most positive season in quite some time. Our assignment will be to practice patience while we enjoy the process.
I don’t expect the front office of the Cubs (is there a consensus on what to call them?) will be able to assemble a World Series caliber team for at least a few years…2015, maybe?
So, for me, the most exciting and important storyline to follow in 2012 is the development of young players like Starlin Castro, Brett Jackson, and Anthony Rizzo…guys the Cubs desperately need to be productive big leaguers if they hope to compete by 2015.
And I’ll be keeping my eyes on some of the minor league prospects. Guys like Matt Szczur and Trey McNutt, Josh Vitters and Junior Lake. If it clicks for one of these guys, maybe 2014 would be a possibility. Lower in the minors I’ll be interested in watching 2011 draftees Javier Baez and Dan Vogelbach enter their first full season.
Also important and just as entertaining to follow (to me, at least) will be the moves the front office makes to add to the talent I talked about above. This will include international signings, the June draft, and trades of veterans like Matt Garza, Marlon Byrd, and any other player that isn’t likely to be as good in 2015 as they are today.
Those are the keys to the 2012 season. Castro, Jackson, and Rizzo are the most important players in the organization and their progress, or lack thereof, will guide the timeline to a World Series. Matt Garza might be 4th on that list, and that’s because he’s the best trade bait for the team. Get more seeds to plant for the future.
I hope I’m wrong about the 2012 Cubs and they end up winning the World Series. But I’ll settle for baby steps; improvements in the organization from the bottom up that lead to consistent, competitive teams in the future.
As a lifelong Cubs fan, I’m fairly unimpressed with the clouds of fatalism hanging over the upcoming season. So what if this isn’t a terribly well-assembled team? It won’t be our first, or our worst. And if our love for the Cubs was tied to their win/loss record, most if not all of us would have jumped ship long ago.
So while there are some on-the-field questions that need answers (Who will earn playing time at second and third? Can we compete with this pitching staff? What pieces do we have that are worth building on?), my main point of interest this season is the all-new front office.
Count me in the camp that is still cautiously optimistic about the Epstein-Hoyer-McLeod brain trust. To be fair, they’ve only had a few months and a rather unspectacular free agent pool to work with so far. And who knows–maybe Travis Wood will recapture the stuff he had in his rookie season, and maybe Anthony Rizzo will cement himself at first base for the next decade? (At least in the short term, I actually think the best move they made so far is signing Paul Maholm, but we’ll see.) We might already have the key building blocks in place for the Cubs’ next playoff run.
But before I start hording confetti, I want to see more from The Three Amigos (that’s my nomination for a nickname, Norm). Specifically, I want to see if they can maximize Marlon Byrd’s value between now and the trade deadline. I want to see if they decide to invest in Matt Garza, or spin him off for more parts. I want to see how their Field Marshall Dale implements their emphasis on fundamentals with a team that’s been sorely lacking in that department for the last forever. I want to see how they build a pitching rotation on the fly, since the one we have now is far from a finished product. And I want to see if they’re able to get more out of their prospects than squandered potential, missed opportunities, and evaporating value.
All that takes time and patience–commodities in short supply with Cubs fans. To Epstein’s credit, he gets it. Check out the quotes in that article–Epstein is well aware of the position he’s put himself in, and the high expectations that followed him from Boston. His own expectations and standards are equally high, and I’m eager to see how he builds a team capable of living up to them.