In my opinion, there are three days on the sports calendar that need to be recognized as national holidays, and both come within three weeks of each other. The first are the Thursday and Friday of the opening round of the NCAA tournament. I read somewhere that those two days are the least productive days, from an office standpoint, in America. The other is MLB Opening day. Some will try to say that last night was opening day as we watched the Rangers and Astros play, but anyone who is a fan of baseball knows that today is the big day. Since I was in middle school, I have always taken the day as a holiday of my own and today is no different. My plan is to be on my couch at 1:30p to watch the Cubs battle the Pirates. There is something special about today that I can’t put my finger on. Every team, whether or not you plan to be competitive or not, sells more tickets for opening day than most other days of the season. The bunting is decorating all the stadiums and everyone is in first place. It’s wonderful. It’s my favorite day of the sports calendar.

This particular opening day is special for me because it marks the 10th season for me and VFTB. It’s hard to believe that it’s been that long, but I continue to enjoy it. This year is probably not going to be the most enjoyable year to watch from a wins and losses standpoint, but it should be fun nonetheless because of the continued rebuild process. With that said, let’s take a look at the off-season that was.

Off-Season In Review

One of the biggest weaknesses of this team last year was the lack of depth in the rotation. The departure of Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm at the trade deadline left the team with a patchwork rotation for the final months of the season. As a result, Theo and Jed addressed the hole as much as possible without signing guys to over priced deals before the team was ready to compete. Enter the new starters:

  • Carlos Villanueva, two years, $10M
  • Edwin Jackson, four years, $52M
  • Scott Baker, one year, $5.5MM
  • Scott Feldman, one year, $6MM

Each of the four signings was done with a specific purpose in mind. For Baker and Feldman, this goal is to showcase them for possible trade at the trade deadline, much like was done with Maholm last year. Each are low risk lottery tickets that can also help the team this year (mid-season for Baker). Jackson figures to be a part of the efforts going forward and should be here just as the Cubs are beginning to see talent from the farm system come through to the Major League level. For Villanueva, he fills a much needed swing man role that can start or be effective out of the pen. I like all of the moves and understand the purpose of each.

Also signed this off-season were Scott Hairston (2 years, $5M), Nate Schierholtz (1 year, $2.25M), and Dioner Navarro (1 year, $1.75M). Like the pitchers, each has a role to play and are considered fillers until this team can be competitive.

Where I believe Jed and Theo really did well this off-season were the minor moves. So many of them have potential to impact the team this season. Alberto Gonzalez, Brent Lillibridge, Brian Bogusevic, Darnell McDonald, Jensen Lewis, Cory Wade, Dontrelle Willis, and Hisanori Takahashi were all signed to minor league deals and all, with the exception of Willis, competed hard and had a legit chance to make the team out of spring training, with Lillibridge and Takahashi actually breaking camp with the big club. These moves, while under the radar this off-season, may add more filler depth at the Major League ready level for this team for when injuries happen.

The Optimist Guide to the Season

by Jeremiah Johnson

Jedi and I would both like to be abundantly clear about something at the outset—while we’re taking the perspectives of arch optimists and pessimists, neither of us is truly sold on the opinion he’s arguing. In reality, there might only be about 10-15 wins that separate the hard-core optimists from the arch pessimists, and neither of them would be able to make a particularly strong case. Instead, view this as representative of the two extreme ends of the potential spectrum. As we so often have in the past, Jedi and I are greeting this season with cautious, guarded optimism, with our loins firmly girded for that inevitable moment when the worst happens. But for the sake of argument, here’s what we came up with.

First, the good news.

An Optimistic Look at the Record:
There is absolutely no way we lose 101 games again this season. We wouldn’t have lost that many last year if not for a few key late-season injuries and the poor performances of the replacements. We closed out last season with a string of pitchers who probably won’t ever sniff the majors again. And thanks to a significantly beefed-up pitching rotation, we won’t have to suffer the same indignity this year. Are they all Cy Young candidates? No, and probably far from it in some cases. But they are major league arms, and that alone is a considerable improvement, and reason to raise your hopes for a competitive season. And while the Cubs won’t have the Astros to pick on any more, neither will the rest of the division. That, combined with a full season of inter-league play, ought to bring a little parity to one of the worst divisions in baseball. Make no mistake—this isn’t a team built to march into the postseason. But with a hot start and a few breaks here and there, we might have an outside shot at a wildcard spot and a play-in for the playoffs. Scoff if you must, but stranger things have happened.

An Optimistic Look at the Players:
Remember this time last year when we all made jokes about the Dread Pirate Samardzija’s future as a starter? I certainly didn’t believe in him, and most of you didn’t either. Twelve months later, he’s our Opening Day starter, one of the anchors of our rotation, and one of the longest tenured Cubs. Now it’s possible he just repeats last year’s performance—I doubt anyone would be terribly disappointed with that. But maybe he’s still got another step to take? Maybe all that football he played in college really did slow down his development as a pitcher, and it’s only now as a veteran in the league that he’s finally putting it all together? Does Jeff Samardzija even fully know what Jeff Samardzija is capable of? (You’re fooling yourself if you don’t think he talks to himself exclusively in the 3rd person.) Combined with Castro and Rizzo, the Cubs have three of the league’s brightest young talents, and none of them has yet to fully identify his ceiling. With continued progress, they’ll form the veteran core in another season or two when the newly-rejuvenated farm system finally starts bearing some fruit. Also, don’t sleep on Luis Valbuena at third base. A lot of us—Joe, in particular—are excited to see what he can do with some consistent playing time.

An Optimistic Look at the Front Office:
Forget the contracts Theo handed out in his final couple seasons in Boston. He and the front office he’s built have a well-earned reputation for spotting and developing talent. And after years of lackluster young “talent” and limited prospects, the Cubs once again have some legitimate stars-in-the-making. I watched Jorge Soler wow the crowd during batting practice last year—he may lack polish right now, but the dude has Sosa-esque power when he gets hold of one. Albert Almora has a broken bone in his hand right now, but he’s as close as the Cubs have had to a sure-thing OF prospect since, well . . . ever. The one thing this team does still lack is top-flight pitching, but good news: that’s always available for the right price. And let’s assume that Tom Ricketts is familiar with the adage that you do indeed have to spend money to make money. His best recipe for a renovated Wrigley Field is a full Wrigley Field, and if he wants to keep the seats packed into September, he’ll need to field a competitive team. While they don’t spend with the reckless abandon of the Steinbrenners, the Ricketts aren’t struggling to make ends meet. As the rest of the team starts to come together, assume that it will make more sense for Tom and his siblings to break out the check book and pick up the last few items on Theo and Jed’s shopping list.

The Pessimistic Guide to the Season

by Jedi Johnson

A Pessimistic Look At The Record:
Better than last year. But not by a lot, and completely subject to change. By not a lot, I mean won’t lose 100. And by subject to change, I mean plenty of things are bound to go wrong – it’s just a matter of what, and when. The 2013 Cubs have a worse Opening Day pitching staff than the 2012 Cubs did. The 2013 Cubs have more unreliable and unproven everyday parts than the 2012 Cubs did. The 2013 Cubs also don’t have MLB’s worst (and cheapest) team – the Houston Astros – in their division anymore. This year the Cubs have to deal with a more difficult schedule; because of the Astros league-switch, inter-league games are now a perpetual part of the schedule and they will wreak havoc. The Cubs will have several odd 2 or 3-game series’ that send them away in the middle of a home stand…and vice versa. Even though scheduling oddities are something every team is going to deal with, expect the bad teams to deal with them badly. Plus losing tends to snowball, and if the Cubs’ early season schedule is any indication, expect an avalanche of losses by Mother’s Day. A few of the normal ‘bad breaks’ – lose a pitcher to injury, trade a player for prospects, have a young player experience significant growing pains – and this team will flirt with 100 losses. It might even be betrothed to 100 losses by Labor Day.

A Pessimistic Look At The Players:
I expect Samardzija to be consistently only a bit better than average. I expect Garza to start Skyping with Mark Prior for advice and towel throwing tips. I expect Castro to deliver a few souvenirs to the fans behind the visitor’s dugout. I expect Rizzo to make us wonder, ‘what if Vogelbach can get his Dr. to clear him for 9 innings in the field every night without fear of a heart attack.’ I expect Marmol to do be traded to the Hackensack Bulls, because they gotta spend that money before the month is up. I expect Soriano to grab an even lighter bat and put up a Ruthian stat line. Seriously though, expectations are really low. Basically I expect them not to kill one another (I’m looking at you Sappelt) and not to completely suck in every facet of the game. Except for Ian Stewart, I fully expect him to suck at anything that has to do with baseball – and he’s never let me down!

A Pessimistic Look At The Front Office:
I think we’re in for another long year of trading today’s mediocrity for the hope of what will become tomorrow’s mediocrity. Which in a way is ok, so long as the guys that we draft turn out to be legitimate MLB players. And that’s the concern at this point: what if Almora, Baez, Soler, et al never turn out to be worth more than Seymour’s frequent buyer’s Subway Club card? Because virtually everything for the franchise is riding on being ‘right’ about a handful of prospects, the Front Office can tell us to enjoy Castro and Rizzo now, and just wait on the guys we’re going to surround them with. So just wait – and hope that Theo and Jed haven’t simply devised a diabolical plan by which to keep Cub fans perpetually salivating for 3 years down the road. Or you could stalk them outside of Wrigley and waterboard the truth out of them…not that I’m advocating such a tactic, but it’s an option.

Monday’s Probables

Jeff Samardjiza – This slot was originally Matt Garza’s until his setup with the lat injury. Samardzija’s first start of the season last year was an absolute gem, going 8.2 innings of four hit ball while striking out eight and walking none.

A.J. Burnett – The 36 year old righty had a somewhat bounce back year last year for the Bucs and earned the starting spot despite a spring training ERA of 7.36 in four starts

Wednesday’s Probables

Edwin Jackson – The biggest free agent acquisition of the off-season for the Cubs slots in to the # 2 slot. For Jackson, it’s a better spot for him because he’s not even close to an ace. He has a no hitter on his resume, but it was one of the uglier ones in ML history.

Wandy Rodriguez – I’m not quite sure why he doesn’t get more respect around the Majors. He’s a solid lefty starter, but has seen his strikeout rate fall over the last few seasons with a a K/9 rate of 8.2 in ’10 and 7.8 in ’11 and 6.1 in ’12. He’s also owned Alfonso Soriano in his career.

Thursday’s Probables

Travis Wood – Wood makes this rotation but he’s by no means the # 3 starter on the staff. Both Matt Garza and Scott Baker were placed on the DL, which would have pushed Wood either to the # 5 spot or even out of the rotation entirely. ESPN notes that last season, there were only two pitchers who threw more than 150 innings with a WHIP 1.20 or lower and finished with an ERA above 4.00: Mike Minor at 4.12 and Wood at 4.27. Home runs killed him last year so we’ll see if that corrects itself a little in 2013

James McDonald – 2012 was a tail of two seasons for McDonald. In his first 17 starts of the season last year he sported nine wins and an ERA of 2.37 ERA and 0.97 WHIP. He then fell off the wagon to the tune of a 7.52 ERA and 1.79 WHIP in 13 second-half games (12 starts). Which is the real McDonald is anyone’s guess. If I had to choose one or the other, I’d guess the first and that worries me.

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Joe Aiello is the founder of View From the Bleachers and one of the lead writers as well as host of VFTB Radio. Growing up in Chicago, he fondly remembers attending games in the bleachers before that was the popular thing to do. Currently Joe resides in North Carolina with his wife and three kids. Connect with Joe via Twitter / Facebook / E-mail